Try to imagine we are living in the following hypothetical world: A popular Republican president quickly passes emergency legislation that has the support of two-thirds of the country, while Democrats in Congress refuse to vote for it. This causes pundits to wonder if the Republican president is making a political blunder.
Current reality, of course, is this scenario, but with the parties reversed. The American Rescue Plan is racing toward passage with remarkably little controversy. And yet longtime Washington conventional-wisdom maven Charlie Cook suggests, “When the histories of the Biden presidency are written, there’s a fair chance that this will be looked upon as a serious error of judgement — one that may plague this administration for a good while.” Meanwhile, Politico’s Sam Stein argues “history suggests there may be limited political reward for it.”
Cook’s argument is that Biden “may have … crippled his ability to do grand bargains” by passing a bill without Republican votes. Cook’s argument presupposes, without making any effort to demonstrate, (1) that it would have been possible for Biden to win Republican support for major legislation, but (2) Republicans will refuse to do so because they are angry that he passed a Democratic bill first.
Even if we assume both these things are true, it would seem to make a better indictment of Senate Republicans than of Biden. After all, according to Charlie Cook, there are at least ten Senate Republicans who will now refuse to support a “grand bargain” to do something important for the country (Cook doesn’t specify) out of peevish spite. Democrats had lots of reasons to be angry with Donald Trump in 2020 — the fact that Trump tried to pass two Republican-only bills didn’t even make the list of grievances — yet they overwhelmingly worked with him to pass economic-relief legislation.
I personally think that, if Senate Republicans find an issue where they see it in their interest to cooperate with Biden, his passing a relief bill won’t dissuade them. But Cook seems to believe even the handful of the most mainstream and established Republican senators are so petulant they must be handled like small children.
Stein’s argument leans on the precedent from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Obama administration’s $787 billion stimulus. Citing studies of that 2009 bill, Stein argues the positive effect of supporting Biden’s bill will be “overwhelmed by the massive tides of party polarization,” and that voters who got checks are “likely to be forgetful” when they vote.
This analogy elides two important differences between Obama’s stimulus and Biden’s. First, Obama’s bill was the subject of intense, frequently apocalyptic opposition from Republicans, who relentlessly tagged it a “bailout,” successfully conflating it with the TARP measure passed at the end of George W. Bush’s term. The Rescue Plan has attracted shockingly little opposition. Fox News, the party’s quasi-official messaging operation, has devoted more attention to Dr. Seuss.
Second, Obama’s bill was shaped by a requirement to win 60 Senate votes, forcing him to pare back its size. Because of this pressure, Obama’s bill, considered staggeringly expensive at the time, was still too small to fill in the enormous economic hole that was opening up (a hole that turned out to be much larger than economists believed at the time). They acted quickly at the outset of the crisis, and its worst effects were avoided. But because they acted so quickly, those effects also happened after they acted. This meant that Democrats passed an economic-relief measure only for the economy to deteriorate afterward.
The 2021 Democrats have learned their lesson, writing Biden’s bill through budget-reconciliation rules that allow it to pass with 50 votes. A bill written by the 50 most liberal senators is obviously going to be to the left of a bill written by the 60 most liberal senators. One important ramification is that they can aim to restore full employment much more quickly.
So far every indication of public opinion is positive. Biden’s plan has not only won his party, but pulled over a large chunk of the opposition. A majority of lower-income Republicans support the measure:
After four years in which observers marveled at Donald Trump’s appeal to working-class voters, it seems noteworthy that Biden has pulled them over to his side in such heavy numbers.
Of course none of this will matter by November 2022 if the economy hasn’t recovered. But here is the main point, one overlooked by the skeptics: It’s the economic effect of the bill that will matter, not the immediate response to its passage. And economists overwhelmingly predict that effect will be positive. Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal have increased their 2021 growth forecasts by a full point, to 5.95 percent. They believe inflation will rise slightly above the Federal Reserve’s target level this year, before settling back down in the following years. They are calculating that quickly restoring full employment will bring rapid wage gains to working-class Americans and produce a wide array of spill-off social benefits.
It’s entirely possible they’re wrong. If the economy overheats, and the Fed winds up curtailing growth to prevent an inflationary spiral, Democrats will be punished at the polls. But if the bill works as forecast, they will reap the political benefit of prosperity. Republicans might find themselves in the position of having to explain why they opposed a popular bill that led to a fast recovery. This might even make some of them eager to work with Biden on another bill.
The Republican decision to vote against Biden in unison, without building much of a case against his bill, seems like the worst of all possible worlds. They are setting themselves against a bill that enjoys sky-high levels of support from both economic experts and a large chunk of their own base. It’s possible this gambit somehow works out. But if anybody regrets their political choices in the early weeks of the administration, the odds are it won’t be Biden.