The Democrats Are Back in Business | Opinion

Wednesday's thunderbolt from Senators Manchin and Schumer that there is, after all, a blockbuster budget deal on fighting inflation, cooling the climate, and making health care more affordable is a game changer. It brings to mind the (slightly misquoted) Mark Twain quip that "the reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated. This week it became clear that reports of the Democrats' ineffectiveness have been exaggerated. Three things that had been given up for dead that are apparently very much alive: good old fashioned dealmaking, the Democrats' reconciliation bill, and the Democrats' hope not to get slaughtered in the midterm elections.

Old Fashioned Dealmaking By Old Fashioned Leaders

All year, activists in both parties have been calling for a youth movement, arguing that progress requires turning the page on leaders in their 70s and 80s who have lost their fastball. But this week's deal reveals the senior set to still be capable of pulling off a thing or two. In fact, this might have been the kind of deal that only experienced hands could have forged.

As House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth observed rather cuttingly last year, "One of the things that's actually been pretty revealing to me is that the only people who have been drawing red lines in this process have been the people who have never been in a governing majority before. People like Pramila Jayapal—this is her third term. Josh Gottheimer... I can go down the list of all of them who have taken pretty strident positions... They'll learn, I mean, they're learning right now."

Indeed, they are. At every setback or step down from initial wish-lists, Democrats have indulged in some heavy catastrophizing. Yet today, Congresswoman Jayapal is elated, moderates are satisfied, and the New York Times declared that this deal represents "the most ambitious action ever taken by the United States to try to stop the planet from catastrophically overheating."

Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 2: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, flanked by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), speaks to the media after the weekly policy luncheon on Capitol Hill May 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. Democrats discussed the recent spending bill that averted a government shutdown. Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Joe Biden's pitch during the election was that decades of experience meant knowing exactly which strings to thrum to make a gridlocked Washington dance to his tune. That hasn't totally panned out. But this deal caps a run of some of the biggest, most consequential legislation in decades, including the American Rescue Plan, an infrastructure deal, the semiconductor manufacturing initiative, and a bipartisan gun deal.

Apparently, the back-in-time crowd isn't quite dead yet.

Reconciliation Resurrection

To be fair, the urgency verging on panic to make something happen has been justified. Global warming is a true emergency. Inflation has been rough for low-to-middle income Americans, not to mention that it's been the key driver of public opinion. And majorities of voters blame Biden policies for inflation as the Democrats have scrambled to address it. The likelihood of a Republican takeover of the House ending legislating on Democratic priorities remains high, and incumbent members of Congress desperately wanted something fresh and meaningful to run on before the looming midterms.

As recently as two weeks ago, many Democrats had given up hope. Today, they are back in business.

Senate Democrats think that by boosting domestic clean energy production, electric vehicle purchases, and energy efficiency, this deal will get us darn close to the aggressive climate targets that President Biden set last year, cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

And by cutting prices on prescription drugs and health insurance premiums, the deal gives candidates real, understandable things that they can point to when it comes to inflation and addressing working Americans' needs. It even comes with a helpful chaser: a side deal to ease permitting for natural gas pipelines that allows Democrats to say that they are addressing energy prices with an all-of-the-above approach.

All of which means that when it comes to the midterms...

The Game is Back On

It's one thing to hope for a tailwind. It's another thing to have a sail.

There have been signs of a blue breeze recently. Gas prices are falling rapidly. The generic ballot, the most predictive measure for the midterms, has moved two points in Dems' direction. Truly awful Republican candidates have brightened Democratic Senate prospects. Even today's announcement of negative GDP came with the note that the quarterly numbers were trending better.

While there's no guarantee that these trends will continue, the budget deal gives Democrats a better chance to catch them if they do pan out.

Cutting the deficit and lowering health costs turns Democratic incumbents from inflation bystanders to problem-solvers. Their semiconductor deal (cut hours before the budget announcement, leaving Republicans hopping mad that they'd been swindled out of attempted gridlock) gives a meaningful win on domestic manufacturing and supply chains. A historic climate package eases the concern that Dems couldn't deliver on young voters' priorities, and that they would therefore sit out the midterms.

Most of all, the deal gives Democrats a coherent story again. For a year, voters have had a hazy idea about Democrats' plans, especially on Build Back Better. Its far-reaching proposals meant "we over-promised and didn't deliver everything," according to veteran Democratic communications strategist Jim Manley, which left the media with a convenient "Dems in disarray" narrative.

The budget deal clarifies, simplifies, and delivers with something tangible.

Could this still go south? Of course. Senator Kyrsten Sinema is not yet on board. The Senate parliamentarian needs to sign off. Two-thirds of voters think we are already in a recession, and if feelings about the economy don't improve, this bill won't be enough save things on its own. And Republicans may be able to successfully spin this as another liberal overspending plan (it's all well and good to say that a bill lowers the deficit, but voters often simply hear the big numbers coming out of Washington).

But if the question is on balance, are the Democrats better off today with this deal than without it? Absolutely. So are all Americans who care about climate, inflation, and a functioning government.

So game on.

Matt Robison is a writer, podcast host, and former congressional staffer.

The views in this article are the writer's own.