Biden’s reversion to Democratic type

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A note to readers: next week Swamp Notes will publish on Tuesday instead of Monday due to the holiday weekend.

Most journalists, including me, hate to use the word “infrastructure”. It is abstract, has four syllables and thus ought really to belong to the German language (though the word’s origin is in fact French), all of which puts off readers. The online traffic is not quite as low as when journalists write about phytosanitary standards but it’s not far off. So please indulge me.

This note is all about how Joe Biden may be messing up his infrastructure negotiations with Senate Republicans. I pick on this particular set of talks because it is turning into the test case of the type of US president Biden will be. Until a few weeks ago, people were making comparisons between Biden and Franklin Roosevelt, though I have tried to steer clear of that (here’s my Big Read on Biden’s first 100 days). Given the state of Biden’s “bipartisan infrastructure negotiations” (three words that will kill any dinner party), the more accurate analogy could be with the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. 

Here is the historic template for how post-Lyndon Johnson Democratic presidents negotiate with Senate Republicans. First, halve the size of your desired outcome so that you can commence by meeting Republicans in the middle. Second, allow Republicans to negotiate that down to a quarter. Third, watch Republicans unanimously vote against your bill regardless. Fourth, take a lot of well-deserved flak from your base for having self-emasculated on behalf of your political enemies and wasted valuable time. Fifth, congratulate yourself for being bipartisan. Finally, rinse and repeat for the next big reform. 

That’s the good version of what happens. Often, as was the case with Bill Clinton’s disastrous 1993 healthcare reform, the effort falls apart. In the case of Obamacare, the bill did finally get through. But its torturous passage followed that same broad template. I vividly recall the hot summer of 2009 that was dominated by town hall protests against the proposed Affordable Care Act. Conservative opponents accused Obama of wanting to set up death panels for the elderly (this was in the pre-herd immunity days when old people’s longevity was still a priority). He outsourced negotiations to Max Baucus, the Democratic chair of the finance committee, who earned that rare distinction of being turned into a verb — to be “Baucused” is roughly defined by the above template.

To cut a long story short, Baucus and Chuck Grassley, his Republican opposite number, wasted the whole summer reaching a compromise that was then rejected by Mitch McConnell, the then (and now) Republican leader in the Senate. Some things never change. But the talks began with Democrats having already removed the critical public option on which Obama had campaigned. 

Washington in the early summer of 2021 is beginning to feel awfully familiar. Biden’s initial infrastructure plan was $2.3tn, which is far less than it sounds when you spread it over the bill’s eight-year time horizon. By comparison, the US Society of Civil Engineers estimates America needs to spend $5.6tn over the next decade to maintain existing infrastructure.

Biden has recently come down to $1.7tn to meet Republicans a quarter of the way. Republicans have in turn upped their offer from $600bn to $928bn, which sounds like a lot until you realise that only $257bn of their proposal qualifies as new spending. The remainder comes from the existing baseline transport budget. In other words they are proposing around $30bn a year in fresh investment, which would barely repave Washington DC, let alone upgrade US roads and bridges, not to mention rural broadband. I predict that Biden will meet them at about $1.2tn, which would be just over half of his original total and render hollow much of this talk about a transformational presidency. But the outcome would be bipartisan, which would make it OK. Who could possibly be against that?

It is possible I am being too cynical. Biden’s other avenue is to ignore the Republicans and push what he originally wanted through the budget reconciliation process, assuming that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, today’s resident Baucuses, would go along. It is also possible Biden could jam the corporate tax increases to pay for this new investment into the same bill — features Republicans will not even negotiate. But the prospect is getting dimmer. The longer Republicans drag out these talks, the less time there is for Democrats to put all Biden’s other priorities — immigration reform, the voting rights bill, pro-union legislation, etc — on to the Senate floor. 

Meanwhile, Biden is also reprising other Democratic habits. Remember Obama’s decision not to inquire into CIA torture (enhanced interrogation techniques) and to show judicial forbearance to Wall Street after the 2008 financial crisis? Now think about what Biden isn’t doing about Donald Trump. Just this week, his Department of Justice appealed against a court ruling ordering the release of the memos that Bill Barr, Trump’s attorney-general, used as his basis not to prosecute the former president for obstruction of justice. Again, Biden appears to be prioritising process over substance. Let’s be honest, this is not a Washington trait — it’s a Democratic one.

Rana, do you see any sudden reversal in the narrative I’ve set out? Or are we now all prisoners of Manchin’s idea of how politics should be done? 

Recommended reading

  • My column this week points out that the US is not yet off the democracy danger list. Look at the election reforms Republicans are pushing through states they control, such as Texas, Georgia and Florida. “These are forward-looking power grabs that are as much about affecting the outcome in 2024 as placating Trump,” I write. “Some provisions would embarrass Viktor Orban’s Hungary — the original ‘illiberal democracy’.” 

  • For an example of brilliant political writing, and a wit to match Oscar Wilde’s, read Marina Hyde’s Guardian column on the Martin Bashir/Princess Diana/BBC debacle — and the entanglement of British tabloids and public culture. Then re-read it.

  • Sorry to overload Swampians with UK politics, but do also read my colleague Robert Shrimsley on this week’s epic, Shakespearean but also farcical parliamentary testimony of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s estranged former Rasputin. It is a sorry but familiar tale of how Johnson ignored Covid until it was too late. “In the end one cannot evade Cumming’s core point,” writes Robert. “This was a story of a lightweight leader and a dysfunctional system. One would be bad enough. Together they were lethal.”

Rana Foroohar responds

Wow . . . process over substance. What a choice! I have to admit I’m more optimistic in general about the Biden presidency than you seem to be Ed. While it’s true that his supposedly profligate plan seems far less ambitious when looked at over the course of eight years, it’s also important to remember that this is just one of the many battles this man is fighting right now, not only with Republicans but within his own party.

Should Democrats care more about race or class? Should we focus on reparations or antitrust actions? Can Biden forge a new alliance with Europe? Can he get China to agree to a new investigation into the origins of Covid-19? These are just the things that come immediately to mind.

Certainly Biden won’t get everything he wants, or anywhere close to it. But to me, his real success is already evident; this man is the Narrator in Chief of America. By simply putting out the ideas that he has, that we should focus on work not wealth, invest in not just bridges and highways but people, and so on, he’s changed the country. He may get less than Democrats want on specific bills. But the great pendulum shift into the post neoliberal era is happening on his watch. That’s the major achievement.

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