Biden’s infrastructure choice: Progressives or bipartisanship?

Last week’s comedy of errors exposes rifts in Democratic Party

President Joe Biden’s flip-flop-flip on the bipartisan infrastructure deal illustrates the difficulty he faces in trying to meet progressives’ ever-growing demands while giving Democratic moderates cover, Winston writes. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden’s flip-flop-flip on the bipartisan infrastructure deal illustrates the difficulty he faces in trying to meet progressives’ ever-growing demands while giving Democratic moderates cover, Winston writes. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Posted June 30, 2021 at 6:00am

Joe Biden’s about-face on a bipartisan infrastructure agreement last week left both Republican and Democratic negotiators twisting in the wind, wondering what happened to the “unity” president they were promised.

Senate Republicans in the bipartisan infrastructure group worked in good faith to reach a deal with their centrist Democratic colleagues and the Democratic president. For once, a deal got done; and Biden joined the negotiators for a media scrum on the White House drive to celebrate, calling the $1.2 trillion agreement “a true bipartisan effort, breaking the ice that too often has kept us frozen in place.”

But, as the saying goes, the celebration was premature. Up on Capitol Hill, in the offices of Democratic leadership, the news of a bipartisan infrastructure breakthrough was about as popular as an act of war. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi reacted with a clear ultimatum. “There ain’t going to be a bipartisan bill without a reconciliation bill,” she threatened. Bernie Sanders provided some needed muscle from the progressive wing, tweeting, “Let me be clear: There will not be a bipartisan infrastructure deal without a reconciliation bill that substantially improves the lives of working families and combats the existential threat of climate change. No reconciliation bill, no deal.”

It didn’t take the White House long, a couple of hours, for a quick reset, sending Biden back out for a clarification: “If this is the only [bill] that comes to me, I’m not signing it. … It’s in tandem” with reconciliation on another $6 trillion “human infrastructure” bill, he told the press corps. Understandably, the Senate negotiators were caught off guard by his turnaround and justifiably angry.

By Saturday, with controversy raging over his apparent flip-flop, Biden changed his mind again, this time in a statement that walked back his clarification, saying, “My comments also created the impression that I was issuing a veto threat on the very plan I had just agreed, which was certainly not my intent.”

A skeptical Mitch McConnell weighed in Monday in a statement:

“Unless Leader Schumer and Speaker Pelosi walk-back their threats that they will refuse to send the president a bipartisan infrastructure bill unless they also separately pass trillions of dollars for unrelated tax hikes, wasteful spending, and Green New Deal socialism, then President Biden’s walk-back of his veto threat would be a hollow gesture.

“Republicans have been negotiating in bipartisan good faith to meet the real infrastructure needs of our nation. The President cannot let congressional Democrats hold a bipartisan bill hostage over a separate and partisan process.”

But it wasn’t just the Republicans who got burned by Biden’s inexplicable flip-flop-flip. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, Joe Manchin and other Democrats in the bipartisan group were also left twisting in the wind when Biden and, perhaps more importantly, the White House staff ran into the political reality of an evenly divided Congress. It wasn’t pretty. Biden and congressional Democratic leaders face a herculean task in trying to meet progressives’ ever-growing demands while giving cover to Democratic moderates the party needs to hold its majorities. 

Republicans do believe in infrastructure, for roads and bridges — actual infrastructure, not as a catchall term for huge increases in government spending and expansion from child care to the Green New Deal to free college. Throughout the recent discussions, the term “infrastructure” has been thrown around to describe much more than the traditional definition, which has always focused on hard targets such as roads and bridges. Republicans and Democrats in the bipartisan group went to the White House to negotiate on infrastructure, but if we learned anything from the White House’s bungling last week, it is that Democratic leaders seem hell-bent on pushing a hard-left agenda, ignoring moderate and independent voters. It’s a strategic decision that may cost them a lot more than $6 trillion.

Where the voters are

In our June 7-10 Winning the Issues survey, voters were asked their views of two key policy statements on government spending. Do you believe or not believe that “increased government spending will generate economic growth” or that “increased government spending on infrastructure, like roads and bridges, will generate economic growth?”

Overall, voters, by 36 percent to 42 percent, said they did not believe government spending would generate economic growth, reflecting the country’s center-right positioning. Republicans clearly did not believe this statement, 21 percent to 60 percent. What should concern Democrats, however, is that independents were also skeptical of the connection between spending and economic growth, 25 percent to 43 percent.

While Democrats, by 57 percent to 23 percent, believed the first statement, liberal Democrats (66 percent to 19 percent) believed in this connection much more than moderate Democrats (52 percent to 25 percent).

However, when the concept of traditional infrastructure spending is introduced, voter support went from only 36 percent believing in government spending to 50 percent believing that increased government spending on infrastructure like roads and bridges would generate economic growth.

On this statement, Republicans are neutral (39 percent to 40 percent). Independents tend to believe this more than not (45 percent to 32 percent). Not surprisingly, Democrats’ belief in the connection between infrastructure spending and growth is even stronger (65 percent to 16 percent).

The White House and congressional Democrats thought they could bring voters along by simply calling social spending programs they’ve wanted for years “infrastructure” on the front end. It is clear that there is buy-in from the electorate for reasonable government spending on true infrastructure. But contrary to what Democrats are arguing, they haven’t won over voters for their record-setting “human infrastructure” proposals offered in the name of economic growth.  

As I wrote back in April as Biden was about to give his report to Congress on his first 100 days in office, independents will decide when the honeymoon period for his presidency is over. And from data I’m seeing these days, independents are beginning to look a lot more like Republicans than Democrats on economic issues.

These voters are particularly concerned about government spending and the deficit, but they see the issue through a nonpartisan lens. Voter skepticism over Democratic tax proposals needed to fund their multitrillion-dollar wish list and the Democrats’ comedy of errors last week can only push independents further in the direction of Republicans.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as an election analyst for CBS News.