From his candidacy announcement in 2015 until the last months of his dismal presidency, Donald Trump supported big infrastructure plans — in theory. In fact, as the pandemic took root, he argued that, with interest rates low and investors looking for safe places to park their money, the time was right for a $2 trillion investment in infrastructure upgrades.
But, as with so much else in the Trump rhetorical armory, the hotel-developer-cum-politician’s talk about infrastructure was all bark and no bite. In practice, while he did succeed in securing passage of a budget-busting tax-cut bill, he never moved major legislation on infrastructure investments, and when he got close to doing so in 2019 and again in 2020, his own party’s congressional leadership swiftly put the kibosh on the plan.
Truth be told, though, it wasn’t just the party leadership. While rank-and-file GOP senators and congressmembers seeking to demonstrate their unwavering fealty to Trump were quick to do policy U-turns away from decades-old GOP priorities on free trade, immigration, foreign policy, international alliances and a host of other issues, they remained stubbornly opposed to “big government” infrastructure spending, even though this was arguably the one issue where a Trump proposal may have realistically served the interests of working-class people.
Instead, throughout the spring of 2020, one GOP senator after another dismissed the idea of a big infrastructure bill, leaving Trump once again without a congressional majority to pass yet another signature legislative package. Robbed of political support in a Mitch McConnell-dominated Senate, with a caucus still wedded to conservative theorist Grover Norquist’s notorious ideas about shrinking government down the level it could be strangled in a bathtub, Trump never had a realistic chance of bringing his proposals to a floor vote.
Now, however, the Democrats are in charge in both houses and control the presidency, and Biden is making a full-court press for what he calls a once-in-a-generation set of investments in the U.S. If passed, his $3 trillion plan will kickstart eight years of huge investments in everything from green technology to high-end public transport, and will be paid for by 15 years of increased taxes on the wealthy and on corporations.
This ought to be at the very least a plausible starting point for negotiations for the GOP, since a party that is wedded to Trump and Trumpism ought, in theory, to have some tolerance for infrastructure spending. Yet now that the GOP finally has a chance to vote on much-needed infrastructure improvements they are, as a bloc, uniformly opposed to the concept. After all, why lend support to a set of ambitious projects that, if they succeed, would likely shore up public support for the Democratic Party for years, possibly even decades?
Indeed, McConnell, aware of the political calculus in play here, has pledged that not a single GOP senator will vote for the plan. For now at least, that blockade looks likely to hold.
Fifty years after Reagan averred the government was the problem, not the solution, it’s a fair conclusion that the “business-as-usual” wing of the GOP is rigidly opposed to big government projects that go beyond military and national security expenditures, even when those projects are vital to shoring up a crumbling U.S. infrastructure, and to building an economy that competes globally and protects the environment in the 21st century. The party claims to want both tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and also infrastructure investments — a sort of “have your cake and eat it too” wish list. In fact, however, it has become clear that it’s only the tax cuts (and the pandering to wealthy donors that these cuts embody) that really energize Republican legislators.
There is enormous public support for the constituent parts of Biden’s plan. But, McConnell has read the small print in recent opinion polling on the issue, and he is all too aware that this support fades when it is presented as “Biden’s infrastructure plan.” Frame it this way, and most GOP supporters and many independents cease to express confidence in the proposal. McConnell is betting he can score more electoral wins in 2022’s midterms by trying to sabotage the infrastructure efforts rather than working to fine-tune them.
Renowned linguist George Lakoff has written extensively in recent years about how the GOP has ceased to care much about governing effectively, becoming instead a party that powerfully (and successfully) tailors its linguistic presentations to scare its supporters into opposing anything and everything constructive that emerges from the Democratic Party. Hence the wall of opposition to the latest nearly $2 trillion COVID-relief package, and the subsequent argument that because the Democrats passed it with no GOP support, it was therefore a “partisan” power grab.
In contrast, McConnell and other GOP leaders have argued, the previous two relief packages were bipartisan. Hidden in that disingenuous argument is a simple truth: The previous two packages were only bipartisan because the Democrats were willing to give up some of their priorities in a divided Congress to come to the table and get urgent relief bills passed. The latest package became a Democrat-only effort once it became clear that the GOP leadership would keep moving the goalposts, and keep throwing up sabotage efforts that would destroy real negotiations before they really got going — not with the goal of making the end product economically better or more inclusive, but simply so they could score cheap political points.
This time around, however, when it comes to the infrastructure plans, a Democratic administration seems to have a better handle on messaging, hammering home issues of fairness around tax policy – indeed, going on the offensive about raising taxes on the wealthy — and articulating powerfully the economic benefits of upgrading tens of thousands of miles of roads, thousands of bridges, the nation’s vehicle fleet, the fueling support systems to make a transition to electric vehicles feasible, and so on. They have talked about the millions of jobs that will be created, and have put together a detailed plan on how to finance these investments without ballooning the national debt.
For too long, Democrats have struggled to promote solid policy proposals, because their messaging often fails to resonate with a polarized electorate. 2021 might be different. Amid a pandemic that has driven massive dislocations and exacerbated inequities, the public is more willing to consider big, bold, experimental policies and government investments, and less willing to accept small-bore change.
For now, McConnell is holding his base in line by using scare tactics that aim to link any and all infrastructure spending with the name “Biden.” Those tactics might start to fail, however, if the bill passes and delivers tangible economic benefits to impoverished regions deep within red states in time for the next election.
Biden is right that the political space for a massive infrastructure investment, for a rethinking of the social compact, only comes about once every several decades. He is gambling that this time around he can beat the Republicans at their own messaging game. And, given the public support for much of his policy package, he’s got pretty good odds of winning this particular bet. If he does, McConnell’s opposition to the infrastructure plan could well come back to haunt his party not just in 2022, but over many election cycles to come.