Why Democrats Started Fixating on Inflation

Why Democrats Started Fixating on Inflation

Why Democrats Started Fixating on Inflation

Anticipating an impact on their electoral fortunes, Democrats are hoping to get ahead on a pressing question.


Republicans, along with some prominent right-wing Democrats, have been hammering the Biden administration over rising food and gas prices for months. In November, when the Labor Department announced that consumer prices had risen 6.2 percent from October 2020 to October 2021, the Republican National Committee tweeted, “Bidenflation is hurting working Americans all over the country.” Corporate media outlets are boosting this line of attack, from a viral CNN segment about a family that buys 12 gallons of milk a week to the downright false claims that inflation is being driven by the Covid-19 stimulus package that passed in March or by rising wages for the working class.

White House officials and party leaders have been scrambling to respond to the price scare, worried that it could cost them their congressional majorities in the midterm elections next year. After initially dismissing the price increases as merely transitory, Democrats are trying to revamp their messaging, highlighting falling unemployment and the few helpful programs they’ve actually managed to pass with their majorities, like the enhanced child tax credit payments. In recent weeks, they’ve sought to rebrand Build Back Better, the president’s signature social spending plan, as a counter to inflation concerns. “If you want to fight inflation, support Build Back Better,” Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said on the chamber’s floor last month.

New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is among the Democrats trying to make the case that the spending bill would help lower prices in the near term, as it invests in things like health care and child care. “If you are worried about inflation, it’s important to understand why it’s happening: supply chain, labor, and healthcare complications,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “We can address these issues by investing in infrastructure, wages, healthcare & benefits.” But while most economists say President Biden’s spending package won’t increase inflation, some also say it won’t help reduce it either, at least not anytime soon.

Inflation has surged virtually everywhere this year for all sorts of reasons, depending on the country or the sector. But the United States has seen some of the biggest jumps. The latest report, released in December, found that prices rose nearly 7 percent over the 12 months ending in November, a nearly 40-year high. And the specific dynamics behind these price increases, mostly the result of pandemic-related disruptions to the economy, are unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.

“The discussion I think has got to be broader than just inflation, which in fact is a very serious issue,” Senator Bernie Sanders told The Nation in December, pointing to “the state of the economy” as essential context. “Unemployment is reasonably low. And we have come a very long way from where we were a year ago, and it’s important to remember that. That wages are up, that we were able to help take this country out of the very, very severe recession a year ago­—I think those are factors that should be looked at this month.”

Figuring out how to deal with inflation, Sanders continued, is a complicated issue. But he believes lowering the cost of prescription drugs “would be a very important step forward,” along with making sure that working families can afford their basic needs.

Though Republicans have seized on rising prices as their latest political talking point, they haven’t publicly offered a plan to coalesce around, beyond repeating the delusion that stopping Biden’s plan to expand the social safety net is the only way to fight inflation.

“Well, I think the first thing we should do is not pass another big spending bill. That would be step one,” Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt told The Nation. When asked what step two would be, he stepped into an elevator and replied, “See you!”

Asked whether Republicans have discussed any other policy ideas to deal with inflation, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley said, “There’s no discussion on that, because it’s all geared towards stopping the Democrats from feeding the fires of inflation [with] this $6 trillion spending.” In reality, the bill is $1.9 trillion over 10 years.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, one of the Democratic holdouts in the evenly divided chamber, has long cited inflation concerns, parroting Republican arguments in his effort to derail the package. Democrats were hoping to pass the Build Back Better Act by Christmas, but Manchin, who’s been a no vote all along, is using the recent inflation numbers to drive another news cycle on his obstruction. Biden admits that he’s unsure whether he will be able to win Manchin’s vote for the bill while inflation numbers are this high, but he’s going to keep trying to persuade him. Meanwhile, party leaders concede there’s no chance of passing the social spending bill this year, announcing they’re pivoting to voting rights legislation instead.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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