The Hardball Way to Push Republicans to Vote for Infrastructure

Democrats have to get tougher by sounding the alarm about collapsing bridges and dangerous roads in each GOP district and state.

Getting to 60.

The late Senator Howard Baker, the Tennessee Republican who helped lead the Senate Watergate Committee and who once led his party in the chamber, said that the essential education of a Senate Majority Leader is completed by third grade. That’s when they learn arithmetic.

The mathematical task facing New York’s Chuck Schumer is getting the 10 Republican votes needed to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill built along the lines that President Joe Biden and a group of senators from both parties worked out last month. With enough GOP senators backing the legislation and the fifty Democratic senators expected to vote “Aye” that could smash the expected GOP filibuster.

This won’t be an easy lift. Since 1993, Republicans haven’t offered any support for everything from Bill Clinton’s economic plan to Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act to Biden’s Covid relief bill. Adding to the Democratic challenge on infrastructure is the need to keep the fervent House progressives on board.

For Schumer to prevail in the senate means a tough-minded effort to get a bipartisan outcome. Fortunately, there is a tactic from the 1980s that might achieve just such a result even in our hyperpartisan era. It means replacing vague talk about “infrastructure” with matters of local urgency to specific U.S. senators. It means scaring them with talk about decaying bridges in the U.S.

I recall how my former boss, Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., did just this prior to the 1982 midterm elections.

Much like the summer of 2021, the Democrats in 1982 were bringing a sizable infrastructure bill to the House, albeit in what seemed like simpler, more collegial times and with a Democratic majority of some size. The Republicans were deriding the measure as a pre-election boondoggle. By their terms, it was all about creating “make-work jobs” and winning votes in the next election.

The then-House GOP leader, Bob Michel of Illinois, was especially caustic in his attack, albeit his demeanor would now be considered the height of politesse. The Republican line was that the Democratic measure was a “billion-dollar ballot box bail-out bill.”

On hearing Michel deride what he considered a well-intentioned effort to put people back to work, O’Neill went on the attack. Even though a pal and golfing partner of the bespectacled Republican leader, O’Neill was not about to let personal friendship block him from doing his partisan duty.

Leaving the speaker’s chair, he went down to the well of the House and hit the Republicans where it hurt, at home in their districts. He listed the bridges in Peoria, Illinois., which fell below the state’s safety code. In the heart of Bob Michel’s congressional district, Peoria was considered the capital of Middle America made famous in the saying of “How’s it playing in Peoria?”

Tip O’Neill hit every rusty bolt and ailing piece of concrete and rebar. He cited the names and addresses of the faulty structures. He wanted Michel’s back-home newspapers to know that their man in Washington was refusing to fix bridges that the school buses would be crossing that very afternoon.

Hearing O’Neil ring out the names of those bridges to his political world back home, Michel raced to the back of the House chamber, his face reddened in anger, panic, and embarrassment. It was at that moment that I learned how tough O’Neill could play it.

This is how President Joe Biden and the Senate Democrats need to play it today. Granted, local papers aren’t holding communities together the way they once were, and it’s harder to shame Republicans even if they were still around. Still, Democrats could scare the crap out of Republicans and voters that school buses and trucks could plummet off of one of those shaky bridges, and it wouldn’t be demagoguery. They need to raise the political price back home for those Republican senators holding out against the bipartisan bill to rebuild bridges, roads, tunnels, and other civic structures. Only in that way can they shift the topic of debate from the theoretical to the tangible, the incomprehensible $1 trillion-plus cost of infrastructure safety.

It’s also a way of shifting from defense to offense. So far, the White House and Democrats have played up the plus side of the bill, pointing to improvements that would benefit GOP districts and states. What they haven’t done so far is talk up the perils of letting infrastructure rot.

It’s a matter of simple tactics. For O’Neill’s staff, all it took was to call up the chief engineer in Peoria and get the list of the bridges found to be below the official safety code.

A similar bit of digging this July would force critics of the giant infrastructure bill to the defensive. Any Republican senator who opposes the infrastructure bill will have to defeat those rickety bridges back home, worse yet, to brace himself or herself against the prospect one of them might become a public danger on their watch. In recent years when we’ve seen a section of I-35 drop into the Mississippi River near St. Paul or, albeit a private apartment building, collapse out of nowhere in South Florida. Pointing code violations isn’t scare-mongering. It’s acknowledging a real and present danger. Democrats are in their usual position of appealing to the head and not the guy.

Getting information about specific endangered tunnels and the like will reinforce Democratic senators’ argument for the bi-partisan measure. They could simply get a list of those civil projects in their states that the bill would finance. Supportive 501(c)3s and4s could bombard media markets of persuadable Republicans, pointing out which bridges and roads are under code. With microtargeting, it’s not hard to reach the moms and dads who send their kids to school over rickety roads and give them a wake-up call. Building stuff is popular with voters of both parties. It is especially popular when you connect it to local needs. David Garth, the toughest of New York media consultants, described it as “replacing the smell of decay with the smell of construction.”

If played right, with sufficient hardball, with a sharp focus on the lawmaker’s backyard, the political case for infrastructure can be a giant winner, especially if you not only throw in the obvious benefits to the economy but also include a measure of national pride. Why should we be the country with Third World airports and train stations? Most Americans haven’t hummed along on a Japanese train or flown into the airport at Inchon, South Korea, which Douglas MacArthur liberated during the Korean War, and which is now the site of the dynamic country’s largest airport often hailed for its cleanliness and efficiency. (See this video.) We save the country and now get our clock cleaned. Americans know this even if they haven’t been to all of these places, and they’re embarrassed. Trump played on this, and Democrats should, too, but in a good and constructive way.

When it comes to bridges, highways, and tunnels, all politics is local, and hardball is the way to go. Tip O’Neill understood that. Will Chuck Schumer?

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Chris Matthews

Chris Matthew's long career as a political aide, author, broadcast host, and journalist includes a stint with the U.S. Capitol Police. Simon & Schuster published his memoir, This Country: My Life in Politics and History, on June 1. He is also the author of 2013’s “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.” Both books are published by Simon & Schuster.