What if America doesn’t want to ‘Build Back Better’?

18 October 2021

4:36 PM

18 October 2021

4:36 PM

We begin today with the reigning alpha of the self-celebrated political super-staffers. Enter Ron Klain, President Joe Biden’s chief of staff, who is a polymath in the D.C. sense that he has both a job and a Twitter account. Klain last week made news when he endorsed a tweet that dismissed our current bout of inflation as a mere problem for the “high class.”

Cut to Jeff Bezos weeping at the grocery store: “I can’t possibly afford any of this!!!”

Klain, according to a New York Times profile, is neighbors with Chief Justice John Roberts and lists Twitter as a “hobby,” so you can tell he’s the well-adjusted sort. His powerful position at the White House has reportedly earned him the cackle-inducing nickname of “Prime Minister,” though with this latest dispatch he comes off more as the Lord North of the class war. If only his retweet was just an ill-advised bit of trolling. A “high class problem” is how the Biden administration views inflation, which is to say indifferently, even as polls find it’s unsettling the vast majority of Americans.

Why did Klain let the (increasingly unaffordable) cat out of the bag? In part, it seems, as a tortured attempt to argue that it could be worse, that we wouldn’t have inflation if unemployment were higher. Also because Democrats tend to myoclonically wave away anything they don’t care about as being “of the rich.” But the biggest reason is simply ideology. The Biden administration is off on the rowdiest spending binge in American history. And inflation is a de facto check on government largesse, the last thing they want to hear about right now.

At stake is the president’s Build Back Better agenda, or BBB, which is what our credit rating will be downgraded to if we pass this thing. The $3.5 trillion bonanza — far more when you factor in other Biden proposals — has thankfully been snarled by two Democratic senators. And who can even tell why anymore? Joe Manchin inked a secret deal with Chuck Schumer? Kyrsten Sinema is fanning hostilities for the sake of the fight club she’s starting in the Capitol basement? All we know for sure is that they’re the only thing standing between us and total fiscal dipsomania.

Honorable mentions, of course, go to the progressive reps, who are frustrating the moderates by demanding all these trillions be swallowed in one big hyperinflationary gulp. Yet legislative gridlock isn’t the only culprit here. Lost amid the difficulties of trying to both woo Sinema and Manchin and excommunicate them from polite society at the same time is this key political influencer: the American people. A recent poll by I&I/TIPP found that the Biden plan is now opposed not just by Republicans but by independents, whom the Democrats badly need to win next November.

That’s all the more interesting when you consider there’s no Tea Party, no mass mobilization against enormous budgets, no phones melting down on the Hill. Glenn Beck’s old war room might have been converted into a microbrewery or whatever, yet a healthy share of the public is still skeptical of a government giveaway during a bad economy. It’s enough to make Politico wryly observe, “Democrats thought giving voters cash was the key to success. So what happened?” What indeed? Can it be that the plebs have figured out the difference between an investment and a social engineering scheme? Can it be that they’re even worried about the national debt?

As every economic populist in America bursts into flames, I’d like to entertain another possibility: the policy doesn’t match the moment. It isn’t just that voters aren’t all that keen on the BBB’s contents: universal pre-K, anti-fossil fuel initiatives, more anti-fossil fuel initiatives. It’s that government expenditure writ large doesn’t seem like what their lives need right now. What do they want? How about an end to COVID, a full reopening of the economy, no more masks in schools, no more capacity rules at restaurants, functional supply chains, Christmas presents on the shelves, affordable gas for holiday travels? In other words, a return to normal, the unspoken mandate on which Biden was elected?

Instead they’re getting something called a “civilian climate corps” along with a heaping dollop of inflation. And how very “high class” of them to complain about it.

If you want a sense of how emotionally invested in the BBB the left has become, consider that Biden himself has illiterately argued that his legislation will somehow reduce inflation. Or that a writer at the American Prospect recently screamed of the Manchin/progressive negotiations, “This is literally the plot of Sophie’s Choice!” It is not. The real choice here is between economic rationality and ideological indulgence. And while the pull of the latter is strong, thanks in small part to an unwitting assist from our right honorable friend the Prime Minister, the former may yet win out.

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