Build Back Better and the Backlash that Wasn't

Some Congressional Democrats need to stop acting like its 2009, it's a whole new world.

I don’t say this lightly. The Dems are currently in #disarray. Progressives won’t support the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill until there is an agreement with moderates on the Biden Build Back Better bill; and moderates won’t even negotiate on that bill until the bipartisan bill passes. Vulnerable Democrats are running for the wings and the fate of the entire Biden legislative agenda hangs in the balance.

This Democratic failure is all the more frustrating since it is the only obstacle standing in the way of generational progress. The Republicans have been unable to muster any sort of opposition to the bill. Politico’s West Wing Playbook wrote last month:

In what was otherwise a shit sandwich of an August for President JOE BIDEN, one silver lining managed to emerge. His ambitious plan for reshaping the social safety net — otherwise known as the Build Back Better bill and formally described in congressional parlance as the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package — went largely unscathed. Democratic operatives who track political activity during the August recess said party members encountered little pushback over the proposal in their home districts and states. Ad spending trackers said they believe liberal group television advertising on the bill outpaced that from conservative counterparts. (Two progressive environmental groups, Climate Power and League of Conservation Voters, alone spent nearly $14 million dollars in paid ads during August recess in 27 frontline districts and four states with Senate races.)

In other words, Democrats are scared of their own shadow. The battle over the Biden economic agenda is happening nearly 12 years to the day after Obama’s push for the Affordable Care Act hit the first of many stumbling blocks. The parallels are impossible to ignore, but there are some huge differences. 

In 2009, Democratic congressional town halls were swamped with mobs of Tea Partiers angry about Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. In the moment, this was treated as a spontaneous grassroots uprising of a previously silent majority upset with Big Government. We know now that the story is more complicated. Those Tea Party groups were funded and aided by corporations seeking to defeat the healthcare act in order to protect their ability to profit off America’s broken healthcare system.

Given the size and scope of the Biden Build Back Better agenda and further radicalization of the Republicans, conditions were ripe for a similar dynamic. The fact that it didn’t says something about the Biden agenda and how politics has changed since 2009.

Biden’s Depolarizing Agenda

Despite the fact that we live in an era of historic polarization, Joe Biden’s economic agenda is not polarizing. Generally, political observers look at the top-line numbers in polls — support v. opposition (an issue) and approval v. disapproval (a person) — but they only tell part of the story. There are many issues that people support, but don’t care enough about to affect their decision between two candidates or get them off the couch and to the polls. When pollsters ask about an issue or a politician, there are usually four choices: strongly support/approve,  somewhat support/approve, somewhat oppose/disapprove, and strongly oppose/disapprove. When you see a report about Joe Biden having a 52 percent approval rating, that number is the sum of the “strongly approve” and “somewhat approve” measures. Savvy political operatives look at the net difference between “strongly support” and “strongly oppose” to determine where the enthusiasm lies. In late August, a poll from Invest in America and Data for Progress showed why Republicans have been unable to fire up their base about the Build Back Better agenda.

Among all voters, 30 percent strongly support Biden’s proposal and only 16 percent strongly oppose it. Among Republicans, less than a third strongly oppose the proposal, which is a smaller overall group than supports the bill.

It is notable that Biden is at the nadir of his polling, but Republican voters cannot get fired up to oppose one of the biggest expansions of the social safety net in decades. This poll speaks to why Republicans want to focus on everything but the economy and why Democrats must stay economically focused.

I mention this point a lot (perhaps too much), but the primary goal of any political strategy is to center the debate on issues that unite your voters and divide your opponent’s voters. The economy is one of those issues for Democrats.

A Race-Based Cultural Coalition

Healthcare is one of those issues that historically tends to generate the most vituperative opposition. So in that sense, the difference between 2009 and today is not surprising, but there is something bigger at play. After decades of self-identifying as the party of “smaller government and lower taxes”, Republicans now depend on racially divisive cultural issues to hold their coalition together. In another Data for Progress poll, 32 percent of Republicans support MORE government intervention to help reopen the economy after the pandemic. Ronald Reagan is rolling over in his grave. The Republican base has become increasingly working class and their voters are more supportive of government programs like Social Security and Medicare, more skeptical of the corporations that bankroll the party, and almost enthusiastic about asking the wealthy to pay more in taxes. You can see why Republican political strategists were unwilling to invest time and money in ginning up grassroots opposition to Biden’s budget proposal. It would be like trying to get blood from a stone.

Another factor contributing to the lack of an organized opposition to the Biden agenda, is that the corporations that funded the anti-Obamacare grasstops efforts are more skeptical about getting in bed with conservative groups. The odds that one of these neo-Tea Partiers shows up at a town hall waving a Confederate flag, brandishing an AR-15, and burning Vice President Harris in effigy are quite high. I have no doubt that Corporate America and Wall Street will continue to fund the most odious insurrectionists in the GOP, but they will likely do so a little more discreetly.

What’s Next?

Any efforts by Republicans to defeat or amend the bill are being conducted in Washington behind the scenes. Depending on the details of the legislation currently being negotiated, some of the most powerful special interest groups may start emptying their deep pockets. The pharmaceutical industry, in particular, will go to war over a provision to allow the government to negotiate prices, which would make prescriptions more affordable for Americans but make some very rich drug execs a little less rich.

Republicans are staying quiet about the bill because they are having too much fun watching Democrats punch themselves in the face for no reason. Which we should obviously stop doing.

The reason the Biden agenda is on life support right now has nothing to do with growing grassroots opposition or a tough political environment. It’s all about some Democrats using an outdated understanding of politics. I would urge Democrats to be bold and pass this once-in-a-generation bill, but doing popular things with minimal opposition isn’t even that bold. Instead, I urge them to stop being scared — and stupid.