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Notes from the Third Sub-Basement: High Anxiety

It is hard to please Democrats.  President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, Leader Schumer and their teams worked for months to get the $1.2 Trillion infrastructure bill passed.  It amounts to the biggest investment in infrastructure the United States government will have made since the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The same week the bill passed, it was announced the jobs had surged in the U.S. and that more than 5.5 million had been created since Biden took office.  The economy is rebounding. The administration has been remarkably productive.

So why are so many Democrats wringing their hands behind the scenes?

First, they are concerned that something will go off track en route to what should be the party’s automatic approval of Biden’s $1.75 Build Back Better package.  The environmental and social initiatives in the package represent a major portion of the Biden agenda—the Child Tax Credit, pre-K for all Americans, hundreds of billions to fight climate change, expansion of health care benefits and more.  Initially the bill was supposed to pass with the infrastructure package.  But it had not been scored by Congressional budget gurus and a handful of moderate Democrats said they could not vote for it until it was.  They committed to support it and vote for it by sometime next week…provided it did not materially change and it passed bean counter muster in terms of being paid for by new revenue streams.

But as of now the party’s moderate and progressive wings are looking at each other warily and worried the other side will do something to upset the delicate balance that should enable the bill to pass.  If it does not, the acrimony it would likely trigger…and the blow it would be to the president and the Democratic Party on the eve of a midterm election year would be devastating.

Should it pass?  Yes.  Is it likely to pass?  Yes.  Are nails being bitten to the quick worried that it won’t?  Based on my conversations with insiders in DC the past few days…yes, they are.

But that’s not all keeping Dems up at night.  Even if the BBB bill passes—which would truly mark 2021 as an historic year for Biden, the most productive first year in office since FDR—the next big item on the Dem agenda is voting rights legislation.  There are two problems with this.  The first is that it can’t pass without filibuster reform. Not a single Republican has shown the slightest interest in supporting it.  And secondly, there are too many Dems opposing filibuster reform (even if that means only one or two or three) for it to happen.

Voting rights reform is essential to preserving democracy in the US, especially in light of the GOP effort to gerrymander, make voting harder for groups that vote Democratic and otherwise rig future elections.  It may be the most critical step we can take toward preserving democracy in this country.  And many smart Dem leaders I know—think tankers, on the Hill, in the administration—believe it is not going to pass.

This could, as with the failure of the BBB package, lead to fracturing and name calling and blame spreading within the party.  It would weaken Biden and Democratic chances to hold on to majorities in the Senate and the House next November.

Beyond these two issues, the elections loom large.  The party of incumbent presidents’ tends to do badly in midterms.  The only exception is when the nation is facing a big challenge—like a war or national security threat.  Recovering from the devastation of COVID—a disaster that, as one senior Dem pointed out to me, touched more Americans than any war in memory—certainly creates the opportunity to frame this election as a time when the historical predisposition against the sitting president’s party could be bucked.  But…that would require effectively communicating that point.  It would also require presenting all of Biden’s achievements as a sweeping program to meet the challenge we were presented, rather than selling them as individual programs for subsets of the electorate, presenting them as a whole, a “universal benefit” (in the words of New Democrat Network CEO Simon Rosenberg).  It would also require both a strong positive framing of Dem achievements and a clear, tough framing of Republicans as the enemies of progress, actual allies of the pandemic.

That kind of strong communication has not been a strong suit of Democrats recently and so most DC Dems with whom I have spoken in the past few days are feeling very uneasy about next November.  They know they could do well…but worry that they won’t.

As a consequence of all this, at a moment that should include celebration of the enormous progress the president and his allies have made advancing initiatives that are widely supported by Americans of all parties, there is instead a sense of urgency, of the collective need to address the problems enumerated above.

Which, come to think of it, is not such a bad thing…given the stakes and the fact that at the moment the responsibility of governing this country has fallen on the Democrats alone.  The other party has opted out.  Which means intense focus on successfully concluding 2021 and then translating that into significant victories in 2022 is vitally important not just to the president, Dem leaders, or the party rank and file but to us all.

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