WASHINGTON — Though I understand that the GOP — having taken leave of its ideological senses — must be beaten, I am not yet used to pulling for the other side in American politics. It still has a frisson of badness, like getting a tattoo and joining a biker gang, or rooting for Slytherin at quidditch. But I’m doing my best to master the complex ploys and machinations of my new team.
The first Democratic stratagem: Devalue your own accomplishments.
Senate passage of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, with the bipartisan support of 69 members, is an achievement that eluded President Biden’s predecessor and a testament to Biden’s negotiating skills. With steady, genial purpose, the president found agreement at a time of unprecedented rancor. The results include one of the largest investments in roads and bridges since Dwight D. Eisenhower’s creation of the National Highway System, the expansion of broadband to millions of the bypassed, the modernization of public transport, the revamping of the electrical grid and the upgrade of water systems. There is enough prime, grade-A political pork — needed pork, justified pork, moral pork — in this package for members of Congress to claim credit from now till Doomsday, or Election Day (whichever comes first).
So what did Democrats do? They raised the expectation of a $3.5 trillion social spending bill, guaranteeing a public impression of failure if they “only” get the infrastructure package. “Striving to better,” Shakespeare wrote, “oft we mar what’s well.”
A second Democratic dictum: Muddy your message.
People call the $3.5 trillion social spending package the “$3.5 trillion social spending package” because there is no more specific way to characterize legislation that includes universal pre-K, dental benefits in Medicare, an extension of the child tax credit, promotion of agricultural conservation, improvement to Veterans Affairs hospitals, an allowance for Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, two free years of community college, increased spending on home care, consumer rebates for weatherization, investment in affordable housing, a federal medical leave benefit, etc., etc., etc.
What is communicated to the public by such an assemblage? “We are the people who like to spend lots of money on lots of nice things.” At this level of generality, the (boldly hypocritical) Republican criticism of fiscal excess has considerable traction.
Wouldn’t it have been more useful for Democrats to pick one ambitious element of their agenda — say, making the child tax credit permanent — and force a national debate on its merits? This is the most dramatically “pro-family” initiative by the federal government in recent memory. Parents would continue to receive $3,000 per child, per year, paid out as a monthly benefit (with an additional $600 payment for children under the age of 6). This one measure would keep more than 4 million children out of poverty and cut the overall poverty rate by 40%.
Calling for one revolution can be clarifying. Calling for several simultaneous revolutions is the abdication of prioritization and the evidence of ideological gluttony.
The third Democratic strategy: Take the slimmest possible win as a massive political mandate.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had Rooseveltian ambitions with a Democratic majority of 23 seats in the Senate and 196 seats in the House. Biden has assumed Rooseveltian pretensions without a corresponding advantage. If Biden’s greatest legislative ambitions fail, it will not be because of the rustiness of his negotiating skills or the fractiousness of his party. It will be because the 2020 election left both the Senate and the House effectively tied. A barely perceptible puff of electoral breeze moved the scale toward Democratic control. And this has left the Democratic caucus completely at the mercy of its neediest members.
In this electoral environment, outsize ambition does not indicate confidence; it smacks of desperation. Democrats are saying, in essence: “We need to pass the whole agenda now, because we aren’t likely to have control of the House and Senate after the midterms.” This is legislation in the anticipation of obliteration. The alternative is to take a few large wins — say, on the infrastructure package and the child tax credit — and actually explain them to the public. In this case, the overarching message would not be overweening ambition, but rather a focus on tangible things such as roads, bridges and children.
The advocates of greater public spending in uncertain times do have some ideological momentum. Without the stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits, child tax credit and increases in the earned income tax credit, household incomes would have fallen significantly in the COVID-19 era. The deployment of a vast fiscal safety net worked. It assisted people in need while setting up a swifter economic recovery. And it generally had bipartisan support.
Biden has an economic case to make for this type of intervention. For the sake of the republic, he needs to succeed.