Congressional Democrats have been conducting an unusual kind of negotiation over the central piece of President Biden’s agenda. As they try to write a bill that can pass both the House and the Senate, they are talking about removing some of the plan’s most popular provisions.
An overwhelming majority of Americans favor government action to reduce drug prices, but that policy may not be included in the final bill. Tax increases on the wealthy are also very popular, but it is unclear how many of them will make it, either. The same goes for a proposed expansion of Medicare to include dental, hearing and vision coverage.
It is even possible that the entire bill — which would expand pre-K, community college, Medicare, Medicaid, paid family leave, child tax credits, clean-energy programs and more, while significantly increasing taxes on people making more than $400,000 — will fail. Yet polls have consistently showed it to be popular, more so than some past Democratic priorities, like Bill Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s health care bills. And if this bill fails, Democrats are likely to enter next year’s midterm congressional elections looking divided and unable to govern.
It’s still too early to be sure about any of this. Democratic leaders may find a way to keep their party unified enough to pass a major bill, despite their narrow control of Congress. If that happens, the squabbling of recent weeks may not matter much.
But the Democratic tensions are real. This morning, we’ll explain the two big reasons that the party is struggling to pass a bill that most voters favor.
The power of lobbying
The first reason is classic interest-group politics: Well-financed, well-organized lobbying groups strongly oppose some of the bill’s major provisions.
Most Americans favor lower drug prices, but there is no powerful grass-roots group devoted to the issue. And there is a major lobbying group on the other side — PhRMA, which represents the drug industry. It has helped persuade a few Democrats to oppose a reduction in drug prices, as our colleague Margot Sanger-Katz has explained.
Another example of interest-group politics are the tax increases on the wealthy and corporations. Tax rates on the affluent are near their lowest levels in decades. To keep them there, groups representing the interests of the wealthy have enlisted some of most effective lobbyists in Washington: former members of Congress.
These lobbyists — including Heidi Heitkamp, a former North Dakota senator, and Nick Rahall, a former West Virginia congressman — have been trying to persuade other Democrats to water down or remove the tax increases, as Jonathan Chait of New York magazine has noted. Fewer tax increases in the bill leave less money for health care, schools and clean energy, which in turn has led to contentious intraparty debates over which parts of the plan should be cut. So far, Democrats have not resolved those questions.
Why are these lobbying campaigns able to succeed even when they are trying to persuade elected officials to defy public opinion? The obvious reason — campaign donations — is no doubt part of the answer. But there is also a more subtle dynamic at work, which brings us to our second major explanation.
The real median voter
In elite circles, including Capitol Hill, people often misunderstand American public opinion in a specific way. They imagine that the median voter resembles a type of political moderate who is quite common in those elite circles — somebody who is socially liberal and fiscally conservative.
Michael Bloomberg is an archetype, as are some Republican mayors and governors in blue states. Many people in professional Washington, at think tanks and elsewhere, also fall into the category.
In the rest of the country, however, this ideological combination is not so common, polls show. If anything, more Americans can accurately be described as the opposite — socially conservative and economically liberal. That’s true across racial groups, including among Black and Hispanic voters.
Most Americans are religious, for example. Most favor restrictions on both abortion and immigration. Most oppose reductions in police funding. At the same time, most Americans favor higher taxes on the rich and a higher minimum wage, as well as government actions to reduce drug prices, expand health care and create good-paying jobs.
Many centrist Democrats are aware of this reality and cast themselves as culturally moderate populists. But they can also be influenced by the elite’s misunderstanding of popular opinion. That seems to be happening right now.
To prove their moderate bona fides, some Democrats are staking out positions that conflict with public opinion. Senator Joe Manchin has signaled that he opposes expanding Medicare, and Senator Kyrsten Sinema planned a fund-raiser this week with lobbyists who oppose higher tax rates.
These moves may not be entirely irrational. Most voters do not follow politicians’ every stance. Voters instead tend to form general impressions, like: Manchin seems less liberal than most Democrats.
Opposing even popular liberal ideas can bolster that image. But it does create an odd situation. The Democratic Party has an opportunity to pass a set of policies that are popular with their base, swing voters and even some Republicans. Instead, the party may fail to do so.
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Today’s Britney Spears hearing
The conservatorship that has controlled Britney Spears’s life for the past 13 years is due back in court in Los Angeles today.
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