No Party Ever Tried What the Democrats Are Trying Now

The audacity of the reconciliation bill.

When journalists describe the Democratic Party’s $3.5 trillion budget resolution, the most common descriptor is “sweeping” (CNN.com used the word three times in one story.) Perhaps the next most common is “vast” (used twice in this Washington Post story, plus one “sweeping”). But these words fail to capture the unprecedented magnitude of what’s being proposed.

Think of Simone Biles. Think of the triple twisting double somersault. Think of the Yurchenko double pike vault. As with Biles’ feats on the gymnastic floor, the Democrats are trying to accomplish something nobody has ever accomplished, let alone attempted, on the House and Senate floors: a single piece of legislation designed to overhaul the social contract on a disparate array of fronts.

Such audacity is thrilling … and also terrifying. Those who’ve long envisioned a federal government that robustly supports the needs of Americans, from their first days to their last, can only hope the Democrats are prepared to stick the landing.

Let’s try to put this in historic perspective.

As Congress put together the $2.2 trillion pandemic relief bill in March 2020, USA Today declared, “the measure would be, by far, the largest economic package ever approved by Washington.”

The Democrats are now proposing an economic package that’s more than 50 percent bigger.

After President Barack Obama enacted his roughly $800 billion stimulus package (about $1 trillion in today’s dollars), Michael Grunwald wrote a book christening it The New New Deal. “In constant dollars,” Grunwald calculated, “it was more than 50 percent bigger than the entire New Deal, twice as big as the Louisiana Purchase and Marshall Plan combined.”

The proposal from today’s Democrats is 3.5 times bigger than that.

Grunwald argued that Obama’s stimulus went beyond short-term crisis measures, citing a wide range of visionary investments, from genome sequencing to electronic health care recordkeeping to advanced battery development. In retrospect, though, it was largely incrementalism, albeit incrementalism on steroids. Biden is trying to lock down huge new programs that would directly alter daily life, which is more like the Old New Deal than the New New Deal.

Not even FDR tried to wrap Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, the Banking Acts, the Securities Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, and the Relief Appropriation Act into a single bill. Nor did LBJ did try to bundle the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Economic Opportunity Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Food Stamp Act, the Urban Mass Transportation Act and the creation of Medicare and Medicaid.

Look at what Biden is trying to do in one fell swoop: free preschool; free community college; long-term eldercare through Medicaid; new dental, hearing and vision benefits in Medicare; lower drug costs from new Medicare bargaining power; quasi-permanent extension of the recently expanded child tax credit; major green energy and climate mitigation investments; a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; and a tax code revamp to extract more revenue from the wealthy and corporations. This is not an exhaustive list.

The breadth of the agenda may make your heart pound in anticipation, or stop beating out of fear of spectacular failure.  The more you’re trying to do at once, the more opportunities for your opponents to draw blood, and for your allies to flinch.

Democratic leaders have proceeded on the logic that what they want to do is innately popular, so their fellow Democratic members of Congress will have no reason to flinch. But the legislative process is rarely smooth, and the Democrats’ narrow margin in both chambers provides fertile turf for brinksmanship.

Already there are grumblings. Senator Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, has declared she won’t vote for anything as big as $3.5 trillion, and Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, has expressed “serious concerns” about the topline number. Eight House moderates signed a letter sharing “concerns” about spending levels, though stopping short of issuing a threat. These House moderates want to take up the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill before turning to the larger package, but House progressives led by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are threatening to withhold their votes for the bipartisan bill until the Senate passes the reconciliation bill–even though that could take months. These tensions are surfacing before we even get to the actual drafting of the multi-faceted reconciliation bill.

As the news spotlight follows the intra-party jockeying, an overarching narrative to help sell the bill itself risks getting lost. When Biden kicked off this process, he proposed an “American Jobs Plan” and an “American Families Plan” which the White House described as follows:

The American Jobs Plan will create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s physical infrastructure and workforce, and spark innovation and manufacturing here at home. The American Families Plan is an investment in our children and our families—helping families cover the basic expenses that so many struggle with now, lowering health insurance premiums, and continuing the American Rescue Plan’s historic reductions in child poverty. Together, these plans reinvest in the future of the American economy and American workers, and will help us out-compete China and other countries around the world.

But attempts to amplify this narrative with coordinated message are grievously hampered for the time being as Democrats squabble among themselves.

Progressives are looking to tack on as much as they can to what seems to be the last legislative train leaving the station, while moderates raise alarms about spending and inflation. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans, who have yet to their find political footing this year, are gearing up to hammer the reconciliation bill as a left-wing spending spree. The harder those blows hit, the stingier the moderates may get.

Granted, Democrats are starting from a pretty good position. A Quinnipiac University poll this month asked, “Do you support or oppose a $3.5 trillion spending bill on social programs such as child care, education, family tax breaks, and expanding Medicare for seniors?” Sixty-two percent said yes, only 32 percent said no. The price tag and the rough outline aren’t triggering an automatic negative response.

We’ve yet to see vicious attacks, but they will come. Biden’s American Rescue Plan, like Obama’s stimulus, were passed lightening-fast in the midst of urgent crisis, making it difficult for attacks to get traction. (In the case of the American Rescue Plan, disoriented Republicans barely tried to launch any attacks.) Then Biden pursued the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which Republicans opted to shape instead of scorch. Now we are entering a legislative process that is not crisis-driven and not bipartisan. We can’t know if Republicans will hit their marks, but they will surely fire at will. If they succeed in driving down the poll numbers, moderate Democratic support could get wobbly.

Democrats do have enormous incentive to stick together. This legislative package is too big to fail. If the so-called two-track plan goes off the rails, Democrats likely lose their agenda this year, the Congress in 2022 and the presidency in 2024. So something is likely to pass. The question is how big will that something be. Without a strategy to maintain public support with an easy-to-understand narrative, squeamishness amongst the moderates will end up shrinking the size.

So beyond the challenge to find substantive common ground between progressive and moderate factions inside Washington, Democrats also have to continually remind voters outside Washington why they are working so hard to find that common ground. In order to stick the landing, this can’t be a story about Democratic intra-party political machinations. This has to be story about Democrats helping Americans live their lives.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"