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Biden Policies Need Better Arguments Than 'Orange Man Bad'

A Commentary by Michael Barone

"First you win the argument, then you win the vote." That advice from Margaret Thatcher has been ignored by President Joe Biden and Democratic Party leaders to their detriment.

Democrats, aided by former President Donald Trump's denigration of Georgia's electoral system, which gifted them the state's two Senate seats, were gifted by voters with the narrowest of legislative majorities: 51 to 50 in the Senate and 220 to 212 (with three current vacancies) in the House. Biden himself won the crucial three swing states by just 42,918 popular votes. 

Incautiously, Democrats plunged into policymaking without making anything like cognizable policy arguments. Trump had reduced illegal immigration by extending walls on the Mexican border and persuading Mexico's president to hold asylum-seekers in Mexico until their (usually baseless) claims could be ruled on. Both policies were ditched on day one of the Biden administration. The policy argument: "Orange man bad."

Now, we see the easily predictable results. Border apprehensions are headed toward 2 million this year -- the highest since the 1998-2000 boom years. So-called asylum-seekers from Central America have been joined by Middle Easterners, Africans and, most recently, by some 20,000 Haitians, previously settled in Chile and Brazil, huddled under a bridge heading to Del Rio, Texas.

Vice President Kamala Harris's pathetic plea, "Don't come," has been overwhelmed by the evidence that most of those who do come illegally are ushered into the United States and told to meet court dates that everyone knows most won't.

The likely result is something like one million new illegal immigrants in the United States this year. This represents a reversal of the trend. The Pew Research Center says the illegal immigrant population peaked at 12.2 million in 2007, declined as post-recession net immigration from Mexico plunged to zero and leveled off at 10.5 million in 2017. 

During that time, immigration has been shifting from Latin America to Asia and from low-skill to relatively high-skill newcomers. What's the policy argument for that?

The best that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas could summon up on Fox News Sunday was, "We do not agree with the building of the wall," i.e., "Orange man bad," and, "the law provides that individuals can make a claim for humanitarian relief," i.e., asylum.

But as my Washington Examiner colleague Byron York points out, the same law allows the government to require illegal border-crossers to remain in another country pending resolution of their asylum claims. What's the policy argument for dispersing them, without being tested for COVID, through all corners of the United States?

Now, consider the Biden proposals for $3.5 trillion of additional spending on "infrastructure." The case for some adjustment is obvious: Gas tax revenue is headed down, existing roads and bridges need maintenance and some new ones should be built. Other arguments are dubious. Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg are enthusiasts for high-speed passenger rail which, as transportation analyst Randal O'Toole explains, is as relevant today as electric typewriters, rotary telephones and steam locomotives.

Much news coverage is given to the interesting questions of whether the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised a vote on by Monday will get a majority of House votes later, and whether Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will agree to support parts of the $3.5 trillion bill.

Much less attention has been given to the obviously noninfrastructure provisions of the "infrastructure" bill and the arguments for them.

 For example, the bill includes a rollout of federally funded universal preschool education. That sounds like a good idea, and if you put it on a poll, you'll get a favorable response.

But the policy argument for it is thin. Advocates like to cite lasting positive results from two expensive pilot programs, Perry Preschool and Abecedarian. But those experimental programs were conducted 50 and 60 years ago, respectively, and in the very many years since, no one has been able to replicate their results.

Or consider the stealth section essentially repealing the 1996 welfare reform law and its work requirements. Here we have actual results: Welfare rolls fell sharply after 1996, child wellness criteria improved, teenage pregnancies nosedived and the number of welfare-raised children committing violent crime decreased. Why do we want to reverse these results now? Just because "Orange man bad?"

 The answer seems to be that Biden subcontracted policy development to Bernie Sanders, and that "Bernie Bros" love policies that spread money around but lack any curiosity about the effects.

Now, those programs may get ditched in midnight Capitol Hill bargaining or if the "infrastructure" bill gets as bollixed up as the Biden withdrawal from Afghanistan. The administration might have done a better job of winning the vote if it had bothered to win the argument first.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.


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See Other Commentaries by Michael Barone.

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