Same Old Obstructionists

The House is poised to vote Friday, February 26, on President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill. The measure is widely popular among the public, including a substantial majority of Republicans. The bill has widespread support among Democratic and Republican governors and mayors across the country. So, logically, the stimulus package should enjoy bipartisan support in Congress, right?

Wrong! In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell attacked the bill this week. “The partisan bill Democrats are preparing is stuffed with non-COVID-related liberal goals and more band-aid policies as if the country were going to stay shut down another year,” McConnell tweeted. Then, the Kentuckian added, “We need 2021 to be different than 2020. Congress should focus on smart policies to help that happen.” As far as I can tell, the only difference between 2020 and 2021 is the party in control of the levers of power. All of the Republican Senate conference apparently agrees with McConnell and will vote against the bill. The situation in the House is the same as probably no Republicans in the lower chamber will support the bill.

Republican congressional intransigence amounts to political malpractice. A poll released this week shows that 76 percent of all voters support the stimulus package. Among Democrats, support rises to a whopping 89 percent. But, and this is what is most interesting, 60 percent of Republicans favor the bill’s passage. No wonder Biden’s approval rating registers well above 50 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s amalgamation of polls!

And, no wonder the Biden administration claims that the bill has bipartisan support. In what amounts to a novel definition of bipartisanship, the new administration cites poll numbers as proof its first big congressional measure has bipartisan support — among voters if not in Congress. As press secretary Jen Psaki argues, “[Biden] didn’t run on a promise to unite the Democratic and Republican Party [sic] into one party in Washington.”

No doubt some of the Republican opposition in Congress is a reflexive turn to the kind of obstructionism and gridlock Republicans have practiced for decades. McConnell is, of course, the master obstructionist when it comes to Democratic policies. President Barack Obama received scant Republican support for his signature proposals, even though he frequently tailored them to appeal to moderate Republican support. Obama’s failure to win any Republican backing only proves that moderate Republicans — at least in Congress — are a rare breed. 

It is also probably true that many Republicans — having argued for months that Biden’s victory resulted from electoral fraud — find it hard to work with the new president for fear that cooperation gives Biden legitimacy. That is a risk most Republican voters and local officials appear ready to take, so intransigence in Washington will only alienate Republican senators and House members from their constituents. It will be interesting to see how those up for reelection in 2022 defend their opposition to the stimulus package. 

The bill is expensive, to be sure. But, it is loaded with lots of things guaranteed to appeal to working-class voters, the part of the electorate many Republicans want to attract to a revamped party. “We are a working-class party now,” tweeted Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley last November. “That’s the future.” Others — including Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marco Rubio of Florida — have bought into Hawley’s vision, but the attempt to refashion the Republican Party into a truly populist entity — as opposed to former president Donald Trump’s faux populism rooted in racial and cultural grievances — runs against the image of a party drawing its support from the country club set and Wall Street types. It also jeopardizes the ability of Republicans to appeal to the extraordinarily wealthy donor class that has traditionally funded the party. McConnell especially worries about alienating big GOP donors.

Economic populists like Hawley want to make class, not race, the new fault line in American politics. A class-based ideology makes it easier for Republicans to attract working-class Black and Latino voters. But, this is the point at which the unified opposition of congressional Republicans to the Biden coronavirus relief package makes no sense. One part of the bill — in jeopardy in the Senate because of a ruling by that body’s parliamentarian — proposes raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, a measure that has the support of two-thirds of Americans. Raising the minimum wage ought to appeal to senators like Hawley, Cotton, and Rubio, all of whom are known to harbor presidential ambitions that dictate broadening the party’s appeal to include blue-collar workers.

Rubio makes an interesting case study on the minimum wage, since voters in his state approved a ballot measure hiking the minimum to $15 an hour. Florida is hardly a liberal bastion in the mode of California and New York, yet it became the eighth state overall and the first in the South to adopt the $15 an hour standard. But, the senator from Florida, who has spoken eloquently about broadening the party’s appeal, has not been a backer of a minimum wage increase. 

Perhaps, Rubio and other Republicans are willing to talk about attracting working-class voters but are less enthusiastic about pushing measures that might actually accomplish that goal. Maybe, these Republicans agree with McConnell on the need to attract big donors to bankroll Republican candidates. Possibly, their populism is not that much different from Trump’s after all as it is based more on grievance than righting iniquities.

It is hard to see the new populism as anything other than a ploy to hide the fact that Republicans lack any kind of vision that appeals to voters. With no readily popular set of policies, Republicans, again, have turned to obstructionism, the politics of grievance, and repeated and ongoing attempts to limit voting. These three factors explain Republican congressional opposition to the stimulus package that has the backing of a large majority of voters regardless of their party affiliation and why the next big battle in Congress — after passage of the coronavirus relief bill — will be over protecting voting rights and expanding access to the ballot box.

Posted February 26, 2021