A Risky Bet

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Republican lawmakers are making a risky bet. They are wagering that the party can continue to get votes from key constituencies while opposing Biden administration programs greatly benefitting those voters.

President Joe Biden has proposed two massive spending programs. The first, the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, gave tangible benefits to working-class whites, a core voting bloc for the Republican Party, yet every House and Senate Republican voted against it. The same pattern likely will be the fate of the second Biden proposal, the huge infrastructure proposal, which offers significant assistance to rural communities, another key Republican constituency.

The Republican gamble is mystifying: Some of the proposed benefits of both packages — $1,400 stimulus checks and, in the infrastructure plan, rural broadband — are visible and large benefits. A check in a bank account or speedy and reliable internet service are forms of assistance voters likely will remember when they go to the polls, and, if they do not remember, campaign ads will certainly remind them. Republican legislators seem to believe that raising culture war issues will resonate with conservative audiences who will overlook the tangible benefits Biden and his fellow Democrats have provided. 

Republicans like Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley claim the GOP is now the party of the working man and woman. Yet, they, like every other Republican lawmaker, voted against the stimulus payments much needed by working Americans severely impacted by the economic shutdown during the pandemic. They, like every other Republican lawmaker, voted against the huge expansion of the child tax credit, a benefit for everyone with children, except the rich. Similarly, the stimulus package drastically will alleviate child poverty, yet no Republican voted for it. 

The reach of the infrastructure package is equally expansive. Everyone will benefit from improved roads and bridges and modernized mass transit. Up to a third of rural voters lack internet access and many more have spotty coverage at best, so Biden’s proposal to spend $100 billion to guarantee 100-percent broadband access should be popular. The lack of internet access has become more acute during the pandemic as children have been forced to learn remotely and institutions and businesses have placed their operations online. Republican members of Congress are going to have a difficult time explaining why they voted against such an obvious benefit to their constituents. 

Some Republicans defend their eventual “no” vote by claiming to like some portions of the infrastructure measure — broadband access and money spent improving roads and bridges — while opposing other parts — like green energy components. Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst tells Iowans that “infrastructure is just a buzz word for every progressive wish list item under the sun… [and the Biden plan] takes a very sharp left turn at the expense of American jobs and taxpayers.”

That line of arguing will only go so far. A more likely Republican tactic will be to engage, once again, in the politics of diversion, trying to turn attention away from the real benefits of administration policy to conservative culture war issues like police reform, immigration, transgender rights, and the nebulous — but all the more effective because of that — claims of leftwing “cancel culture.” Another grand Republican diversionary tactic is the current attempt to double down on the Big Lie, the notion that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. The Big Lie justifies — for Republicans — the current attempts in Republican-controlled states to restrict access to the vote. It is an issue Republicans will try to keep before their supporters for as long as possible. And, counterattacks by businesses and others to oppose voting restrictions bolster misplaced Republican claims of leftists engaging in, yes, here it is again, “cancel culture.”

The Republican bet that cultural issues trump the benefits of Democratic policies may work in the short run. Cultural issues — especially when they intersect with race in the case, for example, of voting rights — often provide electoral fodder for the GOP. But, how far can Republicans ride this horse? At what point do enough of their voters wonder why they get assistance from Democrats and only red-meat blather from Republicans?

I know the following is going to sound naive, but are any Republicans in politics because they want to improve the lives of their constituents? I know American politics has rarely been a pretty endeavor, and I am fully aware that pandering to voters is often the norm. But, I thought most people enter politics because they want to accomplish something and genuinely want to help people. Obviously, every politician wants to win the next election, but is winning — at the expense of governing — the only goal in politics?

The example of freshman Georgia Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene — the QAnon adherent and believer in the conspiracy theory that Jewish space lasers cause forest fires — suggests that for many lawmakers the answer is yes. Greene’s rightwing claptrap and outlandish conspiracy theories led to her expulsion from congressional committees. Greene celebrated her exile by claiming she is “freed” from the drudgery of legislation. “If I was on a committee, I’d be wasting my time,” she said. 

Greene joins a growing list of legislators — mostly Republican — who believe their main job is not to pass laws that benefit their constituents but to build a brand and appear on rightwing media. Greene is the political equivalent of the Kardashians — people famous for being famous. Not for her is the pesky business of understanding the minutiae of legislation. Why engage in the nitty-gritty of bill writing when you can appear on TV saying outrageous things that make you more and more famous (or, at least, notorious)?

Unfortunately, almost every legislator in the House and Senate Republican caucuses seems to think his or her job is simply to obstruct Democratic programs. Like Greene, none of them appear interested in governing. Almost every Republican lawmaker would rather raise the specter of illegal voters — of which there are hardly any — and transgender athletes instead of seriously engaging Democrats in the business of legislating. 

That is the Republican bet. If it works, all of President Biden’s attempts at bipartisanship are doomed to failure.

Posted April 13, 2021

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