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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: After Afghanistan – Back to the Domestic Front

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

Afghanistan is a mess and it’s fair to say the administration has not covered themselves with glory. All the more reason to stick the landing, as it were, on their domestic program. John Halpin breaks down the challenge in his new piece on The Liberal Patriot:

“Hoping to move beyond its self-described mistakes on the withdrawal effort from Afghanistan, the Biden team is wisely restating its commitment to domestic renewal and investment as a means of taking on China (and Russia) in the world. TLP has strongly supported this effort and as a strategy for long-term action, it’s a grand idea.

The problem, of course, is turning ambitions for new legislation totaling trillions of dollars in spending into practical policies that prepare America’s economy and workers for the future – and equally important, are perceived by voters as helping them directly in terms of jobs, wages, educational opportunities, and family security.

As seen on the highly popular American Rescue Plan, support for “big, bold” action steadily fades over time as the immediate impact of policies like stimulus checks or public health measures turn into less noticeable or understood spending in other areas.

With the Democrats now rushing to write reconciliation legislation on “soft” infrastructure approaching $3.5 trillion – on top of the Senate’s $1.2 trillion in “hard” infrastructure spending – the risk of screwing this up is high. For proponents of active government, the cost of getting these domestic spending plans wrong in terms of structure and implementation will be even greater than the “miscalculations” on foreign policy.”

He makes some recommendations on how to avoid screwing up:

“1. Design of policies matters as much as the price tag. If Democrats are honest with themselves, they know they are flying blind somewhat in trying to write a set of plans to restructure American infrastructure and social policy in a few weeks. The risk of passing a huge bill that no one really understands or has thought through into terms of execution is serious and could fatally wound the effort to make smart economic investments and convince voters that their plans are working to help Americans – and help America in its competition with China….

2. Social policies should be universal and not targeted. The rush to pass important social policy could easily lead to efforts to scale them back for cost or other reasons by “targeting” specific groups or regions. This would be a huge mistake. The last thing Democrats need is to pass a monstrous reconciliation bill that leaves out many Americans, thus reducing its impact and increasing the perception that government only benefits certain favored groups….

3. No waste or corruption or random spending will be tolerated. Having just lived through the “we wasted trillions of dollars in Afghanistan and got nothing but defeat” narrative, Biden and the Democrats can ill afford to have similar sentiments set in on its domestic plans. This is particularly true on the “hard” investments in roads, bridges, broadband, and climate mitigation where the potential for boondoggles and dodgy spending is dangerously high.”

He concludes:

“The Biden team’s desired shift from the failures of the past to strategic competition with China is smart. But problems and screw-ups in one area can easily bleed into others if they are not careful.

The administration has a real opportunity to begin rebuilding public trust in government action by designing and implementing a serious multi-year effort to strengthen American families and businesses – and prove that America itself is back in the world.”

Read the whole piece at the The Liberal Patriot! I would also add the the current demonization of the nine House moderates who are seeking an immediate vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill or BIF is not helpful to a successful legislative process that avoids these pitfalls.

Politico Playbook reports:

“The Justice Democrats have teamed up with Indivisible, the Sunrise Movement, Organize for Justice, MoveOn and the Working Families Party to launch a six-figure ad buy targeting the nine “Mod Squad” members.” Great. This is a delicate process with razor thing margins where frankly any small group of Democrats has leverage–heck, in the Senate it can be just one person!

That’s a reality that no amount of attack ads is going to change. Rather than attacking the nine as sellout scum, it would be more useful to understand where they are coming from and seek common ground that assumes their motivations are not entirely venal.

Bill Scher in The Washington Monthly remarks:

“The threat from the nine can be explained with a…straightforward reason, one that both [Jonathan] Chait and [Greg] Sargent acknowledged before ultimately dismissing. “The moderates’ desperation to pass the infrastructure bill is perfectly understandable. It’s a popular bill that has wide Republican support and the perfect issue to support their message that they can work across party lines,” writes Chait. Says Sargent, “The charitable view of the centrist position is that it’s a political imperative for them to campaign in their districts solely on passage of a bipartisan bill with ‘hard’ infrastructure, one that isn’t tangled up in the politics of the reconciliation bill, which is associated with House progressives.”

Several of the nine represent purple districts and would rather sell a clean bipartisan victory to their constituents than explain they have to wait to get money for roads and bridges until AOC gets what she wants. Golden represents a Trump-won district. The second-term Gottheimer won with a smaller margin in 2020 than 2018, as Trump pulled nearly 47 percent from his constituents. The first-term Bourdeaux won her race by less than three points and Georgia Republicans may well make her district redder in redistricting. The three Texans represent Hispanic-majority Rio Grande Valley districts in which Donald Trump hit at least 47 percent, and these may also get unfavorably redistricted by statehouse Republicans. However, one of those Texans, Rep. Vela is not worried by 2022, because he’s retiring. So progressives and party leaders have a different challenge with him; Vela can’t be pressured with short-term political considerations.

Instead of trying to shame the moderates into submission, a better idea for progressives would be to listen to them, understand their needs, and maybe even gain the trust that they will soon enough need to support a sizable reconciliation bill with transformational new programs and initiatives, even if the topline is not quite as big as progressives want.

As Sargent notes, “The only way to make this work is to make both factions happy at the end of the day” through Biden’s two-track strategy. But it’s still a two-track strategy if the first train reaches the station this month, and the next one comes in a couple months later.”

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