Selling the ‘Build Back Better’ Plan
The Catch-22 of passing a massive spending bill in an undemocratic system.
Tuesday, September 21, 2021
The New Republic’s Walter Shapiro thinks “Build Back Better” Is an Awful Catchphrase. More importantly, he thinks it’s not only hampering getting the policies in question passed into law but making it more likely that Democrats will lose big in 2022. But, more so than the slogan itself, his critique is really that President Biden and other party leaders are doing a bad job of explaining how the things in the package help voters.
[T]he expansive vision that Biden is promoting—as laudable as the individual parts are—overwhelmed the format. The closest Biden came to expressing his overall rationale was his closing words: “Let’s look forward together as one America. Not to build back, but to build back better.”
Even in an era of emojis and TikToks, words matter in politics. A good bill needs a good catchphrase. And one of the biggest, if little-discussed, challenges Democrats face in the weeks ahead is to explain, in easily comprehensible fashion, what they are trying to do in Congress with their unprecedentedly ambitious spending bill.
But this is something of a Catch-22. The reason the bill is so hard to explain is that it’s so multi-faceted. It’s a little of something for everybody. Or, more cynically, a grabbag of longstanding Democratic policy initiatives being unleashed at once. And the reason they’re being lumped together in one, messy, hard-to-explain package is it’s the only way they can realistically pass in the current climate.
Technically, the ever-shifting, maybe $3.5 trillion plan is known as reconciliation, which is a congressional term for catch-all budgetary legislation that can skirt a Senate filibuster. But to most Americans, reconciliation refers to that moment when a clearly doomed couple tries to get back together for one last time.
So . . . I can’t imagine more than 10 percent of Americans have any idea what budget reconciliation is and that more than 15 percent of them are even aware that it’s involved with this package. They just know that it’s a $3.5 trillion “infrastructure” package.
But even if I’m wrong in my aesthetic judgment, the actual phrasing of Build Back Better conjures up the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that is currently in congressional limbo. As determined as Biden may be, it is illogical to use this tired catchphrase to describe the Democratic reconciliation bill with its trillions devoted to climate change, health care, education, and expanding the social safety net. Calling this “Build Back Better” is like describing a 12-course tasting menu with a wine pairing as breakfast.
So . . . I agree that many of the things in the bill aren’t infrastructure, much less building something. But, again, I can’t imagine most people much care about the semantics.
Voters crave explanations—and right now the Democrats, from Biden on down, are doing a mediocre job explaining an overarching vision for what they hope to accomplish with the 13-digit reconciliation bill. The problem for Democrats is that they have gulled themselves into believing that because the individual parts of the package poll well, the entire plan will be popular with voters in 2022.
Probably everyone aside from Joe Manchin’s immediate family is beginning to find his constant TV appearances dissenting from the Biden agenda a tad tedious. But like it or not, in a recent CNN interview the West Virginia Democratic senator asked a question that may resonate with voters: “What’s the urgency and the need that we have?”
I’m not at all sure that the average voter “crave[s] explanations.” But I do think there’s something to the idea that few people are clamoring for this package. It’s true that Biden ostensibly ran on much of it—oddly, more so in the general than in the primary— but it was hardly central to his campaign. I pay a lot more attention to these things than most people and, frankly, the main message was “We need to get rid of this Trump bozo and I’m your only alternative.” Which sold me.
Manchin, along with everyone in politics, knows the true answer to the “What’s the urgency?” question. With Democrats quaking in mortal terror that they will lose control of Congress in 2022, the reconciliation bill is seen as the last chance to fund liberal priorities in this decade. In legislative terms, it’s the last train out of Paris in 1940 with the Germans on the way.
But try selling a plan to voters as the “Only Way Around Mitch McConnell for Years to Come Act.” Only on Capitol Hill does it makes logical sense to combine in the same legislation a climate change plan and a massive expansion of health care coverage.
This is the Catch-22 to which I referred earlier. Even if the individual pieces are popular, they’re likely not passable individually. It’s not a slam dunk that all 50 Democrats would vote for them. But, cramming them all into one package is the best hope—and it seems to be fading—of getting Manchin and Krysten Sinema on board. And it’s the only way of getting around the Republican filibuster.
Regardless, this is all eerily reminiscent of another era for Shapiro.
In his speech on the economy, Biden also made a strongly worded pitch for his vaccination mandates, which included direct attacks on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott for “doing everything they can to undermine the lifesaving requirements that I’ve proposed.” But that presidential appeal also highlighted a potential political weakness in the Democrats’ ambitious reconciliation plans. At a time when Covid-19 and the delta variant dominate everything, it is hard to simply move on to talking about spending $3.5 trillion for a vast array of programs that have nothing to do with the pandemic.
This was, in part, Barack Obama’s political problem with the Affordable Care Act in 2010. The landmark legislation squeaked through Congress at a time when voters were still struggling to recover from the economic meltdown. At the time, as I recall, Democratic pollsters found that voters in focus groups were grumbling about Obama’s obsession with his political promises (passing health care reform) rather than their current problems (lost jobs, foreclosed homes, and other wiped-out assets).
ObamaCare was rather unpopular at the time although, as Democrats rightly bet, most of it was politically impossible to overturn once inertia set it.
The Affordable Care Act (an awkward moniker that morphed into the term used by everyone, Obamacare) had another glaring political weakness relevant to the current congressional struggle over reconciliation. Most of the key provisions of Obamacare phased in over four years, which meant that the material changes the law would eventually make to improve the health care system were still abstractions for most voters in the 2010 elections. While the details of the reconciliation package are in constant flux, the odds seem high that implementation of many of the new programs will also be delayed until after the 2022 election, both to reduce the overall cost of the package and because federal rules and regulations will need to be written.
But Shapiro doesn’t give us any guidance as to what Biden or Congressional Democrats should do about this. There are technical and practical reasons why the impacts of this bill—even if it overcomes long odds and gets passed into law in time for the fiscal year—won’t have a material impact on the average voter a year later.
Since Democrats assume that reconciliation is the last big legislative moment of the Biden presidency, the infighting over what provisions actually make it into the bill is growing increasingly nasty. The defection last week of three skittish House Democratic moderates on a committee vote to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices was a symbolic blow to party unity. The Wall Street Journal, playing the “Democrats in disarray” card, headlined its story on the committee vote: “Drug-Prices Measure Splinters House Democrats.”
Each well-publicized Democratic squabble over the contents of the bill carries the risk of antagonizing 2022 voters. It is not as if a large band of Americans is following every detail of the congressional negotiations. But as the reconciliation package drags on into the fall (and maybe later), voters can pick up a downwind whiff of the sausage-making. This is not an abstract fear. Buyoffs to individual Democratic legislators during the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act—whether it was centrist Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson or anti-abortion Michigan Representative Bart Stupak—created a sense of backstairs dealmaking that partly poisoned public sentiment against Obamacare.
All these factors—Obama seemingly ignoring economic distress, the long phase-in period, and congressional favor-trading—contributed to the Democratic wipeout in the 2010 congressional elections. This was clear from polls immediately following the passage of the Affordable Care Act in late March 2010. An early-April Kaiser Health Tracking poll revealed that as many voters believed that they would be “worse off” under the plan (32 percent) as “better off” (31 percent). A Washington Post/ABC News poll in late April found voters evenly split over whether they approved of the way that Barack Obama was handling health care. Even though health care is a traditionally strong Democratic issue, 40 percent of the voters strongly disapproved of Obama’s performance while only 29 percent strongly approved.
That was the Democrats’ initial political reward for the biggest expansion in health care coverage since the passage of Medicare in 1965.
So, here’s the thing. I opposed ObamaCare for a host of reasons. I voted Republican in the 2010 midterms and against Obama in 2012. But the Democrats’ reward for the biggest expansion in health care coverage since the passage of Medicare was the biggest expansion in health care coverage since the passage of Medicare. And, with only a few tweaks around the edges, it’s still with us a decade-plus later.
The point of getting elected to office is getting one’s policies enacted. Otherwise, the only advantage to winning elections is stopping the other guys from getting their policies enacted.
Biden came into the White House determined not to repeat Obama’s initial mistake in approving too meager a stimulus package as the economy was reeling in early 2009 from the financial meltdown. As a result, “Go Big” has become the mantra of the Biden presidency, starting with his $1.9 trillion spending bill to jump-start the Covid-plagued economy that Congress approved back in March.
Voters in times of trouble certainly understand the need for economic stimulus. And after four years of comically empty talk about Infrastructure Week in the Donald Trump White House, they likely also appreciate the need to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges.
But what Biden and the congressional Democrats are doing now with reconciliation is not nearly as easily grasped by someone who isn’t watching MSNBC 12 hours a day and reading every bulletin from Capitol Hill. Yes, the nation has more than $3.5 trillion in unmet needs and problems swept under the rug for too long. But the Democrats are behaving as if this is all intuitively obvious—and that few explanations of an overall strategy are needed.
In politics, virtue is not its own reward. Even the virtuous need a compelling message.
Well . . . sure. But Biden, Pelosi, Schumer, et. al. —who are pretty good at politics—are unlikely to come up with a better marketing slogan in the next couple of weeks. As I’ve stated directly and Shapiro seems to acknowledge if obliquely, the bill is a hodgepodge of loosely related deferred policy goals and the only way to pass them, if at all, is through the reconciliation process.
Should they pare the bill way back and just concentrate on the provisions likely to be the sexiest to the voters? Should they just give up on the climate change provisions, for example, which are expensive and unlikely to actually cool the climate between now and the midterms? What?