From the outset of this administration, Democrats misjudged the scale of the challenges they had set for themselves. The predictable result has been a series of unmet expectations.
Without outright control of the Senate, a razor-thin majority in the House, and a president whose national popular vote margin belied the modesty of his majorities in swing states, Democrats somehow convinced themselves that they could pass the party’s entire domestic legislative agenda in one fell swoop. If that wasn’t daunting enough, the first step involved ushering in a paradigmatic revolution.
Infrastructure, we were told, was not what you thought of when you think of the word “infrastructure.” We weren’t just talking about roads, bridges, and airports. Infrastructure was also “social and civic.” It was “human” and “caregiving.” As ABC News observed, the White House set out not just to pass a bill but to “redefine the meaning of the word.”
Any semblance of humility before the awesome might of the English language should have dissuaded Democrats from this course, and pursuing it was a costly error. Republicans managed to position themselves as supporters of “hard” or “physical” infrastructure, and Democrats eventually conceded to their terms by breaking their objectives up into two parts: one genuine infrastructure bill and another smorgasbord of progressive aspirations that we no longer even pretend to call infrastructure.
The left lost that messaging fight, and they learned few lessons from the defeat. Democrats promptly pivoted to another messaging war. But they sought to prosecute it from indefensible ground, and they once again find themselves in retreat.
For months, both supporters and opponents of the supplemental reconciliation bill the progressive left hoped to couple with the “hard” infrastructure bill have emphasized its price tag. In May, Joe Biden proposed a $6 trillion budget plan. Biden’s plan would do a lot, but to discern from the president’s public statements, its most desirable feature was the scale of the “investments” it would represent.
Intraparty negotiations eventually forced Joe Biden to pare down his budget and its sundry infrastructure-adjacent features down $4.5 trillion, frustrating progressives who were still invested in a $6 trillion moonshot. Even this failed to satisfy Democratic moderates, which contributed to splitting the bill into its constituent parts. That left us with an infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion progressive dream board. But even that was too much for some of the party’s moderates, leaving aggravated progressives to wonder precisely how much spending these Democrats would back. House Rep. Ro Khanna is indicative of this mindset. Venting his frustrations over Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition to this package, Khanna savaged the senator because he “refuses to even give a number” to the spending level he would support.
The proposal’s bottom-line costs have been the most prominent feature of the discussion around it. By contrast, talk about what the reconciliation bill would actually achieve if it became law has been far more muted. Indeed, even today, the reconciliation bill is still referred to as the “$3.5 trillion reconciliation bill”—a feature its opponents are happy to accentuate.
Having spent months searing the number $3.5 trillion into American minds, however, Democrats have suddenly made a 180-degree turn to the idea that this gargantuan spending bill will actually cost nothing at all.
This week, Joe Biden contended that his agenda actually “costs zero dollars.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi picked up the baton: “It’s not about a dollar amount,” she said, “the dollar amount, as the president said, is zero. This bill will be paid for.” This new tactic is both economically illiterate and strategically unsound.
The White House’s new contention is that there is no “cost” to this mammoth proposal because it would add nothing to the national debt. That is nonsense, of course. No independent analysis supports the Democratic Party’s largely conjectural claim. It is only feasible insofar as it relies on the idea that economic growth will offset its costs, and a future Congress may turn off the spending spigot this bill would unleash. If Democrats were so secure in its projections, its members would not have conspicuously avoided submitting their plan to the Congressional Budget Office to determine its impact on the debt and deficit before they hope to vote on it.
The grating innumeracy aside, this tactic also undermines the months of dedicated labor Democrats have devoted to popularizing the figure $3.5 trillion. Not unlike the abandonment of their efforts to reconceptualize infrastructure as a state of mind, Democrats are now sacrificing the work they’ve done to convince the public that all this spending is not just vital but a climb down from the exorbitant public-sector consumption the country really needs. For months, the spending was the point. Suddenly, fiscal profligacy is undesirable, and frugality is the Democratic Party’s new passion.
This isn’t some carefully considered strategy. It’s bargaining—a last-ditch effort to see what, if anything, will stick. Like the lost messaging fight over what constitutes infrastructure, it is predicated on the idea that Democrats can bamboozle you with their rhetorical cleverness. And like that lost messaging campaign, it, too, is doomed.