Governing in dysfunction

Published October 28, 2021

By Thomas Mills

Watching Democrats govern has been frustrating to say the least. Biden seemed to start off with a bang, passing the American Rescue Plan and rolling out the vaccines quickly and efficiently. His infrastructure plan quickly garnered bipartisan support. Then, the battles over his social agenda began. We’ve spent months watching the sausage being made and it ain’t pretty. 

The communication around the plan has been abysmal. While the administration wants to call it the Build Back Better plan, the bill has been deemed “The reconciliation package.” Nobody knows what that means or what’s in it. As Bill Kristol pointed out a few weeks ago, they should have named it something like “The Universal Child Care Act” or “The Health Care Cost Reduction act,” or something that tells us what’s in it. Build Back Better may be better than The Reconciliation Bill, but not much. It’s vague and says nothing about what it does. 

Yesterday, Chris Hayes tweeted, “Throughout the primary, I would ask Democratic presidential candidates ‘what’s your priority. What’s the first bill you move.’ No one ever wanted to give a clean answer, understandably, but we’re seeing the inability to prioritize play out in real time.”

 That’s part of the problem. The Democratic Party is a big coalition of interest groups, some with overlapping interests, but all with differing priorities. Instead of having a narrow set of priorities, they have a big agenda and politicians are loath to put one group ahead of another. The result is a lot of pandering and not very much prioritizing. 

Rolling everything into one big bill seems to have been a mistake. The contents of the package are overwhelmingly popular. People want more affordable child care. They want paid family leave. They want to reduce drug prices. They want to address climate change. And they want the very wealthy to pay more taxes.

 Had they passed the individual components of the bill, the public would likely have gotten behind it more, even if certain parts didn’t survive the legislative process. Instead, they aren’t going to get credit for what they’ve done but will get blamed for anything that goes wrong. Even if it passes, they probably won’t get much benefit politically.

All of that said, it’s much easier to govern as Republicans than as Democrats. Republicans don’t want to do anything. They want to stop the government from helping people. Their top priority is cutting taxes, something almost everyone likes. While their policies may lead to wealth inequality, increased poverty, poorer access to health care, massive college debt, and low wages, those outcomes are the result of inaction and it’s still easier to do nothing than build consensus to do something. 

Besides, Democrats have to keep their large unwieldy coalition happy. If one group feels slighted, they protest Democrats and are less motivated to show up on at the next election. A quick read through the news shows various groups already losing their enthusiasm as the package gets trimmed. 

Republicans, on the other hand, have a more homogenous and less educated base of voters. They are easy to manipulate with distortions and lies. More than half of Republicans believes the election was stolen and leaders who know better won’t tell them the truth. They tend to be motivated by fear of change and perceived threats. Right now, CRT is the big bogeyman. Immigrants entering the country are almost always an animating factor. Rising crime rates are followed with ads of Black men breaking into houses. The #NCPOL twitter feed has some guy who posts arrests of Hispanic men charged with sex crimes, as if our children are about to be raped by Mexicans. It’s the politics of fear and unfortunately works well.

So, yes, I’m frustrated watching Democrats try to push through an agenda that should take years in a matter of months. Governing, though, is hard, especially when our government is so dysfunctional. It was easier when Republicans believed that government had a role in making people’s lives better. Today, they are just an obstructionist party that mainly wants to reduce government revenue and restrict rights. 

In this environment, Democrats are probably trying to do too much in too little time with too small a majority. They are currently negotiating among themselves and watching their wish list get pared down by two Senators. In the process, they’re dampening the enthusiasm for the broader Democratic agenda because too many people believe that everything needs to be done at once. If they don’t get their priority now, they won’t show up to try again in 2023. It’s pretty depressing.