How Democrats can really troll Trump on infrastructure
The case for making a package deal with the devil
At long last, the Democrats are showing ambition.
On Tuesday, the party's Senate leadership revealed a sweeping plan to spend $1 trillion over the next decade upgrading and expanding America's infrastructure. They estimate the bill could create 15 million new jobs. When the party was in control of the White House, only Bernie Sanders was willing to push an infrastructure bill this big. The plans proposed by President Obama and Hillary Clinton weren't small, but they weren't nearly this ambitious. So this is progress for the party.
Unfortunately, now that the Democrats have been booted from power, the proposal's main purpose is to troll President Trump.
The country's new chief executive declared in his inaugural address that "we will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation." But Republicans in Congress are already balking at the idea of another Obama-style stimulus, insisting it's too large and that not a cent can be borrowed.
So Democrats figure Trump will either have to renege on a campaign promise or get into a feud with his own party. And if the proposal does pass, then the country gets a big economic shot in the arm and millions of American lives are made better. To Democrats, that looks like a win-win.
In truth, Democrats may be too clever for their own good. If they want to avoid shooting themselves in the foot, they'll need to rethink their strategy.
As Jonathan Chait noted, there's a fairly good chance that Trump and the GOP call the Democrats' bluff. There's just no serious evidence that Trump cares about Republican orthodoxy on the economy. Moreover, the party itself tends to abandon that same orthodoxy whenever it's in power, as the second Bush administration showed.
I think Chait is overselling that second point a bit. The GOP's big-ticket deficit busters under Bush were tax cuts and a market-based Medicare add-on that heavily subsidized private drug providers and funneled recipients to them. So, yes, Republican opposition to deficits is very opportunistic. But they still tend to eschew public investment for anti-tax or pro-business policies. That's why the GOP seems to be gravitating to an alternative infrastructure bill that relies on $137 billion in corporate tax breaks to coax private companies into more infrastructure construction and that would probably do little-to-nothing for jobs.
It's also important to remember that the Republican Congress under Trump is not the same as the one under Bush. In fact, the Freedom Caucus and Tea Party takeover of the House Republicans was driven, to no small degree, by disgust with the ideological squishiness of the Bush years.
So even if Trump did support Democrats' $1 trillion bill, they'd probably only get enough Republican votes in the House to squeak by. Every Democrat in both legislative chambers would need to vote for it.
This brings us to the third problem. Democrats think, under this scenario, they'd get credit from voters for working with the president to solve problems, upping their chances of gaining seats in the 2018 midterms. But as Chait points out, that's not how public opinion operates. When good stuff happens, voters credit whoever is in the White House and, by extension, that person's party. The successful passage and resulting job creation of a stimulus measure will just encourage voters to feel like those currently in power are doing a good job and should stay there.
This gets to a real moral dilemma for the Democrats: Their $1-trillion proposal would make millions of people's lives better, but it would also reinforce public trust in Trump's entire program — including voter suppression and anti-immigrant xenophobia and incipient white nationalism.
But there might be a way for Democrats to escape this trap: Make their support for the infrastructure spending contingent on passing other legislation that directly undermines the parts of his program they abhor.
A good place to start would be national voting reform, given the blatantly racist nature of a lot of GOP voter ID laws, and the possibility they helped Trump get elected. The federal government has largely allowed states to figure out their own voting systems, but it actually has plenty of power to tell them what to do. So the Democrats could demand one uniform national system for voting. Aspects could include allowing voting by mail, a wide window for early voting, automatic voter registration, and an overhaul of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to repair the damage done by the Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby ruling. The bill could also put one national voter ID standard in place for the whole country, and pony up the funding to make sure the infrastructure is in place to give every American easy access to that ID.
The advantages of this sort of strategy would be threefold. First, realistically speaking, there's probably no way Trump and the GOP would ever agree to such an arrangement, so it would likely ensure the Democrats' bluff doesn't get called. Second, it would allow the Democrats to keep pushing for the kind of infrastructure overhaul and jobs creation the country needs without sacrificing their moral principles. And third, even if Trump truly shocks everyone and musters Republican support for this package, then Democrats will have gotten two policies they deeply crave.
Now that the party has found its courage, it needs to make abundantly clear that economic populism and an inclusive society are a package deal.