The American Rescue Plan, President Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion relief effort, is law. But it’s only a short-term measure, mainly designed to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and its immediate aftermath. The long-term stuff — which is expected to combine large-scale infrastructure spending with tax increases on the rich — is still being formulated. And everyone says that turning those longer-term plans into law will be much harder than passing the ARP.
But what if everyone is wrong?
Just about every analyst I follow asserted, almost until the last moment, that $ 1.9 trillion was an opening bid for the rescue plan and that the eventual bill would be substantially smaller. Instead, Democrats — who, by standard media convention, are always supposed to be in “disarray” — held together and did virtually everything they had promised. How did that happen?
Much of the post-stimulus commentary emphasizes the lessons Democrats learned from the Obama years, when softening policies in an attempt to win bipartisan support achieved nothing but a weaker-than-needed economic recovery. But my sense is that this is only part of the story. There has also been a change on the other side of the aisle: namely, Republicans have lost their knack for demonizing progressive policies.
Notice that I said “policies.” There’s certainly plenty of demonization out there: Vast numbers of Republican voters believe that Biden is president thanks only to invisible vote fraud, and some even buy the story that it was masterminded by a global conspiracy of pedophiles. But the G.O.P. has been spectacularly unsuccessful in convincing voters that they’ll be hurt by Biden’s spending and taxing plans.
In fact, polling on the rescue plan is so positive as to seem almost surreal for those of us who remember the policy debates of the Obama years: Something like three-quarters of voters, including a majority of Republicans, support the plan. For comparison, only a slight majority of voters supported President Barack Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus, even though Obama personally still had very high approval ratings.
Why the difference? Part of the answer, surely, is that this time around Republican politicians and pundits have been remarkably low energy in criticizing Biden’s policies. Where are the bloodcurdling warnings about runaway inflation and currency debasement, not to mention death panels? (Concerns about inflation, such as they are, seem to be mainly coming from some Democratic-leaning economists.)
True, every once in a while some G.O.P. legislator mumbles one of the usual catchphrases — “job-killing left-wing policies,” “budget-busting,” “socialism.” But there has been no concerted effort to get the message out. In fact, the partisan policy critique has been so muted that almost a third of the Republican rank and file believe that the party supports the plan, even though it didn’t receive a single Republican vote in Congress.
But why this somnolence? Republicans may realize that an attempt to revive Obama-era critiques would expose them to ridicule over their record of hypocrisy: After declaring deficits an existential threat under Obama, then dropping the issue the minute Donald Trump took office, it’s hard to pull off another 180-degree turn.
They may also be inhibited by the utter failure of their past predictions, whether of inflation under Obama or a vast investment boom unleashed by the Trump tax cut, to come true — although inconvenient facts haven’t bothered them much in the past.
And at a deeper level, Republicans may simply have lost the ability to take policy seriously.
Jonathan Cohn, author of “The Ten Year War: Obamacare and the Unfinished Crusade for Universal Coverage,” argues that the most important reason Trump failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act was that Republicans have largely forgotten how to govern. They no longer know how to think through hard choices, make the compromises necessary to build alliances and get things done.
That same loss of seriousness, I’d suggest, inhibited their ability to effectively oppose Biden’s rescue plan. They couldn’t do the hard thinking required to settle on a plausible line of attack. So while Democrats were pushing through tax credits that will cut child poverty nearly in half and subsidies that will make health insurance more affordable, Republicans were focused on cancel culture and Dr. Seuss.
And looking forward, why should we expect the G.O.P. to do any better in opposing Biden’s longer-term initiatives?
Bear in mind that both infrastructure spending and raising taxes on the rich are very popular. Democrats seem united on at least the principle of an invest-and-tax plan — and these days they seem pretty good at turning agreement in principle into actual legislation.
To block this push, Republicans will have to come up with something beyond boilerplate denunciations of socialists killing jobs. Will they? Probably not.
In short, the prospects for a big spend-and-tax bill are quite good, because Democrats know what they want to achieve and are willing to put in the work to make it happen — while Republicans don’t and aren’t.
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