Democrats Shouldn’t Build Back Bitter
December 20, 2021
By Bobby Jindal in Wall Street Journal
Manchin’s ‘no’ is a chance for Biden to return to his campaign promise of bipartisan reconciliation.
Democrats blame Sen. Joe Manchin for sinking their ship by announcing he’ll oppose the Build Back Better bill. They should give him credit for saving them, and the nation, from themselves. Now that they’ve failed to bully him, they should take his concerns seriously and do the hard work of holding hearings, convincing the public, and enacting reforms one step at a time through regular order.
President Biden is to blame for their predicament. Mr. Biden won the Democratic nomination by not being Bernie Sanders, won the White House by not being Donald Trump, and promptly tried to govern as if he had a mandate for Sanders-style policies. “Nobody elected him to be FDR,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a moderate Virginia Democrat elected in 2018, said of Mr. Biden after her state’s voters trounced their party in November. “They elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.”
After promising to ease polarization by reaching across party lines, the president insisted on pushing his $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, the American Rescue Plan Act, through the reconciliation process on a party-line vote. He didn’t negotiate with the 10 Republican senators who offered to compromise. This set the stage for Build Back Better, an expansion of the welfare state that would dwarf ObamaCare. He took Mr. Manchin and other moderates for granted in an effort to appease progressives.
Mr. Manchin’s moderation serves him well in West Virginia, which Mr. Trump won by nearly 40 points, but it’s also good for Democrats. He has been consistent, clear and public with his concerns about Build Back Better, including in these pages, but Democrats assumed he’d eventually toe the party line.
Mr. Biden should change course and pursue policies with broad support. Record-breaking inflation and shortages evince the wisdom of Mr. Manchin’s counsel to slow the process so the economy can digest the Covid spending. He similarly advised Democrats to avoid making Covid unemployment benefits so generous that they’d discourage work. His concern with deficits, support for U.S. energy workers, and respect for Senate tradition make him an outlier among Democrats now. But they were mainstream positions in the party as recently as the 2010s.
Mr. Manchin refused to let progressives hold the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill hostage to the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better legislation and insisted they reduce the latter’s size. The White House claimed its revised framework would cost “only” $1.7 trillion, but it achieves “savings” through gimmicks like setting artificial expiration dates on new programs. That was good enough for the House, but Mr. Manchin saw through the deception and pointed to the Congressional Budget Office finding that the bill’s programs would add $3 trillion to the deficit over a decade if they were extended. After four years of insisting they supported political precedents and norms, Democrats ridiculed the nonpartisan CBO and offered unspecified future offsets. When a politician tells you he will pay for something tomorrow, all that means is he isn’t paying today.
Democrats can meet Mr. Manchin’s concern for the deficit and his requirement that new spending be offset. Although he is a moderate, he is no Republican. He supports increasing corporate, individual and capital-gains tax rates, though not as dramatically as progressives. He supports letting Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s narrower versions of these policies still generate substantial revenues and savings.
Democrats should endorse Mr. Manchin’s rejection of new Medicare benefits when the program already faces insolvency in 2026. If they insist on new spending, they should propose incremental subsidies to stabilize the private market instead of expanding public-health programs toward a single-payer system. They can present additional targeted ObamaCare exchange subsidies for patients with pre-existing conditions without crowding out employer-provided coverage. Instead of creating cumbersome workarounds in states that reject ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion, they could offer the poor subsidized exchange coverage delivered by private plans across the country.
Democrats should listen to Mr. Manchin, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman, when he warns about their most extreme environmental provisions. Mr. Biden’s drop in the polls, coinciding with rising gasoline prices, shows the political danger of sudden energy price spikes and shortages. They have already negotiated away harsh penalties on utility companies using fossil fuels. Mr. Manchin also wants them to change electric-vehicle incentives that discriminate against American factories with non-union employees—including a West Virginia Toyota plant.
Democrats should work with GOP Sens. Marco Rubio, Mike Lee and others willing to expand child tax credits in a way that rewards work rather than simply seeing the provision as a vehicle to reverse the work requirements and time limitations of the Clinton-era welfare reforms.
Progressive Democrats are frustrated with Mr. Manchin because they want to use the party’s slim majorities to rush through radical change, as they did with ObamaCare, even if the political backlash leaves them in the minority. They believe that their reforms would be irreversible and that society’s transformation justifies the political costs to their fellow Democrats. Progressives mostly have safe blue seats anyway. They’re less worried about losing their majority than about failing to make the most of it while it lasts.
Mr. Biden won’t adopt conservative Republican policies like entitlement reform and easing ObamaCare restrictions to make healthcare more affordable. But he might be able to persuade moderate Republicans like Sens. Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, and Bill Cassidy to endorse some more-moderate measures. Presenting policies individually would make it harder for Democrats to reward favored groups with proposals like the Civilian Climate Corps and media tax credits. But it would challenge Republicans to explain their opposition to other, popular ideas.
Progressives could scale back the legislation and declare victory. If they balk, Mr. Biden would be better off if Mr. Sanders, not Mr. Manchin, is the Democrat who says no. Attacking Build Back Better as socialist overreach will be one of the Republicans’ strongest arguments going into midterm elections.
Progressives and their media allies preached incrementalism, moderation and bipartisanship when Republicans were in control. They showed no contempt for Mr. Manchin’s principles when they led him to oppose Mr. Trump’s tax cuts in 2017. Their arguments were situational, not principled, but Mr. Manchin’s stubbornness has saved his party from its worst excesses and spared the nation more polarization.
The Honorable Bobby Jindal serves as Chair, Center for a Healthy America for the America First Policy Institute (AFPI)