The Back Booth: ‘It’s Still the Economy, Stupid’

9 minute read

Welcome to The Back Booth, a weekend edition of The D.C. Brief. Here each Saturday, TIME’s politics newsletter will host a conversation between political professionals on the right and the left, pulling back the curtain on the conversations taking place in Washington when the tape stops rolling. Subscribe to The D.C. Brief here.

It’s only April in Washington, but to watch D.C. start posturing you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the end of October and the last leaves were turning.

That’s because the remaining agenda for lawmakers is fast being consumed by talk of the midterm elections. With control of the House and Senate up for grabs, strategists in both parties are trying to game out how best to use the balance of the 117th Congress to position themselves for the back end of President Joe Biden’s first term. With his budget rolled out this week, Russian tanks rolled back from Kyiv, and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson set for a confirmation vote next week to become the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, there are plenty of moments for lawmakers to peacock.

To dissect the week’s news, The D.C. Brief chatted by email with two veterans of the Senate. Democratic strategist Maura Keefe spent more than a decade as New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s chief of staff, chairing the Democrats’ chief of staff luncheons and serving as a leader of bipartisan confab of top Senate aides. She was the Hillary Clinton campaign’s liaison to Congress during the 2016 race and previously ran floor operations for Rep. Rosa DeLauro.

Across the aisle, Matthew Bartlett worked as a senior aide to Sen. Kelly Ayotte, also of New Hampshire. His resume includes stints as a political hand at ONE, the global health advocacy organization most commonly associated with Bono, as a staffer on Jon Huntsman’s presidential bid and rising to a director of public affairs at the State Department during the Trump era.

The conversation between the pair, both now running their own consulting firms, has been lightly edited.

Philip Elliott: Hello, friends. Digging right in: the President has released his budget, Congress will pretend to look at it, and things in Ukraine have hit the two-month mark. If you’re advising policy makers right now, what is the message they need to be hitting? Do you try to keep Ukraine in the headlines or do you pivot to the debate at home on the budget? Or is there a way to knit them together? You’ve both worked for foreign policy-minded adults. Does that brand of leader get a moment before the midterms consume everything?

Matthew Bartlett: What do all Senate staffers say? “The President proposes and the Senate disposes.” Typically the budget gets used as a doorstop and the Senate is happy to do the budgetary work they are charged with.

Maura Keefe: Budget week is like finals week for policy wonks. All over D.C., smarty pants from across the political spectrum are burning the midnight oil and digging into the details. And they will find plenty to love and hate, depending on what end of the spectrum they fall. More than anything else, the President’s budget is a statement of values. What do you stand for and what are you going to fight for? Biden has been pretty clear about fighting for tax fairness, climate funding, and money for Ukraine, and that’s all reflected in his budget.

Bartlett: Aside from the budget, it looks like some of the smoldering embers of Build Back Better may catch fire. With Manchin signaling he may be open to a deal, I think people are lining up what they would like to see—and not see—in this potential vehicle. I’m also hearing some are already looking at a potential lame-duck session post-midterms, too.

Elliott: December in Washington with a bunch of lawmakers who are packing their offices is always a blast.

Bartlett: And speaking of the midterms, I get the feeling that public sentiment around some of these ideas will be more important than ever as public sentiment soon turns into voter sentiment. Lawmakers from both chambers and parties will be keying in more and more to local papers, radio and local TV back home, and tuning out some of the Beltway din. I feel like a constituent voice is probably more effective now than even a few months ago. It will be important for Senators and Representatives to have their fingers on the pulse of what their constituents want or don’t want, and then figuring out what is the priority.

Of course all of the domestic issues could be overshadowed with any sort of unexpected geopolitical event, which I guess is something we tend to expect nowadays.

Keefe: In terms of domestic versus international priorities, when you have the big job, you don’t get to choose. Of course, in elections, the domestic usually wins out (9/11 was an exception) and so getting our arms around the economy is job number one. Seeing the release of oil reserves today is another sign from the Administration that they are focused on consumer prices. It’s still the economy, stupid!

That said, Biden leading an international coalition, standing up to Russia and just having a coherent foreign policy is an important reminder to the American people why stable leadership is crucial. Whether that shows up in the polls right now is immaterial. It’s a big moment where U.S. leadership is required and performing well is crucial for the President, the country, and the world. Joe Biden was made for this moment.

Elliott: Maura, I think everything here is spot-on, although I do wonder if the steady-as-she-goes presidency—regardless of person—can actually stabilize the world right now. It seems like a giant dumpster fire abroad and an entirely predictable funding problem for COVID here at home. Plus, the whole infrastructure question is one that I’m still not certain I can wrap my head around.

Bartlett: It sounds like there is a need and now a chance at a COVID preparedness deal. It looks like they are looking at an accounting of both inventories and funds and trying to make sure we as a nation are better prepared for another wave, and that we are also helping to address COVID globally. Romney and Schumer are talking, and this is a good thing. Not only are we saving lives, but we would also be saving money as we have learned that preventing another global health emergency is certainly cheaper than addressing a new one. Can you imagine if the last variant or the next variant was both more transmissible and more deadly? I don’t know what our world would look like.

Elliott: Speaking of the world…

Bartlett: On Ukraine and Russia, what can you say? A madman invades a neighboring country, kills innocents, women and children, and sends hit squads to assassinate Zelensky—and there is some D.C. bedwetting when President Biden says Putin should not be in power? Give me a break. I fully appreciate and understand that no one wants to escalate this war into WWIII, but I am also not concerned about offending an invading murderous dictator. Putin caused this. He is the one who should be living in fear. Not us.

And I have to say, prior to the war Zelensky was nonchalantly brushing off U.S. warnings and even contradicting U.S. intel. I don’t think we have ever seen such a historic shift in posture and a rising to the occasion. In the fog of war, his bravery shines bright like a beacon.

Keefe: Stable U.S. leadership does not solve all problems, but it’s a heck of a lot better than the alternative.

On the Hill, there are a couple of problems. One is a bit of spending fatigue and the other is the fast approaching silly season. The clock is ticking, but I do think there’s a deal to be had on portions of BBB.

Bartlett: I was a bit surprised again last night when progressives in the House and Senate seemed to throw a bucket of cold water on Manchin’s possible BBB proposals. I thought at this point they would be open to passing whatever Joe can do—either Joe, Biden or Manchin—but progressives look like they may dig in again. Then again, it’s always darkest before the light, or as McCain would joke, “always darkest, before it’s entirely pitch black.”

And the Biden Admin seems purely reactionary right now: reacting to the virus, reacting to Russia, reacting to inflation, reacting to Manchin, reacting to gas prices. An administration is always difficult to run, harder still when it is not on your own terms.

Keefe: Congressional leadership seems more upbeat on a COVID deal, but how they get that done before recess next week is unclear, as there would be a whole bunch of procedural hurdles to clear and confirming Judge Jackson is the first order of business.

Bartlett: KBJ will pass and will be historic. But it will be interesting to see how she votes. I believe the current liberal wing of SCOTUS votes in lockstep with each other. Right side? Not as much. Once they are there, there is always a chance for surprise.

Elliott: Folks, I really appreciate your thoughtfulness this week. We will have to do this in-person next time in our old stomping grounds of Manchester, N.H.

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