President Joe Biden talks on the phone with Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) following the Senate vote to pass the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, Aug. 10, 2021, in the Oval Office Dining Room of the White House. (Adam Schultz/Official White House Photo)
(*This column was updated at 8:11 a.m. on Saturday, 10/30/21 to correctly reflect the priorities of the Progressive Caucus)
Democrats on Capitol Hill may not be directly taking their cues from the legendary Carthaginian military leader Hannibal, but as moderates and progressives fell on each other this week over President Joe Biden’s watered-down domestic spending plan, it sure felt that way.
A bit of history: On a fine August day in 216 B.C., hours after he’d completely obliterated the Roman legions sent against him at the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal made a fateful decision.
Rather than march on Rome and bring a still-emerging global power to its knees, Hannibal took a pass, deciding instead to wage a war of harassment that ended with his comprehensive defeat on his home turf at the Battle of Zama 14 years later.
When he learned about his leader’s decision not to march on Rome, one of Hannibal’s closest aides, Maharbal, turned to his boss and said, “So, the gods have not blessed one man with every gift. You know how to win a victory, Hannibal, but now how to use it.”
Enter congressional Democrats who appear to have forgotten that voters sent them to Washington last November with a mandate to get big things done.
And after a relatively decent start, where, as others have correctly observed, they got stimulus checks into Americans’ mailboxes and COVID-19 shots into their arms, they’re at risk of sabotaging a plan that, while far from perfect, would still amount to a dramatic reimagining of the social safety net were it to become law. The cost of failure is control of Congress. Nothing more, nothing less.
And it’s important to remember here that Democrats are confronted with a GOP every bit as feckless as the clueless Roman commanders who went up against Hannibal more than two millennia ago.
This is the same GOP still in slavish thrall to a twice-impeached president; a party whose members still deny Biden’s victory, and bend the knee to white nationalists; a party that seemed perfectly content to drive the nation into the economic ditch by not raising the debt ceiling, and may yet do it again when the temporary extension expires in December.
All Democrats have to do is come together, pass Biden’s budget bill, and then set about the relatively simple work of explaining to voters how they will benefit from the party’s domestic agenda, while also reminding them that the current GOP poses an existential threat to American democracy.
But as of Thursday, progressives on Capitol Hill were still pressing for more progress on the $1.75 trillion reconciliation bill before a vote on the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, according to the New York Times, putting the whole of the White House’s agenda at risk.
Progressives — and I’m one of them — are justifiably incandescent that paid family leave was gutted from the compromise bill, along with free community college. Both are nearly unpardonable failures of political will. But it’s also important to remember what’s still in it.
The blueprint that Biden presented to Democrats includes a universal pre-K program for 3-and-4 year-olds, limits child care costs so that families do not pay more than 7% of their income, and extends funding for both for six years. Those two programs are estimated to cost $400 billion, Capital-Star Washington Reporter Ariana Figueroa wrote Thursday.
It would also extend for a year the expanded child tax credit; improve long-term care for seniors and people with disabilities; extend expanded tax credits for the Affordable Care Act; and provide the tax credits to 4 million uninsured people in states where Medicaid has not been expanded.
That’s not too shabby.
In a meeting with Congressional Democrats on Thursday, Biden outlined the stakes of inaction — making a passionate pitch to lawmakers that cast the fight in historic terms, putting the potential accomplishments on a level with the New Deal and Great Society.
“I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week,” Biden said, according to the Washington Post, which cited participants in the meeting.
“We badly need a vote on both of these measures,” Biden continued, according to the Post. “I need you to help me. I need your votes.”
History remembers Hannibal as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. But he’s also remembered for his spectacular error of judgment, passing on an opportunity that could have changed the course of western civilization.
This is the Democrats’ Cannae moment: They can choose to go ahead and win the war, or they squander this historic opportunity to improve the lives of millions of Americans, and along with it, lose their majorities in Congress.
And as was the case for Hannibal, there are no do-overs.
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