"Biden Republicans" Love Big Covid Relief

Healing a divided nation by ignoring GOP obstructionism

Biden put his John Hancock on the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) last Thursday and it’s already hitting American bank accounts. ARPA, the fourth major Covid relief bill, sailed through Congress via the budget reconciliation process without a single Republican vote.

That represents big change since the CARES Act, which passed the House 419-6 and the Senate 96-0 under a Republican president and Republican Senate majority. Here’s another way to express that difference. When they were out of power, just three Democrats voted against CARES. When Republicans were out of power, all of them (except the two Republicans who didn’t vote) voted against ARPA. That’s three Democratic votes against the Republican bill, 261 Republican votes against the Democratic bill.

Naturally, the Republican line is that Biden’t relief bill didn’t win a single GOP vote because Democrats are hostile to bipartisanship. Take Mark Thiessen (please!):

Democrats are now trying to redefine what Biden meant by “bipartisanship,” saying that his stimulus is bipartisan because polls show it has support from some Republican voters, if not their elected representatives. Sorry, but that’s not what Biden promised. During the campaign, Biden pledged to work “across the aisle to reach consensus. I did it when I was a senator. … It’s what I will do as your president.” …

Well, on his first major initiative as president, Biden made a decision not to cooperate. Ten Senate Republicans led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) — enough to give him the 60 votes needed for a bipartisan, filibuster-proof majority — answered his call for cooperation. Biden didn’t even make a pretense of pretending to negotiate. He held one meeting with them and then effectively told them he didn’t need their votes.

Thiessen’s actual complaint is that Joe Biden isn’t an idiot.

In the face of a $1.9 trillion bill passed by the Democratic House majority, Collins’s Group of Ten offered a $600 billion alternative. That’s, um, $1.3 trillion dollars less. That’s not a good-faith counter-offer. It was the moderate wing of the Republican Senate minority putting on a little pageant of bipartisan statesmanship while communicating to Biden in no uncertain terms that they wouldn’t vote for anything in the same fiscal solar system as the House bill, much less the same neighborhood. It’s no accident that Senate Dems voted to put the bill on the budget reconciliation track the same day that Collins and friends made it so abundantly clear that they weren’t willing to play bipartisan ball.

Had Biden proposed to meet Collins halfway — or even halfway to halfway — he wouldn’t have been able to get that bill past House Democrats. They would have been livid! Thiessen is suggesting that there’s something Biden could have done that would have gotten buy-in from ten Republicans without giving away the farm, losing his own party’s support and shouting from the rooftops that he’s a pathetically weak leader willing to negotiate against his own interests. But there wasn’t. Republicans wouldn’t have voted for anything other than a more or less Republican bill. Still, somehow, that’s Biden’s fault. The legendary obstructionism of Republican Senate minorities under Mitch McConnell? Huh? Where? What… uhhhh… what does that have to do with anything?

“The irony is that Biden not only failed to advance the cause of unity in Washington, but he actually set it back,” writes Thiessen. “Until now, every one of the relief bills passed since the pandemic began had been a bipartisan effort. Biden took that exercise and made it partisan.” 

The Republican unity grift always works this way. Democrats are divisive tyrants shoving their radical socialist agenda down the America’s star-spangled throat unless they’re willing to forsake their own voters and enact Republican policy, which is what Americans, by definition, really want.

Of course, when Republicans pass legislation on a party-line vote, that’s “elections matter!” But if they suspect that a Democratic bill will help Democrats in the next election, Congressional Republicans will oppose it (unless it involves persecuting immigrants are murdering foreigners). And when they vote against it, they’ll say that they had no choice but to stand against budget-busting radicalism out of step with the desires and values of the American people — no matter how much Democrats watered it down to please them.

The point of this sort of Republican minority bipartisan cosplay is to sucker Democrats, who really do believe in bipartisanship, into making a bunch of concessions so that the bill Democrats end up passing with zero Republican support is a weaker bill that helps Democrats slightly less.

Biden called the bluff. Now it falls to party creatures like Thiessen to take the shine off the president’s big win by spinning up a narrative that punishes him for refusing to get suckered. That’s just standard procedure. But Thiessen’s cynical gambit falls apart the second you look at a poll. Given the intensity of partisan polarization, Republican support for the bill is a goddamn miracle.

In late February, a Politico/Morning Consult poll found the 60% of Republicans either “strongly” or “somewhat” support the relief bill.

More recently, Pew found weaker but nevertheless overwhelming support for the bill, including the backing of 41 percent of Republicans.

The clear takeaway is that ARPA is an astonishingly popular bill. Republican leadership avoided the mortification of ongoing Republican majority support for the legislation, but forty percent Republican support is nothing to sneeze at.

Naturally, Thiessen hastens to slap down the idea that popular bipartisan support of a massive piece of legislation might have anything to do with bipartisan reunification. “Sorry, that’s not what Biden promised,” Thiessen complains. Actually, it is. Biden didn’t promise us that he would ace a test Mitch McConnell gets to grade, which is Thiessen’s lawyerly gloss on the president’s inaugural address. Biden promised a politics that refuses to set Americans against each other and looks out for all of us, regardless of party. And it seems like it it’s working.

That’s the problem Thiessen has so bravely tackled. Should a healthy portion of Republicans come to believe that Biden really does have their interests in mind — if Biden succeeds in bringing Americans closer together and reducing mutual partisan distrust — the GOP’s investment in demagogic scapegoating will come to nothing. When presented outside a context of reflexive negative partisanship, too many planks of the Democratic policy platform are too popular. Americans want “an unprecedented miasma of government spending,” as Thiessen so colorfully put it. That’s why Republican Senators wasted two weeks faking fits of umbrage about Horton Hears a Who rather than explaining to their constituents why they’re better off without a $1400 check.

Thiessen, ace propagandist that he is, had to breezily dismiss the bipartisan appeal of the relief package with quibbling sophistry. Otherwise, his argument that Democrats rammed it through reconciliation because they “had to act fast if they were going to use the pandemic as a justification for a massive expansion of the welfare state” would look preposterous.

You don’t need some dumb story about the clock running out on the Democrats’ chance to legislate full communism under the cover of crisis to explain why Biden routed around hyper-partisan Republican obstructionism to pass a bill supported by a 70 percent super-majority of Americans, including four in ten Republicans. You just need to believe that America is a democracy, citizens ought to get what they want, and passing extremely popular legislation is a smart way to get re-elected.

Thiessen also conveniently omits to mention that Biden’s bipartisan outreach successfully split state and local Republicans, who actually need to govern, from Congressional Republicans, who think sabotage is their ticket back to the majority. As Kellie Mejdrich of Politico reported:

Republican mayors in Texas, Arizona, Florida and Oklahoma are among those backing Biden's state and local government funding plan as part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid bill that's before the Senate, defying GOP lawmakers in Washington, who are broadly resisting the spending.

The clash between local and national Republicans is a rare public division in a party that has generally been united in opposition to policies being pushed by Biden and Democrats in control of Congress. It's a breach that Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have gone out of their way to exploit as the coronavirus legislation enters the final stretch.

The popularity of the relief bill is a full-on disaster for Republicans. It portends the rise of what the legendary pollster Stanley Greenberg has dubbed “Biden Republicans.”

In a profile/interview of Greenberg, Politico’s Zack Stanton puts it this way:

Like the Reagan Democrats, they’re heavily white and live in suburbs. But where the Reagan Dems are blue-collar and culturally conservative, Greenberg sees the Biden Republicans as more affluent, highly educated and supportive of diversity. Historically, they identified with the Republican Party as their political home. But the leaders who were supposed to fight for them seem to care more about white grievance and keeping out immigrants; seem to care more about social issues and “owning the libs” than about child-care payments and college tuition. They don’t consider themselves Democrats—at least not yet—but they are voting for them, delivering them majorities in the House and Senate, and making Joe Biden just the fourth candidate in the past century to defeat an incumbent president.

Adam Serwer makes a similar point in his latest at the Atlantic:

Trump and his “nationalists”… had four years to deliver prosperity to the struggling communities they pledged to represent. They failed miserably, because they cared more about hurting and humiliating their opponents than they did about keeping their promises. All they ultimately had to offer was the anguish of the Democratic constituencies they sought to punish, and tax cuts for the rich. The libs were not owned, and the swamp was not drained. …

Trumpism relied on the presumption of zero-sum conflict—between red and blue Americans; between the U.S. and its international rivals; between white, Christian Americans and everyone else. To lose, Trump told his admirers, was to court apocalypse. A Biden victory would destroy everything they held dear, ruining their homes, their livelihoods, their churches.

The future of the Democratic Party depends on Biden’s ability to show that this catastrophism was false; that even when the Republican Party loses, Americans who vote Republican do not; that defeat is not destruction; that their compatriots do not and would not seek such an outcome.

Jelani Cobb takes it even further in the New Yorker. Cobb argues that if the Republican Party can’t get its act together, doubles down on white identity politics, and continues to neglect the material concerns of non-wealthy voters, they risk the fate of the Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, the Free Soil Party and the Whigs:

The Republican Party itself was built on the ruins of the Whigs, a party that broke apart in the tempests leading up to the Civil War. Marsha Barrett mentioned a passage to me from Herbert Hoover’s address to the 1936 Republican Convention, four years after he had lost the White House to Franklin Roosevelt, in which he issued a warning about what becomes of parties that fail to navigate the critical issues and circumstances of their time. “The Whig Party,” Hoover said, “temporized, compromised upon the issue of slavery for the Black man. That party disappeared. It deserved to disappear.” Hoover was speaking in the midst of the Great Depression, but his larger point was that parties are not necessarily permanent political fixtures. Considering that history, it’s worth asking whether the party of Lincoln, now the party of Trump, is engaged in conflicts so intense that it will go the way of the Whigs.

Now, I’m not going to get my hopes up, though you should read Cobb’s fascinating piece. At the very least, the scale and popularity of Biden’s relief bill spells trouble for Republicans and casts the inevitability of a midterm reversal of Democratic majorities into doubt. If the GOP can’t mobilize polarized sentiment to keep Republican voters from supporting Democratic policy and can’t keep Democrats from consolidating “Biden Republicans,” they’re pretty well cooked. The trouble is that, according to Greenberg, the rise of the Biden Republican is a response to the fact that culture war grievance mongering doesn’t put food on the table and can’t pay for your kid’s chemo.

Thiessen’s column is a rhetorical bellows he’s pumping furiously to keep the flame of Republican negative partisanship from sputtering out. It’s sputtering nonetheless. Joe Biden is just too white, too male, too made-in-America, and too nice. Most importantly, he’s delivering the goods. The stimmies are hitting and Covid’s a goner by summer. America’s about to become elated. I’m not sure that “Biden doesn’t really care about unity” is going to cut it. And “Democrats are trying cancel the Muppets and they’ll cancel you next” isn’t going work either. The music will be too loud to hear Ted Cruz.

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