The greatest trick Mitch McConnell ever pulled was convincing the country he didn’t exist.
The GOP’s spectacular vanishing act has left Democrats to fight amongst themselves as they struggle to govern a global superpower hamstrung by historic levels of Republican obstruction. The result has been disastrous for the nation—and Christmas every day for the Senate minority leader, who is watching with glee as Democratic lawmakers clash and Joe Biden’s ambitious agenda narrows to a pinprick.
If Democrats want to salvage their midterm election hopes after months of bruising Hill battles, they’ll need to settle for what is a far smaller but still historic Build Back Better deal—something that appeared more likely after Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal told reporters Thursday evening that she expects the House to pass that, along with the bipartisan infrastructure bill in the next week. This isn’t done yet, but progressives look like they’re ready to settle for half a loaf and a bill half the size of the one they wanted.
If both bills then make their way past Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to become law, Democrats will need to spend every day until polls close next November forcing Republicans to explain why they wanted to kill some of the most popular domestic policies in a generation.
The GOP’s total withdrawal from representative government has worked like a charm so far. McConnell understands on a fundamental level that America’s political media is motion-activated. If Republican lawmakers sit on their hands and refuse to provide any fuel for cable-news fires, the McConnell theory goes, media outlets will quickly tighten their focus on the Democrats actually involved in the messy work of crafting laws. That lets Republicans off the hook for any shared obligation to keep the world’s pre-eminent superpower functioning.
And reader, that is exactly what’s happened.
Fortunately for Democrats, there’s still plenty of time until Election Day 2022 to hold Republicans accountable for their abdication of duty. And that’s built in part on the frustrating reality that most Americans have no idea what’s happening on Capitol Hill.
Most Americans simply don’t follow politics as closely as the Always Online Twitterati, or even people likely to be reading an article like this. And as shocking as it might seem to people who are, many Americans still haven’t heard anything but the vaguest discussion of Biden’s signature spending deal. Only about 10 percent of Americans say they know “a lot of the specifics” about the plan. Almost 30 percent have no idea what’s in it at all. The months of political drama as Congress tossed around numbers like $6 trillion? Lost on millions of Americans who were busy working, or taking care of children, or getting really into Peloton.
Those Americans missed most of the drama, but they’ll still feel the massive positive uplift that Biden’s nearly $3 trillion in domestic spending will bring over the next decade. The original Child Tax Credit cut child poverty by nearly half after its introduction, making it one of the most effective child anti-poverty measures in American history.
Under Biden and Democrats, that credit expands to $3,600 and remains free from obstacles like Manchin’s fetishized-but-ineffective work requirements. That’s huge both as policy—that the tax credit works is beyond argument even from most Republicans—and as politics, where over seven in 10 Democrats and nearly a third of Republicans support the credit.
What’s indefensible is that Democrats have allowed Republicans to avoid any serious blowback for their lockstep refusal to support massively popular policies like the Child Tax Credit or rolling out universal pre-kindergarten to every 3- and 4-year-old in America—something supported by 73 percent of Republican voters.
Standing behind good policy is more than just a polling argument. Sure, solid numbers make it easier to do a good thing like expanding early childcare programs to futureproof our economy. But our leaders should be doing these things because they work, and because they are right. By opting out of government, Republicans have essentially cowed the media into treating them as Capitol Hill’s invisible men. Democrats need to force them to account for their insidious inaction.
Follow Utah’s Mitt Romney around Capitol Hill and you’ll see eye-wateringly sugary coverage of him visiting a Halloween-themed dog costume party or dressing up as Ted Lasso with his bestie Kyrsten Sinema. You won’t find Chuck Todd holding Romney’s feet to the fire over his opposition to universal pre-K when nearly 50,000 young Utahns lack access to a quality preschool.
Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn, a Fox News regular who will happily tout COVID-19 conspiracy theories, isn’t interested in explaining her red-line opposition to providing even a dollar of additional Medicare or Medicaid funding for dental or vision care. Maybe that’s because in Tennessee, nearly a fifth of residents say they have serious dental problems but lack the coverage to get necessary care. Democrats need to make her explain.
Voters can’t be expected to know their Republican representatives are screwing them. Who has been telling them? Certainly not the Republicans, who proved after the COVID-19 stimulus vote in March that they will simply claim credit for Biden spending bills they actively fought to kill. It’s up to Democrats to take their message into red states and red districts, and make clear that Republicans were happy to keep Americans suffering.
Rarely in history have Democrats been handed the winning issue they now control. Majorities and in some cases supermajorities of Americans support the core elements of Biden’s Build Back Better plan. If DNC Chair Jaime Harrison was looking for a tailor-made advertising campaign, he could hardly do better than telling Iowans and Michiganders and Floridians exactly how many life-improving benefits their GOP legislators nearly stole from them.
“The agenda that’s in these bills is what 81 million Americans voted for,” Biden said from the White House on Thursday. “More people voted than at any time in American history. That’s what they voted for. Their voices deserve to be heard, not denied—or worse, ignored.”
If Biden and Democrats want to drive that message home, they’ll need to get these bills made into laws and then get on the road and on the airwaves to draw a bright line between the GOP’s refusal to govern and the very real ways that inaction hurts every single American and those they love.
The Build Back Better plan Democrats will soon pass is a smaller, weaker version of its more ambitious protolith. But it does many good and consequential things that will doubtlessly help hundreds of millions of people. Now Democrats must make Republicans explain why they didn’t care about their voters enough to help.