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Gene Lyons: Democrats couldn't sell water in a desert

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Gene Lyons

As the nation’s political press obsess over the fate of the administration’s Build Back Better proposal, nothing less than the ultimate success or failure of Joe Biden’s presidency is said to be at stake. And yet here’s the great paradox: Taken separately, the elements of the Democrats’ social spending proposals poll extremely well.

According to a recent CBS News poll, support for federal funding to reduce prescription drug prices is favored by 88% of American voters. Adding Medicare coverage of dental, vision and hearing polls at 84%. Another 73% back expanding paid family and medical leave. Sixty-seven percent think that universal pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds is a good idea.

Similarly, more than two-thirds of voters support tax increases on corporations and high-income individuals to pay for these reforms.

And yet, only 10% of Americans — 10%! — know that all of these elements are major parts of the Build Back Better bill Democrats have been haggling over for months. (It also includes free community college tuition, a $3,600 tax credit for each child under 6, a $3,000 credit for kids between 7 and 18, and enhanced child nutrition programs.)

Only 36% believe the bill’s passage would be good for their families, while another one-third believe they’d be hurt. A bit more than half want the Biden initiative to pass.

What Americans do know, partly because of the news media’s relentless focus on the bottom line, is the White House bill’s proposed $3.5 trillion cost. Most appear only dimly aware that’s a 10-year projection. In short, the voting public is at best lukewarm over Biden’s signature issue.

No wonder the bill’s on life support, along with, allegedly, the Biden presidency itself. No wonder, too, that the president’s overall approval numbers are seen as anemic — although recent polls from CNN and Fox News placed his favorability at 50%, higher than his predecessor ever achieved.

CNN, for its part, has downplayed its own favorable numbers. Correspondents cherry-pick weaker poll results to keep Wolf Blitzer fully apprised of Washington insider conventional wisdom.

And how has it come to this? Partly, it’s the habitual ignorance and inattention of the American public. People have only a vague idea of what they want, and no idea how to get it.

Partly, too, it’s the fault of congressional Republicans and the accursed Senate filibuster — so determined to wage political war against a Democratic president that the administration was forced to combine its entire legislative agenda into a single, one-size-fits-all reconciliation bill to have any chance of passing. (Reconciliation bills can’t be filibustered.)

Under “normal” political conditions, which we may never see again, Democrats could have passed a trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure plan rebuilding roads, bridges, water and sewer lines, and high-speed internet, and then considered the component parts of the Build Back Better plan one or two at a time — Medicare improvements in one bill, child tax credits in another, etc.

Instead, they decided that Mitch McConnell’s determination to prevent any and all Democratic bills from coming to a Senate vote made bundling them into a single reconciliation bill the only way to pass anything.

The Biden White House agreed.

Media critic Eric Boehlert blames the Beltway news media for failing to enlighten the public. Writing on his Press Run website, Boehlert argues that “as Democrats work to pass both a huge infrastructure bill and even bigger social spending bill, dubbed Build Back Better, the Beltway press continues to do a great job ignoring the contents of the historic effort. Focusing instead on its cost and obsessively documenting the vote-counting process, the press has walked away from its job of explaining legislation.”

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne agrees, writing, “the relentless focus on the single number of $3.5 trillion has left most Americans clueless about what Biden wants to do.”

Up to a point, I agree. Also with Dionne’s larger point that the Democratic party “needs to spend less time on cultural issues and more on fighting for direct benefits to the working and middle classes, a cause that unites voters across racial and regional lines.”

But the real fault here isn’t with the news media; it’s with the White House’s inexplicable failure to sell its plan. People don’t know what’s in the Build Back Better plan mainly because President Biden hasn’t told them — simply, clearly and repeatedly. If you want the public to understand the legislation, you’ve got to tell them you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then remind them you told them. Over and over until it sinks in.

But the bully pulpit has been vacant. It’s incredible that Democrats have gotten suckered into talking about nothing but the 10-year price tag — as if $3.5 trillion were even comprehensible to people. It’s as tone-deaf and self-destructive as “Defund the Police.”

To succeed, Democrats will first need to get out of their own way.


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