Build Back Better is a Bust

Good Sunday morning. It’s the week before Christmas, so let’s enjoy the best holiday song ever recorded. In my humble view, that’d be Mel Torme’s swingin’ version of Good King Wenceslas.

And, just like that, it’s over. We’ve got some breaking news today. Sen. Joe Manchin has, apparently, just driven a stake into the heart of Pres. Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation. Manchin said on Fox News Sunday that he won’t support the bill. It sounds like he’s shutting the door to even a much scaled back version.

Well, that’s disappointing, but it’s not the end of the world and, at this point, it’s probably for the best. I’ve written more than once in this space that I supported the bill, even the full bore $3.5 trillion original package. But, frankly, it was always going to be a tough sell.

The fundamental problem is that the Democrats never had a mandate to remake the country on a scale that matched the New Deal or the Great Society. Here is how the New Deal, Great Society and Build Back Better congresses stacked up:

HouseSenate+Dems
1933313-11759-36219
1965295-14068-32191
2021222-21250-5010

It’s apparent from just a glance at the numbers that the Democrats had a mandate for nothing, except maybe a return to a little normalcy. In a word, they over-reached and now they’ve paid the price.

Manchin may have done his party a favor in two ways.

First, his given reason for killing the bill is a concern about inflation. It’s debatable if he’s right about that on the merits. Even moderate Democratic economist Larry Summers has said he didn’t think it would fuel much more inflation. But there’s no question that inflation and COVID are the top issues for most Americans. By bringing inflation to the fore, Manchin is forcefully reminding his party what matters most to voters. They’d best pay attention.

Joe Manchin has stopped the bleeding.

And second, now that Manchin has brought his party back down to reality, they might do two useful things. They might focus on what they’ve already accomplished — namely, an infrastructure bill of historic proportions that will yield tangible benefits to voters by next fall. And they might start to play small ball, as Bill Clinton did after getting his back end handed to him by Republicans in 1994. Clinton did the little stuff so well that he easily won reelection in 1996.

One of those small things isn’t so small. Keep in mind that with Manchin still in the fold, Biden has accomplished another very significant thing in addition to infrastructure: 40 of his federal judge nominees have been approved so far. That compares to 18 for Trump in his first year and only 12 for Obama. There’s no reason that the Dems can’t keep rolling through those, with significant impacts for decades to come from all those lifetime appointments.

Also, now with the pieces of Build Back Better splattered all over the floor, Biden might sift through them and see what he can salvage on an individual basis. Maybe he can get a scaled back extension of the popular child tax credit. Maybe he can get an increase in the COPS program to help local governments hire more police officers.

But most importantly, Manchin has now stopped the bleeding. Had he not acted, we’d have more months of Democratic handwringing over the big bill, all of which would have just underscored Democratic dysfunction and kept sending the message that the party wanted to spend a lot of money in an era of high inflation. Now that’s over.

Biden and his razor thin Democratic majorities already have significant accomplishments — infrastructure and federal judgeships chief among them. There is still more they can get done while they keep their majorities — but only if they also keep Joe Manchin — for another year.

The big bill is dead. Okay. Long live incrementalism.

Welcome to the 304th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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