Terry McAuliffe
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe gestures during a rally in Richmond, Virginia on October 15, 2021 (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

For the past several months, my teenage son has been canvassing for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, knocking on hundreds of doors across the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Earlier this fall, the fliers he left on voters’ doorsteps prominently featured McAuliffe and President Joe Biden, hands clasped triumphantly overhead in a show of unity and shared fortune.

Now McAuliffe’s campaign literature shows the barest hint of Biden, as the famously can-do McAuliffe desperately tries to unlink himself from a frustratingly can’t-do Congress and White House. “The president is unpopular today, unfortunately, here in Virginia,” McAuliffe said at a rally earlier this month, as Democrats continue to squabble over a massive social spending bill to “Build Back Better.” Biden, the hoped-for buoy for McAuliffe’s aspiration to retake the office he once held, has become a pair of concrete shoes. Meanwhile, yard signs for McAuliffe’s opponent—the Trump-in-sheep’s-clothing Glenn Youngkin—have been proliferating like toadstools after a summer rain.

To help salvage McAuliffe’s chances against the private equity executive Youngkin—whom polls show is running an uncomfortably close race—Virginia Senator Mark Warner has floated the idea of re-upping the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill (the “BIF”) passed by the Senate this summer but yet to clear the House. Right now, it’s being held hostage by progressives who insist that its passage be linked to the much bigger Build Back Better Act—a move the White House has blessed. Decoupling the BIF would be a Hail Mary move, but McAuliffe’s situation is dire enough that it might be worth trying again. If liberals drop their objections, the BIF has enough bipartisan support to pass the House easily.

As much as McAuliffe has tried to distance himself from Biden, the Virginia governor’s race has become a referendum on the president’s performance as well as that of all Democrats. McAuliffe, who had to leave office in 2018 because of the Commonwealth’s weird no-consecutive-gubernatorial-terms rule—badly needs to show that the Biden era is nothing like the chaotic Trump years. But it’s exceedingly unlikely that Democrats’ social spending plan will be ready by November 2, despite recent progress in the negotiations. Intraparty hostilities have only escalated in recent days, with progressives and moderates clashing over health care, climate, and taxes (as well as just about everything else). Though both sides are now trying to make their peace, many details remain to be hashed out.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill, however, is already a win. It sailed through the Senate 69–30 in early August (including with a yes from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), and has the support of business groups such as the Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce. Assuming this support hasn’t evaporated, final passage of the bill would give McAuliffe something to tout, which he knows he very much needs. “We’re tired of the chitty-chat up in Washington. Get in a room and get this figured out,” the famously indefatigable McAuliffe told CNN earlier this month. “They’re paid to get . . . this done, and the frustration is, why isn’t it done by now? Sixty-nine votes in the Senate two months ago, get it done this week.” By blocking the bill, liberals are stopping a vote on something that is hugely popular and can’t be assailed by Republicans because their leaders support it.

A speedy vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill would not only help the 64-year-old former chair of the Democratic National Committee; it would help all Democrats, whose hold on Congress seems increasingly tenuous as Biden’s approval rating has sagged and a growing number of caucus members announce their retirement in advance of next year’s midterms. Progressive Democrats’ insistence on linking the infrastructure bill with the larger social spending plan, once a point of pride, now seems self-destructive.

First, by delaying the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Democrats are blowing a major legislative achievement. Though Democrats’ top priority is the Build Back Better bill, the bipartisan infrastructure package would pump $550 billion of new spending into the nation’s infrastructure, including historic investments in public transit, electric vehicles, rural broadband, and clean water. According to the White House, its funding for bridges would be the largest “since the construction of the federal highway system.” Passage of the plan would be great for Democrats (not to mention a stick in the eye to Trump, who campaigned on an infrastructure package but never managed to get it done).

Delay is a political liability for the Democratic Party. All Democrats—not just Terry McAuliffe—have relatively little to tout as the midterms approach. “Every single day that we’re consumed by internal debates and internal arguments is a day that we’re not actively selling” Democrats’ achievements, Senator Chris Murphy recently told Politico.

The message and policy vacuum, meanwhile, delights Republicans. Despite the lack of a final bill, the Republican Study Committee has already put out a memo “pre-butting” Build Back Better with spurious attacks, dog whistles, and wild claims of Democrats’ intentions to create “climate police,” raise taxes, and advance “a totalitarian and paternalistic view of the federal government.” Passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill would neutralize these attacks, buying time for Build Back Better negotiations to yield results. (It would also provide a rubbernecking press something else to gawk at besides internecine brawling.)

Unlinking the bills would signal to voters that Democrats in Washington have faith in each other. Remember that progressives’ original rationale for linking the two bills was their lack of confidence that moderates would support a larger spending bill if they got their way on the bipartisan infrastructure plan. “We are not blindly trusting that these bills are going to get done in the Senate, without actually having that be guaranteed,” progressive Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota told the Associated Press in September. This lack of trust, however, sends a terrible message to voters, whose faith in politicians and Congress is already at historic lows: If the Democrats don’t trust each other, why should voters trust the Democrats?

Moderates have shown no indication that they would renege on Build Back Better. For all of his demands and stubbornness, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin has essentially committed to spending $1.5 trillion, which is not an insignificant sum. The moderate New Democrat Coalition has expressed strong support for the child tax credit, a major progressive priority. If they wanted to put a stake through the heart of Build Back Better, they already would have done it.

A vote on infrastructure now would be a show of faith, party unity, and progress. Hopefully, it won’t be too late for Terry McAuliffe.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_S_Kim.