Democrats Need to Count Up, Not Down

President Biden’s infrastructure “framework” can be seen one of two ways.

Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP; Kevin Dietsch / Getty; The Atlantic

With the finish line in sight (if still stubbornly out of reach) for the Democrats’ massive social-programs and economic development bill, the party now faces the challenge of focusing the attention of its key constituencies and the public on what remains in the package, not on what was cut in the exhausting legislative maneuvering.

To meet the objections primarily of Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, party leaders underwent a grueling process of shrinking the bill roughly in half—from about $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion in spending over 10 years. That forced Democrats to jettison or severely scale back a daunting list of priorities, including free community college, Medicare dental benefits, higher tax rates on the wealthy and corporations, paid family leave, and a system to pressure utilities to accelerate their transition from fossil fuels to renewable-energy sources.

Manchin and Sinema have infuriated not only liberals but also a broad range of Democratic officials by dragging out the talks and repeatedly insisting that ideas supported by virtually everyone else in the party (such as the clean-electricity provisions, paid family leave, and higher personal and corporate tax rates) be removed because of their personal objections. Even after President Joe Biden unveiled the “framework agreement” yesterday morning, Manchin’s and Sinema’s striking refusal to explicitly declare that they would support it forced yet another postponement of the vote on a bipartisan infrastructure bill that House liberals have said they will not advance without an ironclad commitment from the two on the broader budget package.

To the extent that the public has heard of the budget bill at all, the message for the past two months has been dominated by this brutal game of legislative Survivor, with sponsors and advocates of each doomed program loudly bemoaning its demise and the outsize influence of the two senators forcing the cuts. But as painful as the process has been, Democrats generally remain optimistic that they can come together soon around Biden’s framework agreement. If and when they do, they will have the opportunity to begin highlighting the key elements that survived—including universal pre-K, expanded health-care subsidies, and massive investments in green energy. That is, if they can avoid replicating the bitter postmortems that occurred after similar resistance from a handful of center-right Democratic senators forced the removal of some progressive priorities from the Affordable Care Act in 2010, particularly a public option to compete with private insurance companies.

“If we let our laments about what isn’t in there dominate our communication of what is in there, we will be repeating the same mistake,” Jesse Ferguson, a longtime Democratic communications strategist, told me. “When you look at the overall polling on ACA, one of the reasons it struggled in the early years is it didn’t have Democrats with it.”

In its reduced form, the reconciliation bill no longer justifies the frequent comparisons to the New Deal and Great Society that were common at the larger price tag (and which Biden reportedly repeated at his meeting with House Democrats yesterday). But even after all of the accommodations to Manchin and Sinema, the final bill will still represent the biggest concentration of new and expanded federal initiatives since President Lyndon B. Johnson passed those Great Society programs in the mid-1960s. Counting down from $3.5 trillion leaves Democrats telling a story of loss, but counting up to $1.75 trillion allows Democrats to highlight a substantial list of long-standing party priorities that will move into law.

The reconciliation legislation’s current price tag nearly equals the combined net new spending in former President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan and the Affordable Care Act, dwarfs the new public spending that former President Bill Clinton achieved, and raises enough new revenue to offset the losses from former President Donald Trump’s $1.9 trillion tax cut (although opposition from Sinema blocked the repeal of that bill’s tax-rate reductions for corporations and high-income earners). Including the “hard” bipartisan infrastructure bill, whose delayed passage the reconciliation agreement should finally trigger, adds $550 billion more in new federally funded initiatives, including support for mass transit, clean-water systems, and repairs to bridges and roads. And all of that comes on top of the $1.9 trillion Congress approved in the COVID rescue plan earlier this year.

Amid all of these programs, the final reconciliation package revolves around two central pillars. One is an unprecedented investment in measures to combat climate change and accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to clean-energy sources across the economy, including in electricity generation, manufacturing, and transportation. The reconciliation bill devotes a head-turning $555 billion toward this, primarily via tax incentives for shifting to renewable energy and tax credits to promote more domestic manufacturing of the components associated with it. (The infrastructure package adds a little over $100 billion more for climate priorities, including upgrading the electrical grid and mass-transit systems and promoting electric vehicles.)

Environmentalists were deeply frustrated when opposition from Manchin, whose state ranks second in production of coal and sixth in natural gas, forced the removal of a clean-electricity standard that would have combined financial incentives with penalties to push utilities toward greater reliance on renewables. With the clean-electricity standard removed, environmental analysts say the bill on its own won’t reach Biden’s goal of cutting U.S. carbon emissions in half by 2030, but most say that the remaining tax incentives will nonetheless advance the United States far enough to still meet that goal if combined with other initiatives such as further federal regulation. “The Build Back Better Act would include by far the largest investments the United States has ever made to tackle the climate crisis—and between the reconciliation package and strong state and executive leadership, we can and will equitably meet our climate goals,” the League of Conservation Voters insisted in a memo released Tuesday.

In the long run, the legislation’s provisions to combat climate change may prove its most consequential legacy. But the bill’s other major pillar may have more immediate ramifications for the 2022 and 2024 elections.

Though tugged and twisted far from its original conception, the reconciliation bill still contains a historic expansion of federal programs targeted at kids and working-age families (even if the loss of the proposed paid-family-leave program, another victim of Manchin’s objections, removed a significant element of the original plan). Today, the federal government spends $6 on seniors for every $1 it spends on kids. But the Democrats’ bill includes a cluster of new programs that will address that generational imbalance.

Biden “is trying to crystallize some policy consequences from the growing concern with working-age families and children, which along with universal health care has been the big missing piece in the American system of public social provision,” says the Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol, who has studied the history of the U.S. social safety net.The COVID pandemic helped to underline some of those issues about balancing care of family with paid work, particularly for women. And it has become increasingly clear that you are punished if you try to have and raise children in this society. I think what he’s most insistent about, and has been all along … is that he wants to start addressing those issues.”

The framework agreement includes a suite of programs to advance that goal:

  • a universal pre-K program for all 3- and 4-year-olds;
  • a new system of child-care subsidies that will cap most families’ spending on child care at 7 percent of their income;
  • a one-year extension of the increased child tax credit that sends $300 a month per child to parents of children under 6 and $250 a month for each child ages 6 to 17 in families earning up to $150,000 annually;
  • a big increase in funding for Medicaid services to allow seniors and disabled individuals to receive care at home, which is intended to relieve the financial squeeze on families in the “sandwich generation” caring for both young children and aging parents
  • a one-year expansion of the earned-income tax credit to cover more childless working-age adults.

For Democrats, notes William Galston, a senior governance fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former White House policy adviser under Clinton, the “disturbing political possibility” is that all of this spending will be enough to fuel Republican attacks on the plan, but not enough to assuage Democratic disappointment. The risk, he told me, is that “Republicans will denounce it and the Democrats will regret it as a missed opportunity [and] ... a stab in the back from two people who are, for all practical purposes, outside the party.”

Most polls have found majorities of Americans supporting the plan when it’s described in broad strokes. But some research studies, such as a recent project by the pollsters Joel Benenson, a Democrat, and Neil Newhouse, a Republican, have found that most voters do not see the legislative fight as particularly relevant to their immediate concerns, and that many worry that more government spending will fuel inflation. Republicans are poised to pound that message.

The GOP is focusing less on debating individual components of the plan (many of which score well in polls) than on portraying the aggregate as an expensive Big Government boondoggle that is contributing to higher prices. “If crime is up and inflation is up, taxes are up, that’s going to override what the Democrats do, or claim they’ve done, because people won’t see those programs for a while,” the Republican pollster Glen Bolger told me recently. “These changes take a long time, and oftentimes, when they get started, they are messed up. It is poorly executed, poorly written, [and] people who shouldn’t be getting the money are getting the money.”

Facing such arguments, several Democrats I spoke with this week said that once the plan is completed, the most important priority will be to convince voters that it can help stabilize their finances and lower their costs. The removal of a provision allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription-drug prices weakens that case, but Democrats can still point to new programs that will limit families’ expenses for health insurance and child care and put more money in their pockets via the expanded child tax credit. The central message, Ferguson, the Democratic strategist, argues, should be that the plan is “meeting their economic pain point at the moment: lowering their costs, creating some breathing room in their economy, and being able to do that by making sure the wealthy pay their fair share.”

Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s White House communications director, says it will be difficult for Democrats to convince the broad public as soon as next year’s election that the package has materially improved their lives. A more realistic goal, he argues, is for Democrats to pursue a two-track strategy. To their base voters, he believes, they can tout the plan’s achievements as evidence that they have made progress on their 2020 promises. But to the broad public, Pfeiffer argues, Democrats must focus less on selling individual programs than on using the overall package to portray the party as committed to fighting for working families—and simultaneously to portray Republicans, who are likely to vote en masse against it, as committed instead to protecting the wealthy and corporations. To the extent that Democrats can solidify that contrast, he told me, they can cut into the Republican success at appealing to working-class voters, particularly white voters but also some Hispanic voters, by emphasizing conservative cultural and racial messages.

“If we are running on policy appeals and they are running on identity appeals, we are going to lose that battle,” Pfeiffer said. “But identity isn’t just race and gender; it’s who you are fighting for and who you are fighting against.”

Many Democrats lament that Republicans have not even needed to make a strenuous case against the package, because Manchin and Sinema have echoed so many of their arguments about its cost and reach. “They don’t even have to fight, because Manchin and Sinema are giving them that cover, which is really hard,” says Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, the vice president and chief strategy officer of Way to Win, a group that channels funding from Democratic donors into organizations and campaigns that focus on voters of color.

But based on the group’s research with infrequent voters who turned out to oppose Trump in 2018 and 2020, Ancona told me, the plan’s components still offer Democrats an opportunity to “undo [the] big narrative” dating back to Ronald Reagan that the government cannot help average families. “Yes, Republicans are going to make those attacks [on the plan’s costs], and yes, people are concerned about prices increasing … but at the end of the day, if we pass some of these things, like the child tax credit, it’s helping people with their costs,” she said. Framing these programs as a step toward “a different kind of economy, where we take care of people, where we take care of our planet, I think can shift that debate.”

Biden, at a CNN town hall last week, expressed remarkable equanimity about all the party priorities that Manchin and Sinema are blocking and portrayed the package as a beachhead for programs that can be improved later. Many Democratic strategists agree that promising to extend or expand programs approved in the reconciliation bill could be an effective message in 2022 or especially 2024 (when more voters may feel the programs’ effects).

But after the excruciating negotiations with Manchin and Sinema, few Democrats may be eager to try something this ambitious again without a larger Senate majority that curtails the duo’s influence. “We can’t be doing this again as we are going into the next presidential cycle,” Ancona said. “It’s just imperative that we change this dynamic.”

The only way to do that, of course, is to elect more Democratic senators while also holding the House in 2022. Given the nearly unbroken record of the president’s party losing House seats in midterm elections since the Civil War, that’s obviously a steep hill for Democrats. Selling the reconciliation package that Democrats have moved close to completion wouldn’t guarantee a good midterm for them—but failing to sell it might ensure the opposite result.