How to Message the Biden Budget Deal
Dems are on the cusp of a historic achievement; but how we talk about it matters a lot.
The people who are passionate about politics (you and I) are going to spend a lot of our summer talking (and tweeting) about the big budget reconciliation bill that will be moving through Congress in the coming weeks. Maybe this isn’t a great way to spend the first post-vax warm months, but the $3.5 trillion budget framework is a hugely exciting deal.
While there are many details to be considered and legislative pitfalls to traverse, President Biden and Congressional Democrats are on a path towards a historic legislative achievement that will lift millions of Americans out of poverty, expand Medicare, make healthcare more affordable, reduce carbon emissions, reduce economic inequality, and shift the balance of power from the wealthy to the workers. Policies that have been progressive pipe dreams for years have a real chance of being enacted in the very near future. I cannot emphasize enough the impact and importance of this deal. Frankly, it’s moments like these that are why most of us got involved with politics in the first place.
It’s important that we all talk (and tweet) about this deal because President Biden needs our help. Everyone with a smartphone can spread the message to our networks.
Why We Must Help
If a hugely consequential bill passes and no one knows about it, did it truly pass?
Politico recently reported some disturbing findings from a series of focus groups of swing voters conducted by Unite the Country, a pro-Biden Super PAC. From the focus group memo:
Unfortunately, the [American Rescue Plan] and these other proposals remain worryingly undefined in the public consciousness and voters are primed with misinformation that helps Republicans justify their opposition… Even among voters who have a favorable view of Joe Biden, there is a real lack of information about the specifics of the Biden Agenda. Their information about Biden often falls in line with internet disinformation and has a Fox News driven spin. Specifically, both groups pointed to the small percentage of foreign assistance in the American Rescue Plan as a reason to oppose it. Many were concerned that the good things in the Biden infrastructure/families [plans] that had wide-scale support would get screwed up in the lawmaking progress.
The finding that Biden supporters — even those that report following politics closely — know relatively little about what the president has done and is planning to do speaks to how hard it is to get a positive message out in a media-driven ecosystem dominated by Fox News and Facebook. The fact that the American Rescue Plan hasn’t broken through should be a warning sign for the bigger budget battle to come. The plan had many components but it was memorably boiled down to “shots in arms, checks in the mail.” A very specific and popular response to a very specific crisis.
While the details are still hazy, the budget reconciliation bill will include a smorgasbord of policies from climate change to childcare. Instead of responding to an immediate crisis dominating American life, the bill responds to a series of slow-moving disasters and long unmet needs. Trust me, as someone with the battle scars from messaging people about President Obama’s stimulus and healthcare laws, the more complicated the bill, the easier to demagogue and confuse.
How to Talk About It
As I mentioned, the details and specific policies that will make up the bill are still to come. There will need to be a negotiation amongst the 50 Democratic Senators. The Congressional Budget Office and the Senate Parliamentarian will have a say as well. This process will take weeks — if not months. As usual, the legislative process moves at a snail’s pace and does not coexist well with the messaging imperatives of our hyperspeed media environment. Because of this, I wanted to offer an initial guide on how to talk about the budget deal:
Talk Like a Human, Not a Congressional Reporter: The legislative process is where authentic language goes to die. Talking about the arcane procedures in normal, understandable language is difficult. As readers of this newsletter and listeners of Pod Save America know, I slip into jargon all the time. All of us should work to strike overly complicated lingo from our vernacular. And never say the word “reconciliation” again. It means nothing to 99.9 percent of Americans and nothing to the voters we need to reach. While we’re at it, we need to stop saying “infrastructure” too. Instead of calling it the “reconciliation bill” or the “budget bill,” the bill should be referred to as either the “Build Back Better Plan” or the “American Jobs and Families Plan.” I prefer the latter because it’s simpler, but either is acceptable.
Sell the Product, Not the Price Tag: For far too long, Democrats have been overly reticent about big bold governmental action out of fear of political attacks. For this reason, there was a sense of elation amongst progressives when the topline number on the “American Jobs and Families Plan” (see what I did there) was more than $3 trillion. However, leading with the high cost of the bill makes zero sense politically. We should focus on what’s in it, who’s helped by it, and the problems we are trying to solve. Lead with the product, not the price tag.
Fully Paid For by Corporations and the Wealthy: Within nanoseconds of the announcement of the budget deal, Republicans were howling about spending and deficits. While voters are more open to large-scale government intervention than they have been in decades, the GOP is pushing on an open door when they use the deficit as a cudgel. It is essential that every time we talk about Biden’s “Build Back Better Plan” we hammer home that the bill is fully paid for by wealthy people and corporate taxes. Poll after poll shows broad, bipartisan support for tax increases on the wealthy. A Navigator Research poll of swing districts found that support for the Biden economic plan
We need to shout the following message at every opportunity, in every forum, until we are blue in the face:
Biden’s plan does NOT add a single penny to the deficit! Because it is fully paid for by raising taxes on people making more than $400,000 a year, powerful corporations, and Wall Street banks.
Beat the Shit Out of Republicans: When this is all said and done, every single Republican will likely vote against the plan because they oppose the popular policies and the even more popular tax increases that pay for the popular plan. Over the next several weeks, the media will have a laser-like focus on legislative minutia and Democratic infighting. The fact that Republicans will unanimously oppose something that much of their base supports will get zero attention. Therefore, it is on all of us to remind everyone not just of the Republican opposition to the bill, but also of the reason for the opposition. While Republicans will come up with a million bad faith reasons to vote no, we need to remind the public that:
Republicans oppose this popular, bipartisan plan because they refuse to ask big corporations like Exxon, Amazon, and Goldman Sachs to pay a penny more in taxes. Joe Biden and the Democrats want to expand Medicare. Mitch McConnell and the Republicans want to cut Medicare to pay for even more tax cuts for the ultra-rich.
President Biden can do something truly transformative, but he needs our support to push back against Republican bullshit and Right-Wing agitprop. Everyone with a platform needs to push for this bill and use the correct language to do so.
Why isn’t there a Democratic email strategy to message this? I’d guess that Democratic campaigns send literally hundred of millions of emails each week. None of them seem to have talking points, just begging for cash to eventually buy ads to display talking points. Just send 1 billion emails a month with key messages and CTA to share on FB / Twitter.
Excellent advice. "Talk like a human" includes avoiding the latest Washington lingo most outsiders don't use, e.g., "existential" and "woke" and "cancel culture."