After more than a year of intra-party squabbles and GOP stonewalling, plus incessant hurdles—both procedural and political—it’s a miracle that the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) made it to President Joe Biden’s desk on Tuesday.
A drastically scaled back version of the Build Back Better (BBB) bill that was derailed in late 2021 by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the law is nevertheless a big Democratic victory. Among other things, it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 40 percent over 10 years, lower prescription drug prices, impose a 15 percent corporate minimum tax on America’s largest companies, and provide the IRS with $80 billion in new funding to help it better target wealthy tax dodgers.
But few benefits of this package will be felt by voters immediately, which is one barrier in the way of Democrats selling the public on why they should remain in charge of the congressional agenda.
And that’s why the hard part for Democrats starts today. No, really. Passing the legislation was half the battle. Now Democrats must convey this major legislative victory to voters as they struggle to preserve their congressional majorities in the upcoming midterm elections.
If history is indicative, it will be an uphill climb.
“They’re holistically bad at messaging,” Lincoln Project co-founder and former Republican strategist Rick Wilson says of Democrats. “That doesn’t mean they’re bad all the time and everything. They just have a tough time bringing it all together into one package, and selling something that is more optimistic and prospective.”
Consider the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure framework (BIF) Congress passed in November as one example. It marked the largest federal investment on roads, bridges, and public transit in decades, and it promised to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process.
Democrats have thus far failed to make clear to voters what BIF exactly is, and whether it even passed. Eight months after Biden signed the legislation, less than a quarter of voters were aware it was signed into law, according to a July poll by thinktank Third Way and Impact Research.
“Given that a large share believes the deal is still being worked on in Congress, it is clear that voters are confusing the BIF with BBB,” a Third Way memo about the survey says.
The lack of public awareness may also have something to do with the lack of immediate gratification that results from spending big on highways and other infrastructure. Few people pop a tire in a mammoth-sized pothole and think, “No biggie, maybe the 2021 infrastructure funds will fix this issue for the next guy.”
The IRA will face similar challenges on this front. The provisions that allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, for instance, don’t start phasing in until 2026 and will only apply to 10 drugs in the first year before ramping up to 20 drugs in 2029. The 2022 midterms will be a distant memory by then, as will the 2024 presidential election for that matter.
Likewise, voters won’t feel air quality improve or temperatures drop the moment Biden closes his pen cap after signing the IRA, even though the bill includes roughly $370 billion for climate and energy needs—the largest-ever investment towards mitigating climate change.
“All climate things are a long runway, unfortunately,” Faiz Shakir, former campaign manager to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential bid, tells Mother Jones. Democrats “had to cut all the things that could have had an immediate and direct impact, like the child tax credit. But I get it, you let Joe Manchin write a bill and it’s what we could do.”
There are, however, strategies Democrats could take to turn their legislative successes into electoral ones, half a dozen political strategists and experts say.
The most obvious move is to start pointing out the highly popular policies that Republicans have tried to thwart, three strategists emphasize.
Fully 83 percent of voters support Medicare negotiating for lower drug prices, 61 percent say Congress should do more to fight climate change, and 62 percent back raising corporate taxes. Not a single Republican voted for the IRA, which does all three.
The IRA isn’t the only legislation giving Democrats fodder. More than three-fourths of Americans think contraceptives should be legal, according to Pew Research Center, but the vast majority of the House GOP voted against a bill to codify contraception access in July after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade and handed control over abortion laws back to the states. Gay marriage polls show similar levels of support: 71 percent of Americans back the right, but just 22 percent of House Republicans voted to protect it this summer after Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas suggested in a concurring opinion to the majority abortion-rights decision that he thought the Supreme Court should reconsider whether gay marriage is a constitutional right.
Even the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure deal hardly lived up to its billing as bipartisan. Democrats ought to point that out, says Mike Lux, a political strategist who has served senior roles on six different presidential campaigns. “Ninety percent of House Republicans voted against it. A majority of Senate Republicans voted against it,” says Lux, “Democrats need to serve up the contrast: ‘Look, we’re working to get stuff done. Republicans are trying to stop things from getting done.'”
GOP obstructionism isn’t so much a trend these days as a political strategy. “There is a belief inside the Republican Party that ‘Oppositional Defiant Disorder’ is now a legitimate [mode of] governing. They’re gonna say no to everything. They’re gonna push back on everything,” says Wilson, who worked in Republican politics for three decades. “They would much rather like yell, scream and cause trouble than actually be responsible for getting something done.”
Republicans’ vote against expanding the reconciliation bill’s insulin price-capping provision to include privately insured patients is one of the most obvious examples of GOP obstruction.
More than 7 million US diabetics require daily insulin and roughly 14 percent of insulin users spend “catastrophic” levels of their income on insulin, according to a Yale study, meaning their insulin accounts for at least 40 percent of their income after deducting food and housing costs.
“I think we can kill the Republicans on the insulin thing,” argues Lux.
That would mean putting less energy towards beltway harmony and more towards enmity. Polling suggests that’s not such a crazy idea.
It’s true that 85 percent of Americans believe it’s important for legislation to have bipartisan support, according to a 2021 Morning Consult poll, but it’s also true that voters value the other party making efforts to reach across the aisle more so than they value compromise from their own party, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll.
Democrats “want to be shy about not creating a contrast and seeming too partisan. Forget that. The world is partisan,” says Kelly Dietrich, the CEO and founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, which offers online training for Democrats seeking office. Democrats are passing “bipartisan proposals that are incredibly popular across Republicans and Democrats. We need to be taking a victory lap and rubbing their nose in it.”
The gives Democrats easy opportunity to do so: Every GOP lawmaker just voted against a bill that will surely prevent some people from dying from treatable diseases, says Dr. Rob Davidson, the executive director of Committee to Protect Health Care, a group that advocates for policies that put patient care over profits.
In his day job as an emergency medicine physician in rural Michigan, Davidson says he sees patients rationing medication due to financial difficulties end up in the his emergency room on a weekly basis.
Lower prescription drug and insulin costs procured by the IRA will “save a certain number of people’s lives,” he says. “It’s incontrovertible. Nobody can say that’s not true.”
Whether the IRA can save Democrats’ congressional majorities is less straightforward. That will not so much depend on what Democrats got done—but if they can finally learn how to talk about it.