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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Give 'em something to hate

by John Brummett | September 21, 2021 at 5:05 a.m.

Back in the days when Democrats could do big things, by which I mean the 1930s and 1960s, presidents going by FDR and LBJ championed grand concepts known as the New Deal and the Great Society.

They enacted broad programs through separate pieces of legislation passed individually over extended periods of time.

Now comes Joe Biden to seek to join their number by stringing himself out on a singular but vast concept known only by the catchy name of "$3.5 trillion spending bill."

His program exists not with separate components, but in a still-developing mammoth mound of a lone bill.

All it would do, among other things, is reform immigration, expand Medicare to include dental coverage, expand Medicaid in the states that have rejected it, pour money into home health care, create universal free pre-kindergarten programs and community-college education, address climate change and raise taxes on individual incomes higher than $400,000 a year as well as on corporations and capital gains while pouring billions into IRS enforcement presumably to catch people evading taxes.

The New York Times published a piece over the weekend suggesting Biden's entire presidency was gummed up in this single-bill tonnage that was at risk of collapsing under its own weight.

Biden's play for history is in the form of a consolidated wish list that he and the Democratic congressional leadership intend to move to pass soon by a budget maneuver called reconciliation requiring only a simple majority. They couldn't possibly get a single Republican senator to vote for the $3.5 trillion solution, much less 10 to break a filibuster.

And they may fail to get even their own 50 votes, considering that two Democratic senators--Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema--think $3.5 trillion is not what they want to brag about to their voters in West Virginia and Arizona.

Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer fear a lethal loss of motivation in the leftist base if they don't lather all the $3.5 trillion at once. They think the threat of losing in the midterms provides all the more reason to strike now when they can.

More pragmatic Democrats, tending to come from swing districts, believe that asking them to run for re-election on the big number of $3.5 trillion is a good way to hand Congress back to McConnell of the less-crazed Republican wing and Kevin McCarthy of the full-crazed coalition.

To belabor a recent theme of this space as well as the obvious, pragmatists have the stronger political argument in the national context.

In cancerous contemporary American politics, everything hinges not on what people favor, but on the stronger passion of what they deplore.

Biden won the presidency because Americans deplored Trump. Democrats lost seats in the House among the same voters because Americans deplored Pelosi and progressives to her left.

Consider the California recall vote. Three weeks out, Democratic governor Gavin Newsom appeared in trouble even in that Democratic state because Democratic voters were apathetic, disengaged from the need to stand up for him. But then the scare went out that there was something abhorrent to oppose--a rabid-right radio host who might get the governorship on a tiny plurality and stand to destroy the tenuous Democratic U.S. Senate majority if a vacancy should occur in that state's delegation over the next few months.

With something to fear and abhor, Democrats sped to the polls to retain by a landslide a governor they weren't crazy about.

The cause of rallying for Newsom had presented close polls. The cause of rallying against GOP extremism produced a rout election night.

If contemporary left-wing Democrats had the good tactical sense to break the $3.5 trillion into several bills, and to move on those bills in ascending order of difficulty--to get a runner on base rather than swing for the fence--they could be trying to add dental coverage to Medicare.

Republicans would have but one tame entrée--dental coverage on Medicare--on the scare-tactic buffet. They much prefer what they're getting--a vast $3.5-trillion brunch being served by Democrats as if in a Vegas casino.

Then, if successful in the midterms, Biden and the Democrats could begin to move up the ladder of difficulty into other potentially popular elements.

I might have said the second step should be universal pre-K until Little Rock voters crushed that last week.

Most likely, though, Little Rock voters rejected Mayor Frank Scott's tax plan not primarily because of any individual component, but because, in its breadth, it gave people too many chances to abhor something.

In these early 2020s, Democrats need the "Hate Us Less Than You Hate them Deal" or the "Getting a Little Better Society."

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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