Do something


I want to follow up from JB’s last line (Democrats in Congress have driven themselves into a cul-de-sac on the reconciliation bill) and just note how amazingly frustrated I am at the Democrats in Congress and those who said go for all or nothing. I have kept my thoughts to myself with the assumption that the Democrats know what they are doing. How stupid is that?

The Democrats and Biden had a big win with the Infrastructure bill. It checked all the boxes. Biden got something done Trump couldn’t get done, and he did it the way he said he work as a bipartisan effort. And, by the way, this would actually be good for the country. Democrats could then run in 2022 saying “look what we have done for you, keep supporting us and we can give you more” and perhaps pick up a few critical Senate seats and hold the House. Instead we get a mess and now everything may go down in flames. Even if some of the reconciliation bill is passed, it will still look like a defeat for the Democrats because some parts will be left out. Moreover, now if just the Infrastructure bill is passed, it will look like a major defeat. And if nothing is passed and signed in the end, hello Donald Trump.

You talk about the GOP and Lucy and the football. It’s not the GOP this time.

A reader of Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo wrote to him recently to explain how Democrats “who said go for all or nothing” (read: the left) are sabotaging Joe Biden and paving the way for the return of Donald Trump. Most of these “letters to the editor” are drivel, much like TPM’s editorial content, but this letter particularly rankled me.

The writer believes that Biden and the Democrats are losing out on a “big win” by failing to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill. That’s not necessarily because the bill contains anything valuable. (The fact that it “would actually be good for the country” is mentioned as an afterthought). It’s instead a chance to stick it to Donald Trump (“Trump couldn’t get it done”) and to score points with the mainstream press and independents by passing a piece of legislation that brings the two parties together. (Shades of Reagan and Tip O’Neill, you might say.) Not to mention that the optics of passing nothing are terrible: “it will look like a major defeat”.

Many hold bipartisanship to have inherent value. The idea of passing legislation along party lines is thought to be corrosive to good government. Joe Biden himself said that “this nation cannot function without generating consensus”. The first problem with this idea — and one that I’ll return to later — is that ideas and policies that Democrats and Republicans agree upon are not necessarily good for the country. Indeed, they are more likely to be the opposite. In other words, the way in which a bill is passed and what is good about the bill have very little to do with one another. (And it was telling that, in Marshall’s reader’s message, she did not mention a single policy or proposal in the infrastructure bill that she supported.) The proponents of bipartisanship want us to hearken back to the good old days when Democrats and Republicans governed in comity. Left unsaid in these nostalgic remembrances is what exactly they governed in comity about. The second problem is that even if we believe bipartisanship to be of value, it is difficult enough to convince Democrats to vote for good policies, let alone Republicans. During the Democratic primary, Biden was asked about how he would foster bipartisanship, and he responded with the following:

[W]e found ourselves in a position where an awful lot of Republicans have become intimidated ― intimidated by the president. […] [T]he thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House. Not a joke. You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.

And it’s already beginning ― in the House now, you’ve seen people that in fact were not willing to vote for any Democratic initiative, even if they agreed with it, because they didn’t want to be the odd person out if it wasn’t going to happen. There’s not sense in getting politically beaten for something that’s not going to happen. But you are seeing the talk, even the dialogue is changing.

(One sees in these passages why Obama and Biden got along so well.) Needless to say, the dialogue is not changing, at least not in a positive direction, and no Republican is having an epiphany, except to realize that fealty to Donald Trump is just as important now, that he’s out of office, as it was then, when he had real power.

There is no real theory or strategy for changing Republicans minds. The hopes of moderate and conservative Democrats seem increasingly delusional the longer Republican obstinacy persists. If one has to appeal to an epiphany — a religious experience — then it seems that one has lost the thread. Of course, the reason many Democrats valorize bipartisanship is not that they’re stupid, but that they’re cynical. Bipartisanship is viewed as a way to convince independents that they’re not going to turn the party over to the radical left, the socialists, the Bernie types. And, perhaps more importantly, it is a tactic for quashing the progressive agenda without forthrightly opposing it. (“Sorry fellas, we tried our best but the Republicans really didn’t want free community college!”)

Marshall’s interlocutor also mentioned that passing the infrastructure bill would be a “big win” by doing something Trump couldn’t do. It’s a theory of politics that I don’t understand. The logic seems to be that politicians get elected, pass stuff, the voters like the fact that stuff is being passed, and the virtuous cycle repeats. Legislative wins engender electoral wins, and vice versa. But what exactly is this “stuff”? Does it matter?

I’m reminded, tangentially, of one of the minor talking points of the 2020 Democratic primaries. Amy Klobuchar touted her legislative record as “the only one in the Senate running left on that stage that has passed over 100 bills as the lead Democrat. That matters to people right now” (By contrast, Bernie sponsored only a small number of bills that passed during his decades-long tenure in the Senate.)

There are two separate claims being made here. One is that passing 100 bills is a good thing. The other is that anyone cares. I’m not sure if either is true. I decided to look up legislation that Klobuchar has sponsored that has also ended up becoming law. These includes such feats as “A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 14 3rd Avenue, NW, in Chisholm, Minnesota, as the “James L. Oberstar Memorial Post Office Building”, the “Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act”, and the “Improving Rural Call Quality and Reliability Act of 2017”. I don’t doubt that these (particularly the latter two) are good pieces of legislation, but it’s worth pointing out that “100 bills” includes plenty of trivial and noncontroversial stuff, and, quite similarly, “passing legislation” could mean, well, anything.

It is an unfortunate reality that many voters fail to give credit to politicians for passing legislation. As one Huffington Post article mentions, “37% of Americans said in an August survey that the Biden administration had done anything to benefit them personally, while 57% said it had not ― even though Democrats and the Biden administration sent $1,400 relief checks to the vast majority of households earlier this year without a single Republican vote.” To expand that 37% number is possible, I believe, even after subtracting off the people brainwashed by Fox News or otherwise hardened in opposition to the Democrats, but it requires something much more impressive than renaming a post office building. And, I would argue, it requires something far more impressive than the bipartisan infrastructure bill. (As an obvious aside, there are things worth doing, like fighting climate change, that would be worth doing even if the public did not perceive any benefit.)

The spending associated with the bipartisan infrastructure bill is paltry. It amounts to less than $600 billion over 10 years, or, effectively, less than 1/10 of the annual spending on defense. If it is true, as the White House claims, that this bill “makes the largest federal investment in public transit ever” or “the largest investment in clean drinking water and waste water infrastructure in American history”, that should be viewed more as a damning indictment of our legislative priorities over the last centuries than as praise for this bill. It is also obvious that its investments are far too small to address the climate crisis. And that is a consequence of its bipartisan nature. If the idea is to negotiate with a party that denies the existence of the climate crisis, then we will end up with a bill that denies the existence of the climate crisis. Finally, even though the purpose of an “infrastructure” bill is to spend money investing in America, Republicans have insisted on pay-fors, including selling off public assets to the private sector at discounted rates and surcharges on electric vehicles (which seems to undermine the stated goal of increasing electric vehicle adoption, although maybe that’s the point). David Dayen at The American Prospect writes that “the plan, far from just getting a portion of Biden’s infrastructure agenda done, would actively undermine it. It would fleece the country’s public works, the common institutions we all paid to build, and allow private companies to control them. It was unacceptable under a kleptocratic Republican president, and there’s nothing different about it that would make it suddenly acceptable to the same opponents today.” This strikes me as too harsh a critique, although perhaps I am guilty of taking the White House talking points too seriously. But I wholeheartedly agree that this bill might do very little net good for the country, and possibly even net evil. And this is the “big win” that “checks all the boxes”; the piece of legislation that would save us from a Trump redux if only the Progressive Caucus weren’t so committed to its “all or nothing” strategy.

The problem, in the end, with the “do something” theory of politics is that the “something” being done might fail in both substantive and political terms. Not only will it, by construction, fail to match the scale of our challenges as a nation, but it might be so feeble and larded with bad bipartisan ideas that the voters who are supposed to be convinced that we are “winning” might not even care.


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