The Republican Party’s failure to spark grassroots opposition to the $1.9 trillion Democratic Covid relief bill, which is nearing final passage, highlights the GOP’s transformation into a coalition fueled largely by cultural and ethnic grievances — and the potential this presents for President Joe Biden to advance his economic objectives.
Despite the fact that every Republican in the House and Senate voted against the rescue package, it hasn’t sparked the protests against new government budgets and services that plagued Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama during their first years in office.
Throughout the legislative fight, congressional Republicans and conservative media outlets like Fox News seemed more interested in concentrating attention on minor cultural concerns, such as whether Dr. Seuss had succumbed to liberal “cancel culture.”
The emphasis on cultural grievances represents a change in GOP voter motivation, with fewer voters reacting to warnings about “big government,” which were once essential to the party’s appeal, and more viscerally responding to fears that Democrats plan to turn “our country,” as former President Donald Trump often refers to it, into something culturally unrecognizable.
“On the right, questions about cultural dominance, political power, and status are really eclipsing other ideological concerns,” says Daniel Cox, a research fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who recently released a comprehensive national survey of GOP voter attitudes. “Traditional conservative values do not animate Republican voters, whether it’s a pledge to a strong national defense or support for limited government.”
Although that change wasn’t enough to get any Republican votes in Congress for the bill, the lack of grassroots conservative opposition helped Biden unite nearly all moderate Democrats in both chambers after just a few small policy tweaks. In these votes, congressional Democrats have shown much more unity than they did during Clinton and Obama’s first months in office when it came to the major economic proposals.
As a top White House aide to Clinton and Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel witnessed all of those previous battles. He told me that the improvements requested this time by Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and other moderates were minor in comparison to the gyrations needed to enact those economic plans “a tuck and a nip It isn’t even a cosmetic procedure.” The small shifts, he claims, indicate that the Democratic congressional caucus today is “much more politically unified” than in previous times.
Some Democratic strategists warn that the Biden agenda’s total price tag may still spark a backlash, particularly if interest rates and/or inflation rise, as some economists predict. But, for the time being, it seems that Democratic moderates are less afraid of being labeled “big government” by the right than their counterparts did during the early months of the Clinton and Obama administrations. That could help Biden unite his party in preparation for another costly initiative he’ll likely announce soon: a larger, infrastructure-focused economic recovery plan with a price tag that would almost certainly top a trillion dollars.