Leap and the net will appear.
That’s what Joe Biden is hoping for, at least. “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week,” Biden reportedly told Democrats on Thursday.
That was behind closed doors. Sadly, Biden’s 11:30 a.m. speech to the nation on Thursday consisted largely of the same trite talking points about “working people” and the “middle class” and how rich people should “pay your fair share” (early in his remarks, he actually apologized for repeating things he’s said many times before, about the need to invest in people, by which he means spend trillions of dollars). It was no prime-time address to the American public, nor was it particularly persuasive.
It hardly matters. At this point, his play isn’t to generate a public groundswell of support but to hope progressives in the House are persuaded to save his floundering presidency by passing his agenda even if it falls short of their hopes, and then that every Democratic senator will stand behind it.
This is an act of desperation, yes, but it’s not a crazy idea. Self-imposed deadlines have not succeeded in forcing compromise, so agreeing on a scaled-down to $1.7 trillion social spending framework and putting a bipartisan infrastructure bill on the floor may be the only way to bring things to a head. And if a president speaking at the White House in front of a bunch of American flags isn’t enough to suggest passage is a fait accompli (and that wavering Democrats had better get on the bus or end up under it), I’m not sure what would.
Still, it should be noted that a framework is not a deal. And because moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema merely have to give a nod to a social spending “framework,” while progressives are being asked to vote for the bipartisan bill (thus, surrendering their leverage), it is progressives who are being asked to take a leap of faith.
This is a notable change. Heretofore, Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have not only tolerated the progressive wing’s recalcitrance and hostage-taking, but have generally enabled it. This constitutes the first time that Biden and Pelosi have effectively called their bluff. “Don’t embarrass” the president, Pelosi allegedly said to her Democratic caucus, warning she would keep the vote open and try to arm-twist and cajole until she gets enough votes.
Pelosi once infamously said Democrats had to pass Obamacare to find out what was in it. In this case, Pelosi is forcing a vote to find out if she can pass it. This defies what has become conventional wisdom among congressional leaders: the notion that you never put a bill on the floor unless you already know it’s going to pass.
Of course, Pelosi might ultimately pull the bill if she doesn’t think it would pass, but doing so would be a huge blow to her and her president—almost as embarrassing as watching the vote fail. Indeed, preserving her credibility (and exposing disloyal Democrats) might necessitate going all the way through with this.
So why now? After all, Biden has allowed this to linger and fester for months. The impetus seems to be that Biden is heading abroad to meetings he referred to as “critical” on Thursday, and wants some momentum.
As one congressman summed up Biden’s thinking, “I'm going to Rome. I want to get off that plane and disprove Putin and Xi, who say democracies can't get anything done. I'd like to have something at hand to disprove that. Translation, pass the infrastructure bill.” Whether going to Europe empty-handed was inherently emasculating, one suspects that doing so, now, would be a sign of weakness. How Biden looks to world leaders is now in the hands of House progressives, and, as Sonny told Clemenza in The Godfather, “I don't want my brother coming out of that toilet with just his dick in his hands, alright?”
The other reason for doing this now is that the Virginia gubernatorial election is happening on Tuesday, and Terry McAuliffe—who has urged Democrats to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill—is struggling to fend off a tough challenge. If McAuliffe loses, it would only become harder for Democrats to pass anything, since that might signal to Democrats facing tough elections that it’s safer politically to distance from Biden.
For these reasons, Biden may have finally reasoned that time is not on his side, and that the time to hesitate is through. Of course, the problem is that the fundamental disagreements within the Democratic caucus have not been resolved. Instead, Biden is merely ratcheting up the pressure to force holdouts to make a decision, while simultaneously urging them to be team players (and daring them to sink his presidency).
Progressives originally wanted something like $6 trillion in spending. The $3.5 trillion that has been talked about was already a huge compromise. Will they settle for $1.7 trillion that leaves out things like paid family leave?
White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain wants them to know this is “twice as big, in real dollars, as the New Deal was.” It would tackle climate change, expand the social safety net, expand universal pre-k for children, and much more.
“No one got everything they wanted, including me, but that's what compromise is, that's consensus, that's what I ran on,” Biden said on Thursday, a remark presumably aimed at the progressive votes he needs. “Compromise and consensus are the only ways to get big things done in a democracy,” he continued.
It doesn’t quite seem like the White House has its ducks in a row, as it’s calling the bill half a loaf and a rich feast at the same time.
After months of back-and-forth, it’s understandable why Biden is doing this—and maybe it’ll work out—but it’s a high-stakes game of chicken that seems to conflict with the promise of Biden being a return to normalcy. Indeed, Donald Trump was the ultimate “fake-it-till-you-make-it” showman, who famously followed the “Power of Positive Thinking” ethos.
Now, it feels like Biden is spiking the football on the 10-yard line and hoping that leads to a touchdown instead of a turnover. It’s a big bet—one he’s gambling his presidency on.