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Biden’s high-wire political challenge: Deliver infrastructure and please the base

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President Biden is trying to be bipartisan and partisan at the same time. It will be a neat trick if he can bring it off.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called Biden on it almost immediately. Shortly after the president’s July 1 news conference, McConnell pointed out that “less than two hours after publicly … endorsing the bipartisan agreement” on infrastructure, Biden delivered “an ultimatum on behalf of [his] left-wing base” by threatening to veto the infrastructure bill if Congress does not also deliver an even larger bill to fund “human infrastructure.” Biden was forced to backtrack, saying that a veto threat was “certainly not my intent.”

Meanwhile House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) held to the partisan line, saying, “There ain’t gonna be no bipartisan [physical infrastructure] bill unless we are going to have the reconciliation [human infrastructure ] bill.”

Biden entered politics 50 years ago, in the 1970s, when bipartisanship was more the norm. Both parties had constituencies that hardly exist anymore: liberal (mostly northeastern) Republicans and conservative (mostly southern) Democrats. Why did they disappear? Partly because we had a sequence of failed presidents who tried to govern as moderates. Each of the four presidents who preceded Ronald Reagan suffered political failure and alienated core voters on the left and the right. The result was a collapse of confidence in the political establishment.

Lyndon Johnson had to drop out of the presidential race in 1968, having alienated the antiwar left. Richard Nixon, whose foreign policy (“détente”) alienated conservatives, was forced to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal. Gerald Ford couldn’t get elected. Jimmy Carter was seen as weak and indecisive, even by liberals, and was rejected for a second term.

Enter Ronald Reagan, a hero to the right who promised strong, decisive leadership. Reagan’s great achievement was to restore faith in presidential leadership following four failed presidents in a row. Reagan served two full terms and got his vice president elected after him. That vice president, George H.W. Bush, tried to return the country to moderate leadership (“kinder, gentler”), but he, too, was rejected by the voters.

Republicans after Reagan moved decisively to the right, while liberals have gradually gained ascendancy over the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton fashioned himself a “New Democrat” and a believer in the “third way.” Clinton’s major domestic policies were passed with Republican support — welfare reform, financial deregulation, a balanced budget, the crime bill, free trade. What made Clinton a hero to the left, and anathema to the right, were his values: He was the first president who embraced the liberal cultural values of the 1960s (“sex, drugs and rock and roll”). Clinton’s values, not his policies, were what got him impeached.

Barack Obama, too, made a claim to bipartisanship. He said in 2004, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America.” Nevertheless, the nation’s first Black president became a hero to liberals. Obama’s signature policy, the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010 without a single Republican vote.

Donald Trump had no interest in moderation or bipartisanship. Trump led the takeover of the Republican Party by the radical right. A congressman once told me, “In politics, you have to have a base. Your base is the people who are with you when you’re wrong.” Donald Trump was wrong on just about everything, but his base stuck with him — and still does — because he delivered for them.

The question hovering over President Biden is not just whether he can deliver for the country. It’s also whether he can deliver for his progressive base.

The bipartisan American Jobs Plan, aimed at rebuilding the nation’s physical infrastructure, is a public works plan. It delivers benefits that people can’t provide for themselves — things like roads, bridges and a good environment. “Infrastructure is different,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said, “Were not talking about health care or taxes. We’re talking about something where there’s broad public support.”

The American Families Plan, on the other hand, is a social welfare plan. It provides benefits based on need and is paid for by taxes based on wealth. It’s more ideological and partisan and is keyed to the progressive base. Democrats are pushing to pass the American Families Plan with Democratic votes only, by using the “reconciliation process” in the Senate that avoids a filibuster.

Progressive Democrats are threatening to oppose the infrastructure plan if it is not accompanied by the reconciliation plan. “That is a mistake, in my view,” President Biden said. Conservative Republicans are threatening to oppose the infrastructure plan if it means allowing the passage of the reconciliation plan. “That is also a mistake, in my view,” Biden said.

In Biden’s view, “The heart of democracy requires consensus.” That consensus exists. Both plans got over 60 percent support in a June Monmouth University poll. The test will be whether the consensus is strong enough to withstand the tide of ideological and partisan polarization that has come to dominate modern politics.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

Tags American Families Plan american jobs plan Barack Obama Biden infrastructure plan Bill Clinton Democratic Party Donald Trump Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Politics of the United States Presidency of Joe Biden Progressive wing Rob Portman

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