Why are Republicans united in their opposition to the newly passed $1.9 trillion Covid relief package that polls at close to 80% support — including six in ten Republicans? There was a time when numbers like these would have resulted in bipartisan legislation and a bipartisan signing ceremony at the White House, with Republicans clamoring to share credit for a broadly popular initiative designed to ease the suffering of tens of millions. Instead, even Republicans like Lisa Murkowski — who was able to shape the final bill through the amendment process — voted against it.
There are a few ways to look at what’s going on here, all of which point to the dangerous political nihilism of the post-Trump Republican Party.
Republicans need Biden to fail. This is the play they ran with Clinton and Obama, both Democratic presidents who, like Biden, took office following the repudiation of their Republican predecessors. Clinton faced a televised assault of negative campaign-like ads just weeks into his administration and a sustained barrage of opposition from Newt Gingrich, culminating in a dubious impeachment trial. Obama faced a Republican Party whose top objective, in the words of Mitch McConnell, was to make him a one-term president.
Initially, this impulse to tear down the other side came from a need to sustain the hallmark anti-government sentiment of the Reagan era against activist Democrats whose success threatened to change the conversation. Facing the first serious challenge to Reaganism in Bill Clinton’s play for universal healthcare, William Kristol (today an ally with the left in the battle against authoritarianism but for decades a leading neoconservative voice) drafted an influential memorandum to Republican leadership warning about the political and ideological threat to the Reagan right if a successful social welfare policy were to take hold, outlining a resist-at-all-costs strategy to keep it from happening:
Simple, green-eyeshades criticism of the plan . . . is fine so far as it goes. But in the current climate, such opposition only wins concessions, not surrender. . . . Any Republican urge to negotiate a “least bad” compromise with the Democrats, and thereby gain momentary public credit for helping the president “do something” about health care, should . . . be resisted. Passage of the Clinton health care plan, in any form, would guarantee and likely make permanent an unprecedented federal intrusion into and disruption of the American economy — and the establishment of the largest federal entitlement program since Social Security. Its success would signal a rebirth of centralized welfare-state policy at the very moment we have begun rolling back that idea in other areas. . . . But the Clinton proposal is also a serious political threat to the Republican Party. Republicans must therefore clearly understand the political strategy implicit in the Clinton plan — and then adopt an aggressive and uncompromising counterstrategy designed to delegitimize the proposal and defeat its partisan purpose.
In the political climate of 1993, Republicans were able to win the argument about the size and scope of government by following this strategy of total resistance. But as coalitions decay they invariably lose intellectual energy, and what started as a political strategy backed by a theory about small government devolved over time to little more than a means to stay in power as the country evolved and Republicans failed to keep pace. It’s noteworthy that congressional Republicans have been unable to offer a reasonable philosophical justification for opposing Covid relief beyond bromides about deficits and personal responsibility that sort of went out the window when they cut taxes for the uber rich by $1.5 trillion without paying for it. They’re against it because Biden stands to get the credit. It’s only zero-sum politics now.
Republicans believe they won’t pay a price for opposing popular legislation. This explanation is deeply unnerving because it suggests that Republicans feel they can act against the economic wishes of the broader public without being punished by their voters as long as they take it to the enemy in the culture wars that animate their base. They are probably right about this. It’s why as the relief bill sped through the legislative process, the right latched on to the recall of six Dr. Seuss books containing racist caricatures as a prime example of the left trying to cancel them. Despite one Republican senator hedging his bet by disingenuously touting a popular feature of the bill after voting against it, there is no question that Republicans are going with the idea that an empowered left is a far greater threat to their voters than the pandemic.
The trap Republicans face is that motivating their base also motivates Democrats and repels independents. In a functioning party system, Republicans would have turned the noise way down after noting how their base strategy in 2020 drove turnout among Democrats and pushed away independents. It doesn’t much matter if you can get 74 million people to vote for you if at the same time you’re turning out 81 million opponents. And that was with Trump on the ballot — a weapon they will not have in 22. There is no evidence from the 2018 midterms or any special election of the Trump era that they can turn out sufficient numbers of their voters when he is not on the ballot. But Republicans made their choice clear when they let Donald Trump walk for inciting an insurrection. They can’t win much of anything without the Trump base. If at the same time it turns out they can’t win much of anything with the Trump base, at least holding on to the base puts them in position to win on a playing field that’s dramatically tilted in their direction. This leads us to explanation #3 . . .
Republicans are no longer committed to the democratic process. This is the scariest explanation of all, and it is the natural product of the party’s dependence on Trump loyalists and the lie that the presidential election was stolen. Republican officials in Iowa, Georgia, and across the country reacted to the massive turnout of Democrats in last year’s election with an equally massive effort to disenfranchise them through scores of initiatives that take aim at the voting rights of Democratic constituencies. With post-census redistricting poised to create a new wave of gerrymanders that alone could put Republicans on the cusp of retaking the House, and with the Senate on a knife’s edge, Republicans have opted to lean into the tools that the Constitution’s founders gave them to rule from the minority. Like uniformly opposing Democratic presidents, this tactic isn’t new. But what is new is the possibility that, after the events of January 6, Republicans might use a congressional majority to set aside a potential Democratic Electoral College victory in 24 should they lose again. Gone is the small-government ideological rationale for electing Republicans, replaced by the assertion of the right to hold power.
Despite these dark and unsettling explanations, a miraculous thing happened last week with the potential to upend Republican calculations. The Senate actually functioned. For the first time in a decade, a major bill cleared the House and was placed on the Senate calendar for debate, followed by an affirmative vote, a vote on the revised language in the House, and off to the president’s desk for his signature — just like in that Schoolhouse Rock video. It all seemed so effortless it was easy to overlook how the process leading to Biden’s signature on Thursday was itself as historic as the content of the law.
This is the clearest sign yet that we are in a different era. Clinton and Obama — and Carter for that matter — had much larger majorities but couldn’t accomplish anything near as sweeping as Covid recovery, let alone get it done in a month and a half. The urgent circumstances of the pandemic are different from anything these past Democrats encountered, and the shadow of the January insurrection looms large over a Democratic caucus that recognizes the failure of the young administration would lead to more than mere political defeat. This helped to assure unity among party factions, and while that unity could be challenged as the focus shifts from the widely popular relief legislation to issues like civil rights and immigration, it is also possible that momentum could build for more bold action from a caucus poised to build on its stunning early success. At the very least, the ease with which Biden was able to fulfill his cornerstone campaign promise suggests that Republicans cannot run the same play against him and expect it to pull him down. As William Kristol astutely noted years ago, showing the public what competent government can do builds the demand for more.