Assuming the Democratic Party–controlled Senate passes some version of the Build Back Better Act this year, as Chuck Schumer has vowed it will, the new year will dawn with Democrats fanning out across the country to sell the Biden agenda (which House Democrats have already started doing with the version of the president’s social provision bill they passed last week, along with the bipartisan infrastructure bill).
Among the people I talk to, there seems to be a consensus forming that Democrats are going to have a hard time convincing voters about the generous array of wonderful benefits these bills will unleash before the midterm elections. People are in a sour mood, they say. Besides, inflation and the pandemic dictate everything, Donald Trump’s America is more fired up to vote, swing voters are going Republican, and too few of these programs are going to be up and running by next November.
On top of that, political science tells us that voters don’t often reward a party that passes transformative legislation. Voters are a cranky bunch. People are far more likely to use their votes to punish what they don’t like than to reward what they do like.
I suppose there’s truth to a lot of these observations. But I look through the reports on what happened to be in the bill, and I feel like I’m seeing a lot of stuff that Democrats can campaign on. Say you’re a Democrat trying to hold onto your seat in a purple district and you’re not Maine’s Jared Golden (in other words—you voted for these bills). You’re being challenged by some right-wing loon who’s carrying on about socialism and handouts and taxing and spending. Can’t that person say something that sounds a little something like this?
“I’d really like to know what particular things in the bill my opponent has such trouble with. Let’s start with Medicare. This bill adds hearing aids to Medicare coverage. The average cost of a prescription hearing aid in this country is $4,700. That’s a lot of money—for most seniors, a prohibitive amount of money. Now it’s covered. Is that a handout? In my opinion, it’s something that’s going to improve a lot of people’s quality of life. The bill also caps prescription drug outlays at $2,000 a year. Right now, there’s no hard cap, and there’s that infamous donut hole, which you know all about if you’ve bothered to talk to seniors. Maybe my opponent hasn’t. But it strikes me that saving seniors some money is a pretty good thing. Maybe my opponent doesn’t. And of course, insulin is going to cost $35, as opposed to the current $100. Is that what my opponent means by socialism?
“Let’s see, what else.… There’s a lot of money in there for the states—not the federal government, the states—to build and stand up pre-kindergarten programs and childcare centers. The bill ensures that a family of four with income up to $300,000, which is about 98 percent of the population, will pay no more than 7 percent of their income on childcare. Is this going to create a society of layabouts? I think the opposite. I think affordable day care will give a lot of parents, mothers in particular, the chance to work or go back to school and better themselves so they can move up the ladder at work. I’m not seeing how this is bad.
“And how about the climate? There are a lot of tax incentives for companies and people to produce and purchase more renewables and to move away from coal. All kinds of things to encourage individuals and communities to invest in green energy. I guess if you think climate change is a hoax, you think all this is a waste of money. But most people don’t think it’s a hoax. Most people think it’s real. So, I think these are good ideas.”
I could go on, about the taxes on the wealthy and corporations, which most people support, or the tax cuts on the working class. But you get the picture. The one thing that was in the bill that I’d advise this candidate to skip is the lifting of the cap on the state and local tax deduction, which is, no doubt about it, a gift to higher-income taxpayers. But it was political reality that some moderates from high-tax states might have voted no if this wasn’t included—and another political reality that if it hadn’t been included and isn’t in whatever ends up passing in some way, shape, or form, some Democrats from swing districts in New Jersey, New York, and elsewhere would be much more likely to lose.
There are also some problems with the way the bill’s benefits are structured. The $2,000 prescription drug cap, for instance, doesn’t kick in until 2024 (although the current “soft cap” will decrease over the next two years). And on top of all this, the bill is half the size liberals wanted it to be, and it’s probably going to shrink a little more.
But there’s a lot more good news than bad. Democrats ought to welcome a debate about what they’ve done for the American people with their GOP opponents. Incumbents should defend their vote in terms like I’ve laid out above. And Democratic challengers to Republicans in winnable swing districts should clearly be able to say: Look at all these good things this person voted against.
In fact, Democrats should go even further. This is an old pet peeve of mine about how Democrats debate policy. Republicans talk about this stuff solely on the abstract level—it’s socialism and profligacy and so on. They do this because they know the programs are individually popular but the idea of big government is not. By the same token, Democrats do the opposite. They read the same polls, so they tend to emphasize the specifics and steer clear of the abstract.
I get it. But it leaves Democrats sounding like they’re just for individual policy programs here and there instead of a big-picture vision for the kind of society they want to build. This bill, whatever its shortcomings, contains a vision of society: a more humane place where wealth is being shifted back from the rich to the middle so that more people can fulfill their potential.
Democrats don’t really need to mention government at all. In the end, what these bills are seeking to do has nothing to do with the government anyway. The public sector is the means to an end. That end is creating the means by which people can lead more fulfilling lives and do so with greater ease at that. Democrats need to be willing to say as much, and they need to demonstrate a willingness to fight for it.