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Creating temporary government programs could have big political benefits for Democrats.
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President Biden and congressional Democrats are now trying to cut their original $3.5 trillion family-policy plan roughly in half, so that it can win enough moderate votes to pass.
In doing so, Democrats have two basic options: Fewer ideas or fewer years.
The first option involves eliminating entire programs from the plan. The second involves keeping nearly all of them — including universal pre-K, child tax credits, paid family leave and expanded health care access — but having some expire after only a few years.
There are reasonable arguments in favor of both approaches. Restricting the bill to fewer programs would create more certainty about the future of federal policy. It would allow government officials to focus on the remaining programs and allow families to plan for the future confidently.
A broader, temporary approach, on the other hand, would allow Democratic leaders in Congress to satisfy more of their members: Some care deeply about expanding Medicaid, for example, while others care more about Medicare. The temporary approach might also prove to be less temporary than it initially seemed — because a future Congress might decide to extend the programs.
These competing arguments have received a significant amount of attention. But there is also one argument for the Democrats to choose the temporary approach that has not received as much attention. It involves electoral politics, and it’s the subject of today’s newsletter.
A crucial aspect of the Democrats’ economic agenda is its popularity.
Expanding Medicaid is so popular that it has won voter referendums in red states like Idaho, Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Utah. Adding dental coverage to Medicare — another proposal in the Democrats’ original plan — is favored by about 70 percent of voters, polls suggest. Most Americans also favor larger child tax credits and federal funding for pre-K.
The level of support for each idea can vary depending on the precise wording of poll questions, but the overall pattern is clear. A majority of Americans, including many swing voters and some Republicans, supports larger health care and education programs, tax cuts for the middle class and tax increases on the rich. (The tax increases would help pay for the other policies.)
The popularity of these ideas is why some observers believe that a future Congress might choose to extend any temporary measures that Democrats pass now. Throughout U.S. history, government programs providing broad-based economic benefits have rarely been eliminated once created. “The idea is that these initiatives will get a good foothold in this legislation, and we can extend them,” Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, told my colleague Carl Hulse.
Carl has been reporting on Washington politics since the 1980s, and he says he has covered only one program of any significance that Congress started but did not continue: the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988. It proved to be unpopular because it failed to provide the benefits that older Americans expected.
Most policies in the Democrats’ original proposal seem unlikely to suffer from that problem. They would provide thousands of dollars a year, in direct payments or benefits, to many families.
Still, Republican opposition to the bill is sufficiently strong that it’s easy to imagine a future Congress, controlled at least partly by Republicans, refusing to extend the programs. And that’s where the unappreciated political advantage for Democrats comes into play.
In American politics today, Republicans often try to emphasize a set of social issues on which many Democrats — especially progressives who receive a lot of media attention — are to the left of public opinion.
On immigration, some Democrats have become uncomfortable talking about almost any deportations or border security; most Americans, by contrast, favor immigration enforcement. On policing, progressive activists popularized the slogan “defund the police;” most voters — including most voters of color — oppose cuts to police budgets. On abortion, many Democrats oppose almost all restrictions; most Americans favor at least some.
It’s not that a majority of Americans necessarily favors the Republican positions on these issues. The problem for Democrats is that they have left themselves vulnerable to accusations of being extreme. (In the current Virginia governor’s campaign, the Republican nominee, Glenn Youngkin, is trying to pull off an upset with this strategy.)
The politics of economic policies tend to be different — and more favorable to Democrats.
By passing a bill with temporary programs in it, Democrats would be ensuring that the next few years would be filled with debates over economic issues, like the child tax credit, pre-K, paid family leave and Medicare. Republicans would much rather be talking about crime, immigration or critical race theory instead.
A bill full of temporary programs would effectively recreate the political dynamics around Obamacare repeal. Democrats would be defending a government program that provided tangible benefits to millions of Americans. Republicans would be left to explain why they opposed those popular benefits.
If Congress extended the programs in future years, Democrats would achieve some major policy objectives. If Congress let the programs lapse, Republicans could have some political headaches.
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It’s The New York Times Book Review’s 125th birthday. To celebrate, we’re stepping into the archives. Some highlights:
Best-sellers: Though the first issue of the Book Review was in 1896, the best-seller list as we know it made its first appearance in the Aug. 9, 1942, issue. It included a chart that showed how books were selling in 14 U.S. cities.
A classic: When “Song of Solomon,” Toni Morrison’s third novel, came out, The Times’s reviewer thought it depicted “the possibility of transcendence within human life.” He called the book a “full novel … not the two-hour penny dreadful which is again in vogue nor one of the airless cat’s cradles custom-woven for the delight and job-assistance of graduate students.”
Feedback: The Book Review’s letters page was the internet message board of its day, where readers and authors sent in their grievances. “Are all of Henry James’s books as hopelessly bad as ‘The Spoils of Poynton’?” a reader asked in 1899.
For more: Here are all the stories, including what the Book Review thought of “Ulysses” by James Joyce and “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton. — Claire Moses, a Morning writer
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Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David
P.S. The Book Review is hosting a live 125th anniversary celebration today at 1 p.m. Eastern, featuring trivia and celebrity readings.
Here’s today’s print front page.
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Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti, Ashley Wu and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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