Joe Biden
President Joe Biden listens during the Quad summit in the East Room of the White House on September 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Joe Biden’s presidency is “on the line” unless Congress passes his massive Build Back Better plan and the accompanying infrastructure bill. Outlets as different as Salon and The Washington Post, after all, keep saying so. Others hedge and just say Biden’s “agenda is on the line.”

But what if neither is true? What if Biden’s presidency or Democratic chances in next year’s midterm elections are not dependent on the passage of the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act or even a smaller Build Back a Little Bit Better Act? In that case, the agonizing Thursday fracas in the House—various members issuing statements and trash-talking, ending with a great big punt on the smaller bipartisan infrastructure bill—seems a little less significant.

By early Friday morning, the promised vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill had been delayed yet again. Progressives had flexed their considerable muscle demanding a framework that would link passage of the two bills and close the gap between Senator Joe Manchin’s long-awaited declaration that he’ll only go for $1.5 trillion and the Progressive Caucus’s insistence that 3.5 trillion is its bottom line. (Senator Kyrsten Sinema remains frustratingly enigmatic.) Despite a week’s worth of “Don’t bet against Nancy Pelosi” talk, she has yet to deliver. (The Democratic leadership will try again on Friday.) There’s no urgent deadline here like raising the debt ceiling this month—a crisis entirely of Republican making. But everyone could do without the uncertainty and the agita that comes with this dragging on.

The question isn’t just what happens with Build Back Better—a historic mash-up, a Great Society/New Deal confluence of programs in one bill. Democrats all agree that there’s a lot in there to love, from child leave to green energy to hearing aids. But as a matter of politics, all sides seem to implicitly believe that failing to pass the act dooms the Democrats next year.

Let’s step back a second and see why that may not be so.

Because the bill is so large—dwarfing the size of the $940 billion Affordable Care Act—it represents a major gamble based on the idea that Democrats might get just one shot through the reconciliation procedure to pass their ambitious agenda. A piecemeal approach won’t do, they believe, with more than a bit of justification given Republican intransigence.

It’s understandable that with so much riding on this one piece of legislation, Democrats would imbue it with talismanic properties: Treat it well and the riches of 2022 shall be yours. As Walter Shapiro put it in The New Republic: “The problem for Democrats is that they have gulled themselves into believing that because the individual parts of the package poll well, the entire plan will be popular with voters in 2022.” Not only do Democrats feel like they are betting the mortgage on a surefire thoroughbred, but they are placing their bet at a time when antigovernment fervor, in practice if not in theory, seems to have waned. Pretty much everyone has taken a big government handout over the past 20 months, whether it’s a stimulus check or a PPP loan or rent relief.

So I get why Democrats continue to see this bill as key to their political survival. But that’s not necessarily the case.

First, we don’t know what will determine the fate of the midterm elections next year. There are past trends, such as the president’s party losing seats in Congress. But that’s hardly preordained. In two of the past seven midterms, the president’s party has gained seats. In 1998, Democrats increased their House numbers when the public was more revolted by Ken Starr’s hyper-zealous prosecution of Bill Clinton than by the latter’s behavior. In 2002, voters gave the GOP a boost in the midterms as George W. Bush prosecuted his “global war on terrorism” but hadn’t yet lurched into Iraq. Biden, like Bush in 2002, post-9/11, or even FDR in 1934 amid the Depression, may benefit from the unparalleled challenge of the pandemic. We don’t know.

We do know that passing significant legislation doesn’t guarantee midterm success. The first two years of Barack Obama and Lyndon Johnson’s terms suggest as much. If passing Medicare didn’t help Democrats in 1966 when they got slaughtered, will Build Back Better help in 2022?

The COVID-19 pandemic will shape the midterm elections more than the fate of the bill. If we go from a Delta variant to, say, a more transmissible, more toxic Sigma variant next year, that’ll matter more than the phase-in of paid family and medical leave. Flattening the curve will prevent Republicans from flattening Democrats.

Another reason Build Back Better might not affect the midterms is that its benefits won’t be felt for some time, far after the midterms. The immensely popular provision in the bill to provide Medicare benefits for hearing aids and dental care will be phased in, so it’s not like Aunt Gladys will have a new set of teeth by Election Day. Other provisions will require a long delay while federal agencies craft regulations. Probably the most important item in the bill is a long extension of the child care tax credits passed earlier this year in the American Rescue Plan Act, which are due to expire. If passed, that won’t be felt at all. It’ll just be a continuation of what families are getting now.

Of course, passage of the massive legislation, even trimmed, combined with the passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill, would give Democrats some bragging rights come November 2022. But if Build Back Better doesn’t pass, Biden can still run on what he’s done: overseen the vaccination of what will be more (possibly way more) than 200 million Americans; passed a series of emergency measures that kept the economy from hemorrhaging; and enacted the American Rescue Plan Act, with its stimulus checks and health insurance subsidy.

It seems odd that the administration and Congress treat the American Rescue Plan Act as an afterthought rather than a national Narcan that brought us back to life. Biden can also brag about leveraging his power for popular mask mandates. He can brag about bringing an end to the unpopular war in Afghanistan (albeit without glory), and ending the insanity and corruption of the Trump years. Those are things to run on. The economy seems to be on a good trajectory, inshallah.

But will the public say that, since Democrats control both chambers, they’re dolts because they couldn’t pass the president’s bill? I doubt it. It may give Biden a reason to argue in the midterms that he needs a real majority in Congress, not a precariously thin one that one intransigent senator can scuttle. The collapse of Build Back Better might give him and members an excellent chance to make a public case for killing or curtailing the filibuster. What’s more, if the failure of Build Back Better led to the passage of a voting rights bill, that could potentially do more to help the party than anything else.

I don’t know where this all ends. I tend to think that Schumer and Pelosi can and will pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill and Build Back Better in some limited form, maybe by another name. They might shorten the bill’s duration from 10 to five years or excise some significant chunks until next year. Even if it doesn’t pass, however, it’s not the Democrats’ last chance at holding on to their majority. Their fate has much more to do with protecting the nation from the ravages of viral mutations than anything else.

Matthew Cooper

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattizcoop. Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.