It was an historic moment for the country when Democrats in the House of Representatives passed President Joe Biden’s landmark $1.9 trillion “Build Back Better” legislation even though it remains unclear whether 50 Democrats in the Senate will sign off. Biden’s safety net legislation would provide substantial, unprecedented and much-needed benefits to Americans.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, of course, remains the key. He has raised many concerns about this bill in the last month. Among them is the question of whether passage of this legislation will exacerbate the already severe inflationary spiral impacting the economy and hurting the day-to-day lives of Americans.
Beyond the policy issues that the Senate must grapple with in the next few weeks, the Build Back Better proposal also underscores and makes even clearer the enormous political challenges facing the Democrats in 2022. Although the party of the current president almost always loses seats in the House of Representatives in off-year elections, some pundits contend that the issue of inflation makes such losses even more likely.
As someone who studied political rhetoric for more than 40 years, allow me to offer some insights into the rhetorical challenge confronting Democratic candidates in 2022 — challenges that go well beyond the question of whether the proposed legislation will in fact increase inflation. History documents that voter perceptions and experiences often are more significant than the factual reality of a given policy.
Case in point.
Seventeen Nobel Prize winning economists are on record as saying that Biden’s Build Back Better proposal will ease long-term inflationary pressures and lower costs for Americans. The question that deserves attention is: Why will this fact likely not be rhetorically effective in convincing Americans to vote for Democratic candidates in 2022?
The answer is clear: The immediate is usually more persuasive than future projections. Put simply, voters who now are experiencing rising prices at grocery stores and gas stations — which impact their ability to make ends meet —probably will not trust speculations about what will happen in the future. Such long-term projections, I submit, inherently cannot offset the tangible difficulties voters currently are experiencing.
The rhetorical challenge facing Democrats is reminiscent of failed deficit spending arguments used by candidates in prior election campaigns. Voters were not convinced about the long-term harms of deficit spending; instead their votes were based on what they directly were experiencing in the moment. As the cliché says, people vote with their feet; hence, immediate gratification almost always trumps worries about the future.
To be persuasive, Democrats in 2022 must draw upon tangible matters that voters currently are experiencing. Assuming the Build Back Better proposal is signed into law, it will be imperative for Democrats to show voters the actual impact of this and other Biden legislation on their lives.
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Perhaps what I am suggesting also holds potentially powerful rhetorical possibilities for the Democrats on issues like global warming. Unlike in previous years, for example, Americans are now feeling the actual negative consequences of climate change and thus may be more willing to accept scientific research documenting how this is caused by global warming. Fires and floods are real and horrific, negatively affecting millions of Americans. Global warming, therefore, could become a persuasive issue for Democrats in 2022 and beyond.
Maintaining control of the House and Senate will be a tough lift for the Democratic Party in 2022. Yet as I have argued, it is not too late for Democrats to fully embrace and appropriately respond to the rhetorical challenge facing them.
Richard Cherwitz is a professor emeritus in the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin.