Democrats are quietly preparing for life after Build Back Better.
With little progress on Joe Biden’s signature legislation, elected officials and operatives from across the president’s party are busy plotting how to run midterm campaigns without the benefit of a bill to bolster the social safety net and make generational investments to address climate change.
It’s far from the ideal position. And party leaders and campaign strategists are holding out hope that the White House may still be able to revive nascent talks around the initiative to at least salvage some popular elements. But in interviews with nearly two dozen Democrats involved in the upcoming election, there is an increasing sense that political inertia may well win out and that their party will be forced to radically adapt its core pitch to voters.
“I don’t think any of us are expecting anything else to pass,” said Colin Strother, a Democratic operative and veteran of House campaigns in Texas. Strother said the party in Washington has “underwhelmed, underachieved and undersold” it’s successes so far. “It has left our opponents emboldened, or supporters dejected and our prospects for 2022 dim if not dark. So we have a lot of work to do to dig out of this … We better have some golden fuckin’ shovels.”
Democrats gambled that the public would reward them for moving quickly on the Build Back Better agenda. Many individual items enjoy strong support from the public, including proposals to slash health insurance premiums and extend an ambitious expansion of the child tax credit, which was already being framed as a tax cut for the middle class. Perhaps the most potent element, people close to the White House argue, would be Democrats’ ability to torch Republicans for shielding corporations from paying higher taxes to help fund the plans.
But their ambitions came to an abrupt skid late last year, when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced he couldn’t support the latest iteration of the bill. With the legislation faltering and the White House pivoting to voting rights, campaigns are sketching out narrative arcs around their earlier achievements and how Republicans thwarted more progress. Stan Greenberg, the veteran Democratic pollster, stressed that losing the major bill could significantly increase the difficulty for Biden’s party in an already challenging political environment.
“It becomes much harder if you’re talking about what Republicans cut off rather than what you’ve delivered,” said Greenberg, one of the few officials POLITICO spoke with who still believes Democrats could pass something — even a slimmed down social spending bill — through Congress in the next few months. “If this thing just goes away, you really do have a very different definition of the election,” he said.
White House officials insist they are far from giving up on passing the sweeping climate and social spending package, and say that talks continue between staff and and a wide range of key lawmakers.“Every major economic bill we’ve passed, like the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure law, has seen ups and downs and required doing the work while tuning out noise,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said.
On Thursday evening, Biden himself hosted Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the centrist Democrats who are stalling his domestic agenda, primarily to discuss voting rights measures. But consternation over even more gridlock is already taking hold on Capitol Hill, where for months Democrats have been frustrated with their colleagues for standing in the way.
“We need to be working on Plan B right now and Plan B would be what do we do if the Build Back Better falls apart completely,” said Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), who represents a battleground district and is urging Democrats to focus on legislation that could emerge from the larger package, mentioning health care and home health care as starting points. “I don’t want to see us get into a situation where we are trying to advance individual bills that, quite frankly, don’t have any chance of success. That’s the same thing as knocking your head against the wall.”
Democrats overseeing House races across the country said while officials would continue to tout their push for Build Back Better in the short term, they expected to soon transition more fully to a focus on what they’ve delivered. They plan to lean into the passage of a massive infrastructure bill and the Covid-relief package, framing it as helping rescue the economy from the depths of the pandemic.
“We have to take this administration’s accomplishment and make sure the American people see, hear and feel them. We can’t dwell on what we haven’t gotten done,” said Bradley Beychok, co-founder and a senior adviser to the Democratic super PAC American Bridge. “If we do, we’re going to have a very tough midterms.”
The prep work being done for a campaign season without the passage of BBB on the ballot is the latest indication that Democrats believe the legislative effort may never get back on track. It also underscores how little time is left for Democrats to make their sales pitch to voters. There is fear among Democrats that they have to start touting their victories before voters’ views on Biden and the Congress begin to truly harden.
In Nevada, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is rolling out a reelection effort that party officials there say will largely remain intact regardless of what happens with the climate and domestic spending bill. The senator plans to focus extensively on Democrats’ work to revive the economy, reverse high unemployment during Covid and protect the state’s travel and tourism industry. On the infrastructure front, she’s pointing to nuts-and-bolts actions such as securing money for a water recycling plant to fight drought that serves hundreds of thousands of people in Southern Nevada.
“There is so much that can be promoted locally that we have to get to work doing. It’s started, but it can be for an entire year,” said Martha McKenna, the Democratic admaker, referring to all the projects that will receive funding from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed last fall. “We should be able to have press events and draw attention to [the bill], both from a physical infrastructure point of view, but also in terms of creating jobs.”
In Arizona, Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly is trying to tout his bipartisan credentials by pointing to spending on infrastructure, wildfires and water in his state, along with scores of bills he’s written and co-sponsored along with Republicans. Kelly also is focusing on vaccinations, donning a face shield to give his constituents the jab.
But that more localized focus could end up being overshadowed by a resurgent Covid-19 pandemic, rising costs on groceries and goods, stubborn malaise over the direction of the country, and historical trends that strongly disadvantage the party in power. And others see early signs of possible trouble even if prices fall and the virus stops spreading so fast — that Americans are feeling snake bitten by last summer’s surge and aren’t fully convinced things won’t go south again.
A high-profile failure to pass Build Back Better— alongside an inability to move voting rights and police reform legislation — could further depress Democratic voters who generally lose confidence in the president at a time when he desperately needs them to turn out.
Asked if his party would face negative consequences in the election if key provisions of the climate and social spending bill don’t pass, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Democrats would have to craft “a strong message for the voters” regardless. Fingering sustained Republican intransigence to most of Biden’s agenda, Durbin allowed that Democrats would simply have to play their strongest hand come fall.
“We’re not going to be able to deliver everything we wanted,” Durbin said.
The scuttling of Build Back Better could also complicate the administration’s efforts to combat inflation, if one is to believe their own arguments. For months, Biden and top White House officials have pointed to economists who argue that Build Back Better would help reduce inflation — not heighten it — as skeptics, including Manchin, have contended.
On the other hand, the administration’s accelerated steps to address inflation are bumping up against overwhelming doubts among voters that are surfacing in Democratic polls and focus groups for House and Senate races that the government is best suited to alleviate the price surges.
That is leading some in the party to conclude that should Democrats pass a scaled down, targeted version of the climate and spending bill, they may ultimately have Manchin to thank for boiling it down to the most popular elements.
Absent that push materializing in earnest, there’s now more impetus to focus on infrastructure and upbeat pocketbook matters such as growing jobs and wages, said Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic pollster.
“There’s plenty of accomplishments to talk about,” he said. “From a congressional perspective in particular, we need to have an economic argument to the voters that says we have made a difference and that we can make a difference in their lives.
“Build Back Better would be nice — it would be nice to talk about a number of things that are in there,” Pollock added. “Nice, but not necessary for being successful.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.