A coal barge on the Ohio River is visible behind President Donald Trump as he speaks about infrastructure at Rivertowne Marina in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 7, 2017. (Andrew Harnik / AP)
If President Donald Trump’s "infrastructure week" was winning converts, Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., was exactly the sort of Democrat who should have come over. Elected in 2012, he watched his blue-leaning district in northeast Minnesota swing hard right, giving Trump a 15-point victory. If he ran for reelection, he’d be at the top of Republican target lists, attack ads informing voters how a member of the Transportation Committee had failed to deliver.
Nolan thought the Trump pitch had been a bust.
"I thought a trillion dollars for infrastructure meant a trillion dollars for infrastructure," said Nolan. "He’s talking about 90 percent from the private sector and 10 percent from the feds? It’s not going to happen. It’s exactly backwards."
The Trump infrastructure push, meant to be at the very least a welcome political distraction in a scandal-dominated week, has become the latest example of the president’s vanishing clout. A White House "signing ceremony" had the president sending a toothless letter to Congress. A speech in Cincinnati offered few details, and plenty of digressions. And an accompanying memo to reporters contained more about the problems with President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill than the details of Trump’s $200 billion infrastructure goals.
The result: Democrats, who once worried about the president barnstorming the country to take credit for new jobs and investment, are feeling no pressure to act on an amorphous and easily demonized plan.
"When he called for a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, we thought that was great," said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., at this week’s press conference. "What they’ve proposed is privatizing most of our infrastructure to give wealthy financiers tax breaks on projects they were probably going to build anyway . . . it’ll lead to ‘Trump tolls’ from one end of the country to the other."
What had worried Democrats, after a surprise 2016 defeat powered by a collapse of rust belt and labor support, was an infrastructure plan that would have doled out no-strings money to states. "When he started talking about it, he compared it to the wars in Iraq – we’re gonna stop these wars of choice and spend the money here," said Nolan. "That was a powerful message." In late November 2016, Trump adviser Steve Bannon told the Hollywood Reporter flat out that the ideal infrastructure plan would be financed by deficit spending.
"With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything," said Bannon. "Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s."
That kicked off a month of awkward Democratic reactions, with progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., suggesting that they could work with the president on infrastructure, drawing backlashes from their horrified base. On Jan. 23, Democrats attempted to pre-empt a populist Trump proposal with their own $1 trillion infrastructure package, funding everything from broadband to sewer pipes at a higher rate than the 2009 stimulus.
The White House did nothing. To the surprise of defeated Democrats, the infrastructure plan re-emerged as a tangle of public-private partnerships, where – according to the few available details – local governments would trade the traditional federal match for infrastructure projects with 80/20 or 90/10 private/public funding.
"It’s been the most convoluted thing you could imagine," said Ron Klain, who was Vice President Joe Biden’s chief of staff and led the stimulus team in 2009. "I thought to some extent that when Trump had a highly simple message – I’ll spend money here – he’d learned our lesson. We had this bill that was like Noah’s ark for every project, and he’d just spend money. And instead it’s like pharoah telling people to build bricks without straw, because Republicans don’t want to spend the money."