Opinion

5 lessons for the left in the incredible shrinking Build Back Better bill

The bottom line is winning elections

After months of negotiation, the Democrats have achieved a $1.75 trillion framework for the Build Back Better bill. That's big, but it's nowhere near as big as the powerful progressive wing of the party had been hoping for. Several big-ticket items on the left's wishlist — including paid family and medical leave, regulations designed to phase out fossil fuels, moves to empower the government to negotiate prescription drug prices, free community college, and a wealth tax — are nowhere to be found, largely because securing crucial support from the party's most powerful centrist stalwarts, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, required it.

As Democrats decide whether to pass Biden's infrastructure bill while working on drafting final language for the reconciliation package, it's worth pausing to reflect on several lessons the left should take from this entire legislative saga.

To build better, win bigger. Everything that's transpired in Congress since the spring follows from the fact that the Democrats barely won control of Congress, despite winning the White House by a solid margin. Yes, it's important they gained control of both houses. That allows them to chair committees, control the agenda, and schedule votes. But it doesn't give them the margins, and therefore the power, to pass sweeping legislation.

By all means argue about the filibuster and other rules that stymie progressive ambitions. But in the end, if the left wants to pass a New New Deal or an agenda for a Greater Society, it will have to win massive majorities of the kind enjoyed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. Biden has nothing remotely like that.

Mobilization alone won't cut it. It's become conventional wisdom for many on the left that the key to winning elections is mobilizing greater numbers of people to vote — the presumption being that people who don't usually vote have been discouraged from participating because of a lack of genuinely progressive options. Yet recent election results don't support this. Rather, they show that plenty of normally disengaged voters end up casting ballots for Republicans when they're mobilized to show up on Election Day. The result is close to a wash. This means that if progressives want to win more elections and gain more power to do more things, they must persuade more people to reject deeply settled, skeptical views of what government can and should do in favor of a more progressive outlook.

Politics works better when parties prioritize. The name "Build Back Better" implies a focused cluster of policies designed to address pressing problems of the present — specifically, in our post-pandemic moment. (The pandemic-driven lockdown and subsequent economic downturn is what we're supposed to be building back better from.) Instead, what ended up in the Biden administration's original $3.5 trillion proposal was a grab bag of dozens of ideas various interest groups and policy wonks devised during the waning years of the Obama administration. They sat on a shelf through the Trump years and then they got swept up into this bill after the party won the White House.

That made building popular support for the bill extremely challenging, maybe impossible, on any grounds other than "let's spend a lot more money on a bunch of stuff." Progressive activists can get behind a message like that, because they're already convinced of the premise (that we aren't spending nearly enough on a long list of problems). But hardly anyone else will buy it without a compelling case being made first. And building such a case will always be easier if the list of priorities is short and focused.

Unity through enmity? The last couple of years shows that passing sizable spending bills is possible during a genuine crisis. But absent such a crisis (using the term for problems less pressing than a global pandemic doesn't work), factionalism rises. That's a problem because the electorate as a whole is so sharply and deeply divided that the Democrats need something close to unanimity on every vote and maximal enthusiasm on every candidate.

How to achieve that? The most potent answer in recent years has been: focus attention on an enemy to galvanize the party. For example, Donald Trump. You can see this playing itself out right now in the Virginia governor's race, where the persistent subtext is whether and to what extent a vote for Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin is an implicit vote for Trump. The McAuliffe campaign believes it needs to invoke Trump constantly in order to hold the party together and ensure adequate turnout next Tuesday. The question is what the party is supposed to do when, as in the months-long effort to pass the reconciliation bill, invoking Trump is too much of a stretch.

Hold your fire. The left really should resist any temptation to go full kamikaze against the current $1.75 trillion "Build Back Better" framework — or the $1 trillion infrastructure bill with which it's been paired, and which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) now hopes to get through the House as quickly as possible — on the grounds that a bill without key progressive priorities deserves to go down to defeat. What would progressives get for such principled intransigence? The answer is nothing — besides the petulant satisfaction of giving Joe Biden a couple of black eyes.

Which brings us back to the first and most crucial lesson: If the left wants to pass more progressive legislation, it needs to win more elections, which means turning more Americans into progressives. I'm personally skeptical that such an effort will be successful. But that's beside the point. Achieving bigger victories for the left at the ballot box is the only path to passing paid family and medical leave, free community college, and other priorities that have ended up on the cutting room floor this time around.

Short of that, the left simply has to take what it can get, even if it's quite a bit less than it so fervently desires.

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