Will Republicans pay a price for opposing the stimulus?

Written By: Lisa Lerer © 2021 The New York Times The New York Times
New York Published: Mar 14, 2021, 02:05 PM(IST)

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 28, 2021. At their three-day gathering, pro-Trump conservatives tried to turn “cancel culture” into their new “fake news” and spent little time on policy (either their own or President Joe Biden’s). (Erin Schaff © 2021 The New York Times) Photograph:( The New York Times )

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During the weeks of negotiations over the legislation, Republicans were unable to coalesce around a comprehensive argument against the bill

There are plenty of numbers in the $1.9 trillion relief plan signed into law by President Joe Biden this past week. $1,400 for stimulus checks. $130 billion for schools. $350 billion for state and local governments.

But the most politically significant number might just be zero.

Yes, zero. That is the number of congressional Republicans who supported the legislation.

Looking at the lack of GOP support, you might assume the bill was unpopular, at least with Republican voters. You would be wrong. Americans overwhelmingly support the package, including a significant portion of the Republican base. According to some analysts, the bill is the most popular piece of major legislation in over a decade.

So Republicans will definitely pay a political price for opposing a measure that the country, including a large portion of their base, seems to want, right?

Well, it is complicated.

We are now in the post-passage phase of the American Rescue Plan, a battle likely to last through the midterm elections next year.

During the weeks of negotiations over the legislation, Republicans were unable to coalesce around a comprehensive argument against the bill. Instead, they offered a scattershot list of complaints. After the legislation passed, Sen. Mitch McConnell’s main argument seemed to be that the economic recovery would have happened anyhow.

“We’re about to have a boom,” said McConnell, the minority leader. “And if we do have a boom, it will have absolutely nothing to do with this $1.9 trillion.”

Others seemed far more focused on Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head, culture war bait that fires up their conservative base. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, even took the issue to the House floor.

“First they outlaw Dr. Seuss, and now they want to tell us what to say,” he said during a debate over a Democratic voting rights bill. (It was the company overseeing the author’s estate, not any Democrats, that recently chose to stop publishing several of his works. And Republicans’ focus on Dr. Seuss did deliver some economic benefit: More than 1.2 million copies of stories by the children’s book author sold in the first week of March — more than quadruple from the week before.)

The Republican predicament is simple: People like getting money, especially when they are struggling, and this bill will deliver. Roughly 90% of U.S. households will be eligible for stimulus checks. More than 93% of children — 69 million — will receive what is essentially a guaranteed income for families. Even those who do not receive a payment will benefit from new funding for reopening schools and vaccine distribution.

Former President Donald Trump taught Republican voters to love that kind of government spending by championing stimulus measures that were even larger than this bill. That makes it difficult for GOP lawmakers who backed those measures to argue against the cost of this legislation without facing charges of hypocrisy or possible pushback from portions of their base.

To shift public opinion, Republicans will have to settle on a clear argument against the legislation and find the party discipline to drive it. To that end, they will be keeping a close eye on how the money is distributed, hoping to find examples of waste or fraud that they can highlight to undercut Biden’s policy agenda. One area ripe for discontent is the aid to state and local governments, which polls significantly lower among Republicans than Democrats. But it will not be easy; Republicans are already struggling to overcome deep divides in their ranks.

Biden, acutely aware of the potential pitfalls, wants to ensure that Americans understand the benefits of this bill — and that they give him credit. His address Thursday evening was the start of an administrationwide push to promote the legislation across the country. It is a strategy to avoid the struggles of former President Barack Obama, who some Democrats believe was not aggressive enough in selling his 2009 stimulus package to voters.

The situation is not exactly the same: Unlike Obama, who faced the challenge of a slow recovery, Biden is likely to benefit from a quickly expanding economy, with forecasters predicting growth to speed up in the coming months as more Americans get vaccinated. He also starts his campaign with more goodwill. Biden’s legislation is roughly 20 percentage points more popular than the 2009 bill was immediately after passage.

Still, the 2009 stimulus package provides an instructive example on how quickly public opinion can change. No House Republicans voted for that $787 billion package, and only three moderate Republicans in the Senate backed it, even as nearly 2 in 3 Americans supported the bill.

Republicans calculated that they could make the bill a centerpiece of their efforts to win control of Congress in the 2010 midterm elections. They began arguing that the legislation was “chock-full of wasteful government spending” and failed to create jobs, even as dozens also trumpeted the federal dollars flowing into their states. Voters conflated the stimulus bill with the bailouts of the banking and auto industries, confusion that helped incite some of the fiercest opposition to Obama in the form of the tea party movement.

By January 2010, about 75% said half or more of the stimulus money had been wasted. Three months later, 62% said the legislation had not created jobs. And in exit polls after the 2010 midterms, only about one-third of voters said the package had actually helped.

White House officials eventually conceded that they had made mistakes in framing the public discussion of the measure. But by then, it was too late: Republicans won control of the House and gained six seats in the Senate.

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