While Congress is in recess and the headlines focus on Afghanistan and Hurricane Ida, a major battle is brewing behind the scenes that will tell us how close we are to breaking away from the politics of the past forty years. After Nancy Pelosi beat back a challenge from ten recalcitrant Democrats and her caucus approved a $3.5 trillion structure for the partisan infrastructure bill, the path was clear for committees in both houses to begin writing the text of the legislation. That process is quietly taking place now, and it is predictably meeting with resistance from the interests that stand to lose if Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda becomes law.
Resistance is coming in the form of a push by corporate interests to convince the ten House holdouts, and senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, to defect from their caucus and gut or block the massive measure. Manchin was at it again Wednesday, telling the Chamber of Commerce (of course) that Democrats should pause the process because there are so many uncertainties right now (like me, I’m sure you would prefer Congress to act only after all the world’s problems have been solved). The Washington Post described these efforts in an article last Tuesday, appropriately headlined “Corporate America Launches Massive Lobbying Blitz to Kill Key Parts of Democrats’ $3.5 Trillion Economic Plan.”
The contours of the campaign look like so many others that came before it when Democratic presidents and Democratic congresses tried to confront social problems with legislation that threatened the bottom line of interests like the pharmaceutical firms, corporations and large banks lining up in opposition to the infrastructure bill. Let’s look at how it works.
Deep-pocketed groups like the Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and National Association of Manufacturers, supported by dark money groups with anodyne names like Save America’s Family Enterprises (it’s a real thing) and promoted by well-compensated former pro-business Democratic senators run expensive ad campaigns in an attempt to turn public opinion against the legislation and keep the pressure on those few wavering Democrats whose support is essential to passage. They make familiar arguments about how tax increases on the wealthy hurt the economy, destroy jobs, stifle ingenuity and disadvantage the United States in global competition. Inverting their real concerns, they contend workers—not the wealthy—will suffer.
The few wayward Democrats—motivated by hunger for attention or the prospect of becoming a well-compensated corporate lobbyist after leaving Congress—willingly repeat these talking points, creating a narrative that challenges what we’re seeing in opinion polls, which confirm that the Biden proposals are pretty popular.
If these negative messages are repeated enough it becomes conventional wisdom that passing the massive measure is politically dangerous. Once conventional wisdom sets in it becomes self-fulfilling. Reporters draw attention to the risks, which are deemed self-evident. This in turn gives cover to the small group of reluctant Democrats to withdraw their support or demand dramatic spending reductions to prevent destructive tax increases (and because tax cuts aren’t involved, they will of course demand that everything is paid for). It’s how policies supported by a majority of the public go down to defeat.
History suggests the chances of this working are fairly high. Operationally, nothing has changed in the political system to tilt the odds against an orchestrated pressure campaign backed by the country’s wealthiest interests. Money continues to flood the political process, much of it flowing through the darkness. A well-funded lobbying complex operates freely and efficiently. The script for blocking popular but expensive measures has been time-tested.
But subtle shifts in the country are changing the contours of the playing field. The Democratic electorate is far more progressive than it was a decade ago, when Barack Obama dared to reform the healthcare system (and succeeded, albeit with a convoluted and watered down policy). The result is a Democratic congressional caucus that, while smaller than in 09 and 10, is more uniformly progressive and therefore more united in its intent. And this Democratic president is putting his full weight behind New Deal-style policies rather than taking ambitious proposals off the table in an effort to minimize resistance, as Obama did with single-payer and public option healthcare alternatives.
Biden is calculating that during our moment of converging crises the public appetite for bold initiatives will hold, and that the rising America—voters under 40 with liberal attitudes about government—will turn out next year and reward Democrats. He may be wrong. Or he may try and fail. But having staked his presidency on the outcome, the pressure for Democrats to hold together may be just enough to counteract the massive weight of the forces looking to break them apart.
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Some Wolves and Sheep readers have noticed the scarcity of front page postings this summer, as I transition to writing Wolves and Sheep Extra—my companion Patreon site. I’m going to try to pay more attention to the front page as we head into the fall. But if you’re interested in getting timely commentary twice a week, I urge you to check out the Extra page, which you can access here. As a bonus, if you join now you’ll be in time for this month’s Lunchtime Livestream next Thursday September 9 at noon Eastern.