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Opinion How liberals can turn compromise into victory

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) speaks with a reporter on Capitol Hill on Oct. 21. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Any psychologist will tell you that expectations play an enormous role in how we react to events, far beyond any rational assessment we might make. But the more you’re aware of how your expectations are coloring your judgment, the more rational you can be.

Which is something liberals should keep in mind as congressional Democrats get closer to a deal on the Build Back Better bill, the social infrastructure legislation that embodies much of President Biden’s domestic agenda.

It’s almost inevitable that many people on the left will be disappointed with the final result. It’s even appropriate, given what’s being cut out of the bill. But if they want to both maximize their chances of seeing more of their priorities eventually signed into law and preserve their emotional health, here’s an easy two-step guide to come to terms with this compromise:

  1. Celebrate the good things the bill does.
  2. After that period of celebration, continue pushing for what got left out so it might pass later.

We’re going to see a lot of perfectly understandable teeth-gnashing when the bill is voted on. Some will express disgust with Democrats, who will be derided as weak and ineffectual, forever unable to overcome Republican opposition to do what’s right.

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The news media, always looking to produce “Dems in Disarray!” articles, will lap up the intraparty squabbling. Which will itself contribute to the widespread and incorrect perception that the bill doesn’t do much good.

Even liberals who wish the bill could have done more should fight against that narrative taking hold. The more people are convinced that the bill was a waste of time, the less likely it is that Democrats will get elected to do the things this bill doesn’t.

That said, the bill will be a compromise, as we knew all along it would be. According to the latest reporting, here’s some of what’s being left out entirely or trimmed back significantly:

  • Two years of free community college: gone
  • Dental, hearing, and vision coverage in Medicare: probably gone, or perhaps reduced to some kind of limited voucher
  • Expanded child tax credit: not made permanent, but perhaps extended for one year
  • Paid family and medical leave: probably reduced from 12 weeks to 4 weeks
  • Medicare negotiating prescription drug prices: maybe gone entirely, possibly retained in some very limited form
  • Clean energy standard that would use carrots and sticks to get power companies to transition to clean energy: gone
  • Extending Medicaid in conservative states that refused the program’s expansion: perhaps only a 3-year fix rather than a permanent one
  • Tax cuts on the wealthy and corporations: severely limited

Other programs, including universal pre-K and home care, are still up in the air, and keep in mind that this is all subject to change. Is that list of cuts and trims a bummer? Absolutely. But even if Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) gets his way and holds the bill to his arbitrary $1.5 trillion, that’s a lot of spending on important needs.

Whatever you think of the strategy of creating a temporary program in the hope it becomes difficult to undo, whether it succeeds is a matter of policy implementation but also of politics. The more Democrats tout the wonders of the child tax-credit extension, telling the stories of people who benefit from it and reiterating that Republicans want to get rid of it, the more political support it could gain. In other words, the bill’s ultimate success will be determined in part by the choices Democrats make after it becomes law.

And even with the likely cuts, there will be a huge amount to celebrate. For the first time, the United States could have a national paid family and medical leave program. Also for the first time, millions of people in red states who got shut out of the Medicaid expansion will be able to get free health insurance. The bill will still have worthwhile climate initiatives, housing aid, and help for home care for seniors and the disabled. All of these are worthy of celebration.

And guess what: In 2022, Democrats will be able to pass another bill through reconciliation. If people begin working now, it could contain some of the things that got eliminated from this bill.

And in many cases, this debate has already gotten a particular program or benefit on the national agenda, which is the first step to seeing it one day become law. A couple of years ago, very few people were talking about adding dental, vision and hearing benefits to Medicare. Today, it’s an idea supported by almost all Democrats. It will probably still take some time to get it enacted, but it’s much closer than it was before now.

To see things that way you have to take a long view — but creating new social programs is a long and often arduous process. President Harry S. Truman proposed a national health insurance program in 1945; it would be another 20 years before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Medicare and Medicaid into law.

Not only will the fight to expand our social infrastructure go on after this bill is signed, the groundwork for next year’s reconciliation bill can be laid starting right now. And liberals should remember that if they act like all is lost, it really could be.