What if President Biden signed the big infrastructure bill Congress just passed … and then nothing much happened for the next 12 months? No more “build back better” legislation, no more Democratic infighting over social-welfare spending, no more kowtowing to Joe Manchin?
If Biden’s sole focus were regaining his popularity and giving his party a fighting chance in next year’s midterm elections, he might just abandon the huge green-energy and social-welfare bill Democrats are still trying to pass, which could cost as much as $2 trillion. This tax-and-spending package highlights a major rift between liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and the rest of the party’s progressive wing, and moderates such as Manchin, the ubiquitous senator from West Virginia. Divisions are so deep that Democrats may not be able to muster a working majority to pass the bill, even though they have slim majorities, on paper, in both the House and the Senate.
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The infrastructure bill is popular, with 66% support—and 57% support among Republicans—in a recent Harris poll. The social-welfare bill is not so popular. In the Harris poll, 58% said they oppose it, while just 42% say they support it. Democrats are going to the mat for new policies that have no voter mandate and might backfire if Dems actually manage to pass them.
What are they thinking? Part of it is surely hubris, as if Biden’s win in 2020 was something much more than a rejection of Donald Trump’s corrupt presidency. Democrats seem to think voters will love more federal benefits and a bigger government role in the economy, if only they get a chance to try it out. But this we-know-better attitude is perilous. Biden’s approval rating has plunged recently, despite generous new benefits flowing into people’s bank accounts, such as the expanded child tax credit Congress passed in March. Democrats also seem oblivious to a similar mistake Republicans made in 2017, when they thought the Trump tax cut law would endear voters to them indefinitely. Instead, Republicans lost control of the House in midterm elections 11 months later.
Some Democrats may also feel morally obligated to pass legislation they feel would benefit millions of Americans, regardless of the political cost. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D., Wash.), who leads a group of progressive Democrats, recently said it would be worth losing control of Congress “if we’re making people’s lives better.” The flaw in that logic, however, is that Democrats would be ceding control to an opposition party that might undo their virtuous policies. Wouldn’t more moderate policies that keep Democrats in power be better?
Were Biden to back away from the “build back better” legislation Democrats hope to pass by the end of the year, he couldn’t just say, I’m throwing in the towel. The way to do it would be to go back to his original plan and confront Democrats on both ends of the spectrum who are transmogrifying the legislation, for whatever reason. Biden would make enemies, but if it looked like he was standing up to liberals trying to hijack the party, it would help him with moderate and independent voters who seemed to flee the Democratic party in a handful of off-year elections in early November.
Confronting liberals would mean slashing many of the social-welfare provisions in the BBB legislation, simply because they’re the least popular. Democrats are losing the messaging battle involving programs such as the expanded child tax credit, free community college and government-paid family leave. These ideas have virtue, but they also contribute to the nanny-state narrative Republicans adroitly tar Democrats with. Universal pre-school might be one priority that gets more support, but Biden et. al. would have to spell out how it would help a wide spectrum of working families and persuade voters it’s not “socialism.”
Biden’s green energy policies are also sensible, but here the problem is voters are beginning to associate them with rising gasoline and home heating prices. The case for urgent action to address global warming is strong, but the political will is not. Republicans are blaming rising gas prices on Biden’s energy agenda, which is dubious, but still a political risk for Biden.
There are also certain incoherencies in the BBB legislation that make Democrats look self-serving and insincere and could hurt the party if they pass. Biden ran on a straightforward plan to raise the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% and hike the top income tax rate from 37% to 39.6%. But Democrats have stripped those types of tax hikes out of the bill, in favor of a novel “billionaire’s tax,” plus a “minimum book tax” on some corporation’s excess income. There’s not enough support for simple tax hikes everybody understands, so Democrats are crafting gimmicky niche taxes they hope will be so narrow ordinary voters simply won’t notice.
Even worse, Democrats are so fixated with undoing the cap on state and local tax deductions in the 2017 Trump tax cut law that they seem intent on changing that in the BBB legislation. That would effectively amount to a major tax cut for mostly wealthy people, in a bill that’s supposed to finance social spending for the working and middle class with higher taxes on those at the top. If voters skewer Democrats for that kind of hypocrisy, Democrats deserve it.
Biden probably will not back away from the BBB legislation, even though he’s already got two legislative wins in the American Rescue Plan Congress passed in March and the infrastructure bill in November. That’s a pretty good record, but some Democrats and maybe Biden himself believe Americans want them to do so much more. They don’t, but Democrats may only learn that the hard way, next November.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips.