Infrastructure and McConnell's Theory of Midterm Politics

Mitch McConnell is more afraid of a big, party line bill than a smaller, bipartisan one, Democrats should take heed

Mitch McConnell is the physical embodiment of everything people hate about politics — self-interested, cynical, corrupt, and dishonest. Don’t believe me? Look at McConnell’s poll numbers. In a fiercely divided country, Republicans and Democrats agree that the Kentuckian is a festering canker sore on the body politic.

Everyone can easily see that McConnell has no preferred policies, political beliefs, or innate patriotism. All he cares about is accumulating political power. He makes every decision with an eye on regaining the Senate Majority in 2022. This isn’t a secret or biased interpretation on my part. McConnell announced it to the world earlier this year:

One hundred percent of my focus is standing up to this administration. What we have in the United States Senate is total unity from Susan Collins to Ted Cruz in opposition to what the new Biden administration is trying to do to this country.

If McConnell’s goal is to defeat Biden and the Democrats, why is he tacitly signing off on a portion of his caucus working with the President on an infrastructure deal that would give Biden a big win?

It seems that McConnell would rather swallow a smaller bipartisan infrastructure plan than allow the Democrats to pass a bigger, more progressive bill through the budget reconciliation process. As Politico recently wrote:

Senate Republicans are mulling support for a massive amount of new spending on infrastructure — in part because they think it’ll help kill President Joe Biden’s liberal agenda … But a growing number of Senate Republicans are betting that if a deal is reached on that sort of physical infrastructure, Democrats won’t have the votes needed to pass the rest of Biden’s “soft infrastructure” priorities, such as childcare and clean energy.

To be clear, McConnell’s choice here has nothing to do with a preference for smaller government or a concern about the national debt. Like all of McConnell’s decisions, it is an example of raw political calculation. I am confident that he would prefer Biden accomplish nothing, but given a choice between a medium-sized bipartisan victory and a much larger partisan one, McConnell prefers the former.

This is a very interesting view into McConnell’s theory of politics and runs counter to the conventional wisdom that bipartisan victories are the ultimate political winners.

McConnell’s decision to let the deal proceed, and his recent efforts to try to sink it, give an interesting window into how he sees politics. Democrats should pay attention to this insight.

McConnell’s View of Midterms

The path to the Senate majority in 2022 runs through the same states that decided the presidency in 2021. Democrats are defending seats in Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada. The Republicans are trying to hold onto seats in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina. With the exception of Florida, each of these states was decided by less than two points. Some were decided by less than 0.5 percent. While there are plenty of persuadable voters in these states, and Democrats need to hang onto Republicans that supported Biden out of antipathy towards Trump, the party that comes closest to its 2020 turnout will win. Therefore, the Republicans have a two-prong strategy: turnout their base and keep ours home through a combination of disenfranchisement and disillusion.

The Republicans and their Right Wing allies are attempting to keep their base jacked up on a steady diet of Trump and cultural wedge issues like Defund the Police, critical race theory, and burger bans. For this reason, the Senate Republican Campaign Committee recently used Trump in a fundraising video that spread misinformation about the 2020 election and fueled conspiratorial hopes that the former president will soon be reinstated.

At the state level, Republicans are working overtime to diminish Democratic turnout with a series of laws targeted at Black, Latino, and younger voters. In the Senate, McConnell wants to do everything in his power to prevent Biden from accomplishing things that excite Democratic voters. He wants to sow cynicism and disappointment through gridlock and obstruction. “I voted for Joe Biden because he said he would do X, Y, and Z, but he didn’t do it, so why should I bother to vote in 2022.”

McConnell recognizes that the public (and the political press) are more likely to blame the president for not fulfilling campaign promises than the Republicans that halted progress.

Bipartisan Deal v. Budget Reconciliation

There are two paths to accomplishing core elements of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda — bipartisan legislation that receives the support of all 50 Democrats and at least ten Republicans or, the second path; using the budget reconciliation process that requires only 50 votes but is limited to matters related to taxes and spending.

The bipartisan deal announced last week is no small potatoes. It contains approximately $300 billion for new and improved infrastructure projects, $65 billion for increasing access to broadband, and $47 billion for climate resilience projects. These are necessary and popular investments.

However, this deal lacks many elements of the Biden agenda that, according to polling, excite Democrats the most. Data for Progress and Vote Save America partnered on a poll that tested the popularity of the individual components of Biden’s jobs and family plans. While the physical infrastructure components of the bipartisan plan are popular among all voters, Democrats are particularly excited about Biden's plans to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy, lower the cost of healthcare, and expand access to child and eldercare. None of those proposals are in the bipartisan deal.

Additionally, the climate investments in the bipartisan deal are a fraction of what is needed. Preventing Biden from dealing with climate change in a substantial way is a priority for Republicans. The fossil fuel industry funds a lot of Republican campaigns and polling shows that climate change was critical to the youth voter turnout that helped Biden win in 2021.

Once the Republicans realized that President Biden might get to have his cake and eat it too, they began walking away from the deal, whining about a two-track process they knew of from the beginning.

The Politics of Process v. Results

There is an underlying tone in the coverage of the infrastructure negotiations that suggests a bipartisan deal would be a huge political win and a Democrats-only bill would be risky, if not downright dangerous. The Washington, DC establishment fetishizes bipartisanship; always has, always will. Unsurprisingly, polling shows that the public has a much more nuanced view. As part of a project with Invest in America, Data for Progress looked at this very topic:

We provided likely voters with descriptions of the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, as well as the reconciliation process by which these bills could be passed with a simple majority. We find that, by a 22-percentage-point margin, a majority of likely voters support passing the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan together through reconciliation. This includes eight-in-ten likely voters who self-identify as Democrats, as well as a plurality of self-identified Independents, who support passing these bills through reconciliation by a 12-point margin. Data for Progress and Invest in America also found that close to a third of self-identified likely Republican voters support passing the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan together using reconciliation, while six in ten disapprove

together reconciliation.png

The research makes it clear that Democrats can pass a large, progressive plan that excites their base without paying a price with some of the persuadable voters that help deliver Biden’s narrow Electoral College victory.

If McConnell is Correct, Why is Biden Pursuing Bipartisanship?

I don’t say this often or lightly, but I agree with Mitch McConnell. If Democrats were forced to choose between a good, bipartisan bill and a great Democrats-only bill with our base’s top priorities, I would choose the latter every time. But it’s not that simple, and Biden isn’t pursuing bipartisanship at the expense of the other path.

Based on years of working with Joe Biden, I know his commitment to bipartisanship is real. He believes the country — and Congress — can be less divided and more productive. That doesn’t, however, mean that he is naive about the prospect of success or the motivations of the people with whom he is dealing. In addition to his desire for unity, Biden pursued this agreement for two reasons: Attempting to work with Republicans on infrastructure is a necessary first step for the rest of his agenda. Moderate Democrats like Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema were never going to be okay with using budget reconciliation unless a bipartisan deal was struck or Republicans walked away from the table. Budget reconciliation requires all 50 Democrats and, without an attempt at a bipartisan deal, Biden didn’t have 50 votes.

It’s also worth noting that pursuing bipartisanship has political benefits. A recent CNN poll found:

All told, 87% say that attempts at bipartisanship are a good thing, including 92% of Democrats, 90% of Independents and 77% of Republicans. But 60% say they see bipartisanship as unlikely in upcoming legislation, including 50% of Democrats, 60% of Independents and 76% of Republicans. And although Democrats are more optimistic about the success of bipartisanship, they aren't particularly confident it will happen. Just 6% see it as very likely to happen, about the same as among Independents (7%) and Republicans (4%).

There are very legitimate concerns I share with some Democratic activists. I worry this bipartisan infrastructure agreement is chewing up valuable clock during a dangerously short governing window. However, Biden’s legislative and political strategy makes sense — pursue bipartisanship as a predicate to a larger, more progressive bill in the future.

Biden has (thus far) out-maneuvered McConnell. He has been able to successfully pursue the two-track strategy that the Republicans were hoping to block, which is my McConnell is now doing everything in his power to kill the deal.

Heeding the Lessons

The media and Democrats love to treat Mitch McConnell like an evil political genius. There is no question that he is a master of using the legislative loopholes to thwart the will of the majority and that he is unburdened by shame and lacks a moral compass. I do have some questions about the morality of a man that wants to cut taxes for the wealthy and pay for it by slashing Medicare and Social Security. But the fact remains. McConnell is more afraid of Democrats doing big things on their own than Biden getting a big bipartisan accomplishment.

In general, doing the thing that your opponent wants you to do least is a good idea. I know Joe Biden gets it. Let’s hope that moderate Democrats in Congress do too.