How Trump's missed opportunity handed infrastructure to Biden

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Ten Republican senators at this writing support a bipartisan infrastructure outline. So does a like number of Democrats, including the party’s two main centrists, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. That means if recalcitrant liberals can be kept in line, no sure bet, there are potentially enough votes for a resulting bill to overcome a filibuster.

A lot of disagreements will need to be ironed out in order to turn this potential into a political reality. But it remains a tremendous opportunity for President Joe Biden. Yes, the White House had relatively little to do with this, and no, Biden’s own attempt at bipartisan talks did not end well. It is nevertheless the case that this leaves Biden closer than ever before to having an infrastructure bill sent to his desk and validates his “two-track” approach to passing one — strike a deal with Republicans on traditional physical infrastructure projects while preparing to pass a bigger spending bill full of Democratic priorities through reconciliation.

It is also a reminder to Republicans closely aligned with former President Donald Trump of an opportunity that slipped away. Infrastructure was supposed to be one of the keys to Trump rebuilding the GOP as a “workers party.” There was talk of a massive plan to rebuild roads, bridges, and railways that would win bipartisan support in Congress. There were multiple planning sessions and Infrastructure Weeks. “One of my biggest disappointments is that we didn’t get it done,” said a former administration official.

Few were as effusive about the prospects of infrastructure in reshaping the GOP's future as Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist. “Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” he told the Hollywood Reporter after the 2016 election. “It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”

Whatever the merits for the Republican Party, infrastructure also was something that could get real bipartisan support. “To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had been Hillary Clinton’s challenger from the Left in the Democratic primaries, said in a statement after the election.

Later pushed to elaborate, Sanders put infrastructure at the top of his list of possible areas of common ground. "There are issues that of course we're gonna work with him," he said. "Our infrastructure is crumbling. If Trump comes up with a reasonable proposal, of course that's something we should work together on."

Incoming Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer was also on board. “We think it should be large,” he told ABC News's Jon Karl and Rick Klein in a podcast the month after Trump was elected. “He’s mentioned a trillion dollars. I told him that sounded good to me.” Schumer said Democrats were “not going to oppose something simply because it has the name Trump on it.”

As late as 2019, Democratic congressional leaders came away from a White House meeting convinced they were on the cusp of a $2 trillion infrastructure deal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters she was “very excited.” Schumer said both Trump and the Democrats “want to get something done on infrastructure in a big and bold way." Then-Trump press secretary Sarah Sanders concurred, describing the exchange as “excellent and productive” and adding in a statement, “We have to invest in this country's future and bring our infrastructure to a level better than it has ever been before.”

It never came to pass, for several reasons. First, Trump did not lead with infrastructure in 2017, when Washington was still in a state of shock over his upset victory. Republicans retained control of both houses of Congress. Trump did not enjoy good relations with the party’s congressional leadership during the campaign. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “I hope we avoid a trillion-dollar stimulus.” Then-House Speaker Paul Ryan said of a big infrastructure bill, “That’s not in the ‘Better Way’ agenda,” referring to his own blueprint for a GOP majority.

The decision was made to focus initially on the agenda Trump and Republican congressional leaders had in common. That meant a failed bid to repeal and replace Obamacare and a successful effort to cut taxes, including lowering the corporate tax rate to 21%. Neither endeared Trump to Democrats.

Second, Bannon, perhaps the White House’s biggest infrastructure true believer, was fired before the end of 2017. Much as movement conservatives in the early Reagan administration found themselves outmaneuvered by old-guard Republicans with more government experience, the populists found themselves sidelined, with the exception of the immigration-focused Stephen Miller.

Third, the infrastructure plans to come out of Trump’s White House rather than his mouth were much leaner on government spending and got to $1 trillion or more thanks to private investment. For Democrats, this was a nonstarter.

“We aren’t going to use an infrastructure bill to be a vehicle for tax breaks, instead of an investment in the future,” Pelosi told the Washington Post. “We know that we have to make some compromises. But the compromise is not to make infrastructure a gift of tax breaks.” Sanders dismissed Trump’s plan as a “scam that gives tax breaks” to “large companies” and “billionaires.”

Republicans fear their party may have an infrastructure problem to this day. “One would think that after President Obama and Pelosi’s first stint as speaker, congressional Republicans would have a clue about how to effectively negotiate with Democrats,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “Yet, they still look like a sad clown show, because they end up only publicly negotiating with themselves and getting nowhere, while congressional Democrats ultimately get just about everything they want anyway.”

It doesn’t look that way to liberals, who fear Democratic leaders are wasting their own chance at transformational legislation by passing even one bill that falls short of the expansive definition of infrastructure Biden previously embraced. But if this results in Biden being able to sign a bipartisan infrastructure plan into law, he’ll be able to quote Obama to the real estate developer Trump: You didn’t build that.

W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner's politics editor.

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Original Author: W. James Antle III

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