President Biden’s insistence on splitting his infrastructure package into two bills—one bipartisan, the second to be passed along party lines—is good for him but will make life complicated for congressional Democrats. Mr. Biden can get credit for trying to enact his party’s most extreme positions, while not paying the price for succeeding politically as
did in 2010.
Conservatives shouldn’t rejoice about the policy implications. By using executive action, Mr. Biden will go further left than any predecessor, but not as far as
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Sen. Bernie Sanders
demand. But when it comes to legislation, the partisan “budget reconciliation” process will force Senate Democrats to blame each other, not Mr. Biden or irrelevant Republicans. Moderates like
will save the president from his party’s excesses and absorb progressive ire for his failure to deliver.
Mr. Biden will happily defend civility, bipartisanship, “pay fors” and other process arguments unlikely to excite anyone outside Washington, rather than referee internal Democratic policy fights. His insistence on passing the first infrastructure bill with 10 Republican votes to overcome the Senate filibuster keeps more-radical policies out of the bill and focuses spending on hard infrastructure like roads and ports, which is popular with voters. Mr. Biden will still get enough green spending to appease center-left voters, but he’ll employ a rope-a-dope strategy with Mr. Sanders’s followers, allowing them to expend their energy pushing congressional Democrats while he offers mild and vague encouragement.
The stakes are high for 2022 because the margins are so narrow. Speaker
can lose only four seats and maintain her majority, yet seven House Democrats represent districts
won. Majority Leader
margin is a single senator.
Republicans have faced narrow majorities and internal divisions before. Tea-party activists were often less angry at Democrats for passing ObamaCare than at Speaker
and Senate Republican Leader
for failing to get rid of it; they grudgingly respected Democrats for using whatever means necessary to accomplish their liberal goals.
Sen. Ted Cruz
became a hero to many by encouraging the House to use the appropriations process to defund ObamaCare, a fight that angered leadership and led to a government shutdown. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives will be similarly motivated to fight with their fellow Democrats.
Mr. Biden hopes to be the first president since
George W. Bush
to pass a key part of his agenda with bipartisan support. He wants to accomplish what Presidents Obama and Trump didn’t: show that Washington can work and, more important, that he is trying. Messrs. Obama and Trump campaigned as outsiders; Mr. Biden has been a Washington insider for nearly half a century.
The president knows what his purist liberal critics don’t: The bipartisan signing ceremony is more important than the substance politically. Republican candidates will struggle to label him a socialist while he is standing with
and other establishment Republicans. Voters will give him credit for trying to compromise even if he pushes unreasonable demands.
There are limits to Mr. Biden’s willingness to play nice for the cameras. He is making several radical appointments and regulatory moves, but Mr. Obama didn’t pay a political price for seeking to nominate
as the first Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director. Democrats lost their House majority in 2010 because they insisted on passing major legislation without Republican input or support. Mr. Obama refused to reach across the aisle, secure in the knowledge he knew better.
Mr. Biden followed Mr. Obama’s example in pushing through a partisan stimulus as his first significant legislation. He takes credit for the post-Covid economic bounce and pent-up demand, like a rooster taking credit for the rising sun. But he should worry that economic growth dependent on government spending will come off its sugar high before his own re-election. Mr. Obama’s anemic economic recovery eventually helped elect Mr. Trump.
Now Mr. Biden is taking a different approach, emphasizing bipartisanship at the expense of ambitious legislative goals and letting moderate Democrats do the dirty work of blocking extreme proposals. What does that mean for 2022? Moderate Democrats in swing districts and states will earn goodwill with centrist voters by showing independence and standing up to the far left. But they may struggle with primary challenges and low turnout thanks to a dispirited base. The results are unlikely to be anywhere near as devastating for the party as 2010’s losses. But with the current narrow majorities, they don’t need to be.
Mr. Jindal served as governor of Louisiana, 2008-16, and was a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
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