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A running joke through much of the Trump administration was that once again it was Infrastructure Week. The gag’s premise rested on the absence of action. Despite all the talk about passing a bill to improve our roads, bridges, public transit, ports and broadband, nothing happened during Donald Trump’s tenure.
But last week, the Senate voted to move forward to debate such legislation, the first but crucially important step in our filibuster-heavy times. And that vote went far beyond the 60 senators needed to proceed, with 67 votes (from all 50 Democrats plus 17 Republicans) in favor and 32 opposed.
How did this happen?
It took political professionals to make a deal that the outsider could not.
One major player in making the deal was the president, Joe Biden. From middle America and the middle class, he’s no outsider to high level politics, having won his first federal election almost 50 years ago. Biden initially served in the Senate, with several high level committee chairmanships. One reason why former President Barack Obama picked Biden as his vice president nominee, an office Biden held for eight years, was because Biden had lots of congressional experience.
Although he’s not the world’s most exciting campaigner, if you Google “Joe Biden is good at politics,” you will find 354 million results. So it’s no surprise that Biden knows what he’s doing.
To get this deal done, Biden was consistently and directly involved.
According to New York Times reporter Jim Tankersley, Biden “requested multiple daily briefings on negotiations, personally directed administration strategy on policy trade-offs and frequently phoned moderates from both parties to keep the pressure on for a final deal.” Moreover, “multiple senators said the president and his team spent hours with them in person on Capitol Hill and on the phone hashing out the details of the legislation, including thorny disagreements over how to finance billions of dollars in new spending.”
Another aspect of Biden’s professionalism was his ability to recruit and work with an experienced, skillful staff to interact with other professional politicians.
As an article in Politico reported, 24-year Senate veteran Susan Collins described commerce secretary and former Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo’s involvement as “masterful.”
Other previous governors (including Maine’s Sen. Angus King) — who are now senators — were also involved in the successful negotiations. Again no surprise, since research shows the bills “they focus on tend to have more substance, more bipartisan support, and more success.”
That political experience is associated with competence contradicts major dynamics of modern American political life. Political trust has fallen massively over the last five decades and trust in other institutions has dropped as well. That includes less trust in the medical system, which is dangerous when we need to pay attention to what’s currently known about a rapidly evolving virus that’s developed a more transmissible, more severe variant.
Distrust in government is a powerful force and, as discussed in a recent book I co-authored titled “At War With Government,” has been used strategically by politicians, particularly conservative ones, for decades.
To be sure, skepticism toward elected officials is crucial in a democracy. Staying informed and involved is important and can be pursued by following reliable sources, supporting state and local journalism, voicing our views, working with others in political groups and parties, talking to our fellow citizens and voting.
But when distrust is pushed too far, people see our republic as illegitimate and view those who disagree with them on politics as enemies. That’s a damaging viewpoint — whether we’re battling a deadly pandemic or dealing with typically prosaic matters like counting electoral votes.
Professionalism in politics matters. So while no politician deserves a free pass, we should reward those who both serve what we see as our interests and demonstrate their thoughtfulness and competence.