• Michael McAuliff

Unpopular Democrats Hope Big, Bold Bills Will Save Them

When Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, they had an Abbott and Costello meatball problem.

Activists promoted the Build Back Better Act on Capitol Hill.

Lots of people don't remember the Abbott and Costello meatball schtick (watch it here) -- but in it, Abbott can't understand why Costello doesn't like meatballs. The chubby sidekick loves all the parts -- the parsley, the onions, the meat -- but put it all together -- and he freaks out.


When Democrats passed Obamacare, the public liked all the parts. Yet all put together, it was Costello's meatball. Republicans used it to propel themselves into control of Congress, and it's taken years for the public to come around to supporting the health care law..


With Democrats and President Biden now on the cusp of achieving legislative goals that are arguably even more sweeping than the ACA, they find themselves confronting a new version of the meatball problem, with potentially similar electoral consequences.


The difference this time is that the public actually already kind of likes these meatballs -- the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that Biden just signed, and the pending $2 trillion Build Back Better Act. An ABC News/Washington Post poll that came out Sunday found 63% of the public supporting the infrastructure bill, with 58% backing BBB. Support is even higher in other surveys for individual parts of the BBB, such as expanding Medicare, curbing drug costs and dealing with climate threats.


The problem this time for Democrats is less the meatballs, and more the chefs. Public support for Biden is 12 points underwater, with 41% approving his job performance while 53% disapprove. It's as bad for Democrats in Congress. According to the ABC poll, "Republican congressional candidates currently hold their largest lead in midterm election vote preferences in ABC News/Washington Post polls dating back 40 years." That translates to 51% of registered voters in the survey saying they favor the Republican congressional candidate in 2022, compared to 41% who would back the Democrat.


Sure, those findings reflect unhappiness with COVID and inflation, as well as relentless efforts by the GOP to blame them on Biden and Democrats.


But what do Democrats have to say about their current grim-looking prospects, and why does the public seem to like their cooking, but not them?


"Well, look, I'm not going to speculate on that," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters Tuesday, after I asked..


Then he laid down what you can expect to hear from Democrats pretty much everywhere: we will make sure the public knows what we did.


"What I'm going to tell you is that passing the BBB bill will be very popular," Schumer said. "And once we pass the bill, we will -- the President, he's already said this, he's already started to do it with the [bipartisan infrastructure bill] -- will go around the country talking about it, as well as all of our senators and congressmen. And I think it'll prove to be very beneficial to those who voted for it."


Over in the House, where Democrats got asked similar questions, answers were also similar, but House Democratic Conference Chairman Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) argued that while things may not look great now, that's just a natural function of the democratic process.


"The process of democracy is always messy," Jeffries told reporters Tuesday, citing the words of Winston Churchill. "But... the product is incredibly popular with the American people."


"The outcome in passing the Build Back Better Act is going to be so transformational for the American people," Jeffries said. "As we lower costs, as we cut taxes, as we create millions of good-paying jobs, then I think it's going to be embraced not just by Democrats, but by independents and by Republicans."


Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who heads the campaign committee for House Democrats, acknowledged the past history of Democrats suffering at the polls after passing the meatball of the Affordable Care Act.


"Fair enough. And all you got was a better country," Maloney said.


He insisted Democrats have learned.


"We're gonna change that," Maloney said, pointing to Biden visiting a decrepit bridge in New Hampshire Tuesday. "That's why we're doing 1,000 congressional events all over the country, telling people what we're doing. That's why the president is in New Hampshire today communicating with the American public."


Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney (L) and Hakeem Jeffries.

"We take that responsibility seriously. We don't expect them to know if we don't tell them. That's fair. We're going to tell them," Maloney added, before contrasting Democrats' efforts with the Republicans' consistent efforts to characterize his party's efforts as harmful.


"My dad used to say any jackass can kick down the barn. It takes a carpenter to build one. And we're the carpenters in American politics right now," Maloney said. "And we're gonna measure twice and cut once, but we're gonna deliver good policy."


While the public did eventually come around to what Democrats cooked up with Obamacare, it took years. Democrats are hoping that things gel faster this time around, with a public that already likes what they're being served, even if they don't yet credit the party in power.