Opinion

Will Biden's infrastructure bill save the Democrats?

Why one legislative victory won't be enough to prevent a shellacking in next year's midterm elections

At long last President Biden's bipartisan infrastructure bill has passed. It happened late on Friday night, and it took a few Republicans to get it done, but it got done. The legislation has lots of important goodies in it: More than $1 trillion for roads and bridges, railroads, clean water, broadband, and more. The question now is whether all that stuff will help Democrats the next time voters go to the polls. Biden, at least, hopes so.

"They want us to deliver," the president said Saturday. "Last night we proved we can. On one big item, we delivered."

Despite the legislative victory, there is still every reason to think Democrats will take a shellacking in next year's midterm elections and lose their majorities in Congress. Last week's win by Republican Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia gubernatorial race probably is a harbinger of things to come, for three reasons:

Progressives aren't happy. GOP members had to help the infrastructure bill across the line because members of "The Squad" mostly wouldn't. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and her progressive colleagues didn't want to pass the bill without also passing the separate "Build Back Better" bill that expands the safety net with new investments in education, childcare, and health care. Some moderate Democrats pledged Friday that a vote is coming soon, but that didn't assuage the skepticism of the progressives.

Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez spent Sunday putting a damper on Biden's happy talk about the infrastructure victory. While Biden proclaimed the just-passed bill will help the United States get rid of lead pipes and deliver clean drinking water to "every kid in this country," the congresswoman shot back that the claim isn't quite true: The BBB bill, she said, contains additional money to complete the job of replacing lead pipes.

"I want to protect our party from the disappointment and collapse in turnout from communities like mine that occurs when we tell them we did things we didn't do," Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter. "We shouldn't promise all lead pipes will be fixed if that is not the case. Some will, most won't. We must push for BBB." If that bill doesn't get passed — and honestly, who knows at this point? — Dems will head into the midterm elections with a restless base of voters. That probably wouldn't be great.

Democrats are losing the "vibes war." The Atlantic's Derek Thompson last week suggested that Youngkin won Virginia in part because voters are grumpy about the economy — even though there are signs the economy is improving. "They lost a vibes war," he wrote of Democrats. "Despite many positive economic trends, Americans are feeling rotten about the state of things — and, understandably, they're blaming the party in power."

In fact, Americans are feeling rotten about the state of pretty much everything. In an NBC News poll released last week, just 25 percent of respondents said the country is on the "right track" — worse than 32 percent who felt positive at the same stage of President Obama's first term more than a decade ago. (Democrats got wiped out in those midterms, if you recall.) Most alarmingly for Democrats, voters perceive them as feckless, probably due in part to the endless congressional haggling over Biden's agenda: Voters trust Republicans at "being effective and getting things done" by a 13-point margin. Friday's passage of the infrastructure bill might start to reverse those numbers somewhat. For the moment, however, the numbers — and the vibes — aren't on their side.

Good governance doesn't always get rewarded. It's a good thing Democrats led the way in securing new money to repair bridges, roads, and railroads across the land. It's great that rural areas will have a chance to share the advantages of broadband internet that big city residents have long enjoyed. America's infrastructure has been crumbling for a long time; it's a sign of how far our expectations for Congress have fallen that doing what should've been done anyway is a major legislative victory.

But you have to wonder if voters will really notice, or give Democrats credit. Put it this way: Do you notice when the roads you travel don't have potholes? Or when the bridges you cross don't collapse? You certainly notice when something bad happens — like when a bridge shuts down and creates delays, detours, and bottlenecks along your commute. Otherwise, you simply expect government to work. Voters very notably did not reward Democrats in 2010 for passing the Affordable Care Act; they did punish Republicans in 2018 for trying to repeal ACA. The bad stuff often gets noticed more than the good.

Even if these dynamics could be waved away, the simple fact is  the party in power usually has lousy midterm elections. In the last 30 years, Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump had massive setbacks two years into their terms — only George W. Bush and the GOP avoided congressional losses in 2002, while 9/11 was still fresh in the country's mind. Democrats could do everything right and 2022 would most likely still be a tough year for them. Passing the infrastructure bill is a good thing. Democrats should keep trying to do good things while they can. But whatever they accomplish, it probably won't be enough to help them keep power in Congress.

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