Why The Inflation Reduction Act Boosted Democrats While The Infrastructure Law Failed

The party’s climate and health care package has done more to help its political fortunes than the bipartisan agreement.

Last fall, in a panic surrounding moderate Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s loss in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, the House of Representatives rushed to finally pass an infrastructure law. House progressives — who had insisted on linking the bipartisan legislation’s passage to the success of a broader plan focused on climate change and social spending — capitulated and delivered their votes.

Over the following eight months, the fate of that broader plan twisted and turned on the whims and wants of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). All the while, President Joe Biden’s approval rating continued to slip, and Democratic political fortunes seemed destined to follow. According to a FiveThirtyEight tracker, Biden’s net approval rating dropped 8 percentage points, bottoming out at just 39% approval with a 55% majority disapproving.

In late July, however, Manchin reached an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on a scaled-down version of the package, now called the Inflation Reduction Act. Both chambers of Congress quickly passed it on party-line votes, and Biden signed it into law Aug. 15.

Since then, the president’s approval rating has risen by a net 4 percentage points on the FiveThirtyEight tracker. While this is not nearly enough to defy historical precedents and deliver Democrats a whopping midterm victory in November, it’s a major reason why some of the party’s most ambitious challengers and endangered incumbents feel better about their electoral chances today.

Isolating the impact of either law is nearly impossible: The Inflation Reduction Act was passed as gas prices were dropping in much of the U.S., and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law arrived as much of the nation realized inflation was set to be a sticky economic problem. But polls, as well as interviews with and advertising from Democrats around the country, make it clear that the IRA is providing a more substantial political boost than the infrastructure law did.

For the progressives who wanted to link the two pieces of legislation together, it’s a belated justification of their abandoned plan and proof that their priorities are popular. For moderate Democrats who insisted that the infrastructure law was a model of what the American people wanted from Washington — incrementalism that can bring the two parties together — it’s a splash of water to the face.

According to Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the reason is simple. “It has things that affect people’s everyday lives,” she said in an interview with HuffPost, pointing to the Inflation Reduction Act’s investments in clean energy and provisions limiting the costs of prescription drugs for seniors to $2,000 a year.

“The infrastructure law funds a lot of projects, and those are big projects. But it isn’t something where people can wake up and feel the impact on their lives,” she added.

Both laws are popular in public surveys, and Democrats are embracing them in the run-up to November’s elections. Biden held an event Monday in Boston to highlight the infrastructure law’s investments in airports, and he hosted a celebration of the Inflation Reduction Act on Tuesday in Washington.

But it’s the IRA — especially its health care provision boosting subsidies and limiting drug costs — that is proving politically valuable for Democrats in tough races. A survey from Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, found that parts of the Inflation Reduction Act were the three most popular policy achievements of the Biden administration out of 22 tested. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law ranked fifth, the political action committee said.

Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), perhaps the House member facing the toughest reelection in the country, mentions the IRA’s prescription drug provisions in a spot touting how he’s brought “Maine common sense ... back on the table in Washington.” Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) brags about how he “stood up to Big Pharma” in a separate ad released late last month. And Senate Majority PAC, which is controlled by allies of Schumer, aired an ad attacking Adam Laxalt, the GOP’s nominee for Senate in Nevada, for opposing the law after taking donations from pharmaceutical companies.

Though the infrastructure law has popped up in campaign ads — Kelly boasted about money for a highway, and Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) is touting port funding, for example — surveys have also indicated that voters know relatively little about it. Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank, released a report in July finding that while the deal’s provisions were popular, only a quarter of voters even knew that the law had passed.

“The media cycle around the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law was not that helpful for Democrats,” said Aliza Astrow, a senior political analyst for Third Way, adding that coverage of the law remained overshadowed by questions about what would happen to the social spending and climate package. “Democrats got a clean win out of the IRA.”

Astrow also said that the path for the latter — from the multitrillion-dollar Build Back Better plan to the $780 billion Inflation Reduction Act — made the law significantly more moderate and likely palatable to persuadable voters.

“It’s helpful that it’s not a complete overhaul of the system,” she said. “A more moderate bill is actually going to mitigate that backlash that parties often experience when they try to implement their own agenda.”

The relative moderation of the IRA also means that Republicans will be the ones who delivered the biggest shock to the political status quo over the past two years, following the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade in June. Democratic strategists of all stripes agreed that protecting abortion rights will be a bigger part of the party’s midterm message than either piece of legislation.

The bipartisan law also delivered another benefit. It forms a bedrock piece of Biden’s argument that he was able to bring Congress together in a way his predecessors could not.

“I was determined to work with Republicans, and I’ve done that on historic laws like [the] infrastructure law,” Biden said Tuesday, also highlighting the CHIPS Act to increase semiconductor production and a law protecting veterans exposed to the military’s waste disposal “burn pits” as bipartisan successes.

“In fact, I think it’s fair to say we’ve achieved more bipartisan agreement in these nearly two years in my ... [presidency] than anyone thought was even remotely possible when I entered office.”

He quickly moved on to the more urgent pre-midterm message. “I believe Republicans could have and should have joined us on this bill [the Inflation Reduction Act] as well,” he said, before ticking off the law’s provisions.

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