Health & Science

Unsanitized: The Democratic Policy-Smorgasbord Mistake

Democrats are talking themselves into trying to pass their entire agenda at once. There’s a far easier path.

Unsanitized: The Democratic Policy-Smorgasbord Mistake

President-elect Joe Biden meets with his coronavirus task force. (Credit:

First Response

In US politics at the moment, I’d rather be the Democrats. The Republican president has just been impeached for a second time for inciting insurrection, some far-right allies appear to have aided and abetted the effort, and the party lost the House, Senate, and presidency in one term for the first time since Herbert Hoover. The dual-impeached president is simultaneously hated by the public and beloved by the Republican base, making it difficult to regroup. Incoming House GOP freshman took all of a week to draw battle lines against one another. Corporate America is pretending to turn on the party.

Meanwhile, Democrats just unlocked the key to campaign victory in a red-ish state in the deep South with a dual strategy: multi-racial organizing and a simple, populist message based on tangible benefits. Nothing will bring in infrequent voters more than a promise they can easily understand. Now Democrats have the White House, the House, and the Senate, albeit by thin margins. Building on that success, while their opponents flail, could upend the typical logic of midterm losses for the party in power.

And they appear to be just completely ignoring these lessons, right out of the gate.

Today Joe Biden will release his COVID relief plan, and it looks like it’ll be the third major bill of this crisis, with a price tag in the trillions of dollars. I imagine I’m going to agree with almost every policy in it. But the fear is that the bill will be convoluted, the process not conducive to quick success, and the very real possibility for collapse or at least messiness inherent, when there’s a far more coherent and popular path that could further cause headaches for Republicans and notch an early win.

Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who will I believe get sworn into the Senate next week, ran on an extremely simple policy: extending the $600 emergency checks that have already been approved to $2,000. This showed actual learning on the part of the Democrats, tightening up an amorphous economic message and offering something everyone can understand.

The easiest way to capitalize on this is by just passing the $2,000 checks, which have close to 80 percent support in the country, Larry Summers’ opposition notwithstanding. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) pledged his support for a standalone checks bill to “unite” the country; I don’t know about all that, but getting a popular policy passed with broad bipartisan support sounds like exactly what Biden would want at the outset.

The bill he’s going to announce will not be a standalone checks bill. It’s going to extend unemployment insurance beyond mid-March. It’s going to find money for state and local governments to cover revenue shortfalls. It’s going to have more funds for vaccine distribution. It’ll include public school funding, with a goal of reopening them.

It’s apparently also going to include a child allowance long sought by Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), which would deliver $3,600 to every household with a child under 6 and $3,000 for households with kids between the ages of 6 and 17. This is seen as a major anti-poverty measure, even though it has a “trapezoid” shape where the poorest families get the least benefit, inexplicably.

Once you open up the bill to existing policy planks that Senators have been carrying for a long time, you’re just asking for everyone to get their favorite piece in there. And with only 50 Democratic votes, every one of them has leverage. So you see Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) talking up paid family and medical leave. You see Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) promoting full funding of the Defense Production Act and building public manufacturing capacity for essential medications, part of a 15-page memo. You see Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who will run the Budget Committee where this package could go through, seeking an emergency universal health care program.

All of these things are important, even critical. But it will be impossible to get a quick-strike victory with all of those moving parts. And it will result in another 5,000-page bill with all kinds of goodies dumped in to placate Senators. Moreover, there’s no way you get any Republican votes for something that expansive, leading you to the budget reconciliation route, which only requires the bare minimum of 50 votes.

Though everyone in the world knows this, Biden will start out seeking bipartisan support through regular order. Bipartisan support surely exists for the $2,000 checks, and maybe for vaccine funding. But a Christmas tree, Democratic-agenda-in-miniature bill is going to require reconciliation. That’s just reality. So Biden’s approach will guarantee a waste of — weeks? months? — in a futile attempt to find 10 Senate Republicans to agree to everything on the Democratic wish list. Didn’t we play this game already with the Affordable Care Act, with President Obama spending nearly a year chasing Republicans for nothing?

Once you inevitably get to reconciliation, you’re now going to use one of the only three slots available. There’s definitely an argument that a child allowance and paid family leave, building up family care and family safety net programs, is worth spending one of those three chips. But you’ll have to select what goes in and what goes out, in a haggling session with every Democratic Senator, all of whom think their one idea is the most important in the universe. Does universal pre-K get in? Climate investments? Student debt forgiveness? A public health insurance option? Federalizing Medicaid? Free community college? Guaranteed housing vouchers?

What’s more, Sanders at least is talking about offsetting some of the cost of this package through progressive taxation. That will cause yet another brawl on the Democratic side, because everyone has an idea about the perfect tax code. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who will chair the Senate Finance Committee, has a metric ton of ideas.

In some sense this is inevitable: you have a big-tent caucus where every vote is needed, and there’s going to be some horse-trading. The need exists for a big bill: look at unemployment claims pushing back up, on top of job loss last month. But smuggling in the entire Democratic agenda, immediately, in the context of a “relief” bill, seems like a recipe for disaster.

It also confuses the public. Most of these ideas are popular and Republicans should be put in the position of making a judgment on each one of them, one at a time. That begins with the checks legislation, which was a direct campaign promise. People need the help now, the Georgia senators won on it, and my belief and the belief of numerous members of the Senate is that 60 votes exist for it. So why not pass that? Why not next week (if the impeachment trial process can be managed to allow for other business)? Why not build trust among the public? If Republicans want to commit political suicide and block it, you can always go to reconciliation. But building some mega-bill gives Republicans an easy out for their opposition.

It’s not that I disagree with a single one of these policies. But the process is shaping up as a very typical Democratic mess. You won’t be able to tell anyone what’s in the bill because everything’s in it. You won’t get an early victory because there’s too much to deal with. Every day that goes by will ramp up the part of the left that eats itself, claiming nothing’s getting done because Democrats don’t want to get anything done. It seems like a slow-walk into political disaster.

And sitting out there is an alternative strategy, where Republicans have to walk the plank every other day with some popular idea, where a couple of them get through and are tangible and explainable, and where trust is built. Sadly that doesn’t look like the strategy we’ll be taking.

Number of Vaccine Doses Given

10.8 million, up from 9.94 million on Wednesday. Up to 37 percent of supply being administered.

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David Dayen

David Dayen is the author of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. Follow him on Twitter: @ddayen.