The Minneapolis skyline is shown in the distance in this view of the Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River on August 1, 2007, killing 13 people and injuring more than 100. (AP Photo / Jim Mone, File)
The late senator Howard Baker, the Tennessee Republican who helped lead the Senate Watergate Committee and once led his party in the House, said the essential education of a Senate Majority Leader is completed in the third grade. That’s when they learn arithmetic.
The mathematical task facing Chuck Schumer of New York is obtain the 10 Republican votes needed to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill built along the lines that President Joe Biden and a group of senators from both parties drew up last month. With enough Republican senators backing the legislation and the fifty Democratic senators expected to vote “Yes” that could crush the expected Republican filibuster.
This will not be an easy lift. Since 1993, Republicans I have not offered any support for everything from Bill Clinton’s economic plan to Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act to Biden’s Covid relief bill. To the democratic challenge in infrastructure is added the need to keep the House’s ardent progressives on board.
For Schumer, prevailing in the Senate means a tough effort to get a bipartisan result. Fortunately, there is a tactic from the 1980s that could achieve that result even in our hyperpartisan era. It means replacing vague talk about “infrastructure” with matters of local urgency directed at specific US senators. It means scaring them with talking about decadent bridges in the US
I remember how my former boss, President Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., did just this before the 1982 midterm elections.
As in the summer of 2021, Democrats in 1982 were bringing a sizable infrastructure bill to the House, albeit in what seemed like simpler times, more collegiate, and with a Democratic majority of some size. Republicans scoffed at the measure as a pre-election waste. By his terms, it was about creating “makeshift jobs” and winning votes in the next election.
The then Republican Leader of the House, Bob michel from Illinois, was especially caustic in his attack, though his demeanor would now be considered the height of courtesy. The Republican line was that the Democratic measure was a “billion dollar ballot box bailout bill.”
Hearing Michel scoff at what he considered a well-intentioned effort to get people back to work, O’Neill went on the attack. Though he was a friend and golf partner of the bespectacled Republican leader, O’Neill was unwilling to let personal friendship keep him from fulfilling his partisan duty.
Leaving the speaker’s chair, he stepped down to the House pit and hit Republicans where it hurt, at home in their districts. He lists the bridges in Peoria, Illinois., which fell below the state’s security code. In the heart of Bob Michel’s congressional district, Peoria what considered the capital of Mesoamerica made famous in the saying of “How’s it going in Peoria?”
Tip O’Neill hit every rusty bolt and every piece of concrete and rebar. He cited the names and addresses of the faulty structures. He wanted Michel’s local newspapers to know that his man in Washington was refusing to fix the bridges that school buses would cross that afternoon.
Hearing O’Neil ring the names of those bridges into his political world at home, Michel ran to the rear of the House chamber, his face flushed with anger, panic, and shame. It was in that moment that I knew how hard O’Neill could play.
This is how President Joe Biden and Senate Democrats should play today. Of course, local newspapers don’t tenure communities united as before, and it’s harder to shame Republicans even if they’re still around. Still, Democrats could scare Republicans and voters that school buses and trucks could plummet from one of those unstable bridges, and it wouldn’t be demagoguery. They need to raise the political price at home for those Republican senators who oppose the bipartisan bill to rebuild bridges, highways, tunnels and other civic structures. Only then will they be able to shift the topic of debate from the theoretical to the tangible, the incomprehensible cost of more than a trillion dollars of infrastructure security.
It is also a way to go from defense to offense. So far, the White House and Democrats have played the bright side of the bill, pointing to improvements that would benefit Republican districts and states. What they haven’t done so far is talk about the dangers of letting infrastructure turn red.
It is a matter of simple tactics. For O’Neill’s staff, all it took was to call the chief engineer in Peoria and get the list of bridges found below the official safety code.
A bit of similar research in July would force critics of the giant infrastructure bill on the defensive. Any Republican senator who opposes the infrastructure bill will have to defeat those rickety bridges at home, worse yet, to prepare against the possibility of one of them becoming a public danger under his watch. In recent years when we have seen a section from I-35 falls into the Mississippi River near St. Paul or, even if it is a private apartment building, collapse out of nowhere in South Florida. Pointing out code violations is not alarming. It is recognizing a real and present danger. Democrats are in their usual position of appealing to the head and not the man.
Obtaining information about specific tunnels in distress and the like will bolster the Democratic senators’ argument in favor of the bipartisan measure. They could simply get a list of the civil projects in their states that the bill would fund. Supporting 501 (c) 3s and 4s could bombard persuasive Republican media markets, pointing out which bridges and highways are under code. With microtargeting, it’s not difficult to reach moms and dads who send their kids to school on bumpy roads and give them a wake-up call. The building material is popular with voters of both parties. It is especially popular when you connect it to local needs. David Garth, the toughest of New York media consultants, described as “replace the smell of decomposition with the smell of construction”.
Played well, harshly enough, with a sharp focus on the legislator’s backyard, the political argument for infrastructure can be a big winner, especially if it not only adds the obvious benefits to the economy, but also includes a measure of national pride. Why should we be the country with Third World airports and train stations? Most Americans have not hummed on a Japanese train or flown to the airport in Inchon, South Korea, which Douglas MacArthur released during the Korean War, and which is now the site of the country’s largest airport often dynamic acclaimed for cleanliness and efficiency. (Look at this Video.) We saved the country and now we clean our watch. Americans know this even if they haven’t been to all of these places, and they feel ashamed. Trump played with this, and Democrats should too, but in a good and constructive way.
When it comes to bridges, highways, and tunnels, all News Block is local and heading is the way to go. Tip O’Neill got it. Could it be Chuck Schumer?