Perhaps the most surprising element of President Joe Biden’s first presidential speech on Thursday night was what it did not include.
A day after the passage of the most far-reaching domestic piece of legislation in decades, Biden spent only the last few minutes in touting his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. The lion’s share of his talk was a detailed account of the effort to contain and control the coronavirus pandemic. Apart from a passing reference to the “denial” and “silence” of his unnamed predecessor, politics was not on the agenda.
There may well have been good reason for that decision. His first prime-time speech as president called for a message of unity—the same message he had sounded during his campaign and in his Inaugural. No mention of the unanimous opposition of Republicans to his plan; no attempt to draw partisan lines. The selling of his Rescue Plan is expected to begin any time, but Biden clearly decided it could wait a day or two.
Yet there is no doubt that the political implications of his plan have the potential to be nothing less than radical.
It was 11 years ago, almost to the day, that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of Obamacare, “we have to pass the bill so that you can know what’s in it.” That notion, which seemed borrowed from the Queen of Hearts’ absurdist “Sentence first! Verdict afterwards!” approach in Alice in Wonderland, turns out to have been even more applicable to this week’s American Rescue Act.
It was after the bill’s approval by the Senate that we learned the full dimensions of the most audaciously ambitious social welfare legislation since the New Deal. Most tellingly, the congressional Republicans, who had voted unanimously against it out of force of habit, never bothered to train the full fury of their fire at a series of provisions that took the nation several steps down the road to social democracy.
There’s the tax credit for children that in effect provides thousands of dollars a year for each child—an idea that’s been debated since Daniel Moynihan proposed it as a member of the Nixon administration. There’s the significant expansion of subsidies to buy into health care, along with months’ worth of free access to health insurance for those who’ve lost their jobs and health insurance—not “socialized medicine,” but a significant step toward more public underwriting of health care. And there’s an $86 billion commitment to protect the pensions of a million retirees whose multi-employer plans were in danger of insolvency—without even a pretense that this is linked to the Covid pandemic. It’s the kind of bailout you might expect in a nation where organized labor is a significant share of the workforce. Now, in a United States where unions represent barely 6 percent of the private sector labor force, that protection is law.
From a policy perspective, the key question is whether these and other provisions lead to a robust economy or one eroded by a spike in inflation. From a political perspective, the potential impact of the rescue plan is hard to overstate; what it represents is the possibility that the Democratic Party has found a tool to reconnect it to a working and middle class whose loyalty has been threatened for well over half a century.
There are a host of centrifugal forces pulling at the Democratic Party coalition: In the early 1960s, clashes over housing, jobs, schools, crime and welfare divided Black and white working-class voters. Cities like Berkeley and Seattle repealed fair housing laws, and in 1964—the high-water mark of postwar Democratic Party strength—voters in California overwhelmingly banned such laws. By 1968, George Wallace’s campaign for president was striking chords beyond the South. The fraying of the New Deal coalition was very much on the mind of Robert F. Kennedy, whose presidential campaign was based on holding it together. In his last weeks, he began talking about an issue he believed had broad appeal: specifically, how many of the wealthiest Americans avoided paying a fair share of taxes. By the end of 1968, divisions over the war in Vietnam, deadly riots in the cities and upheaval on college campuses reduced the Democratic share of the presidential vote from 60 percent in 1964 to 43 percent; Richard Nixon and George Wallace divided the rest.
Little more than a decade later, the twin demons of recession across the industrial heartland and double-digit inflation helped turn millions of voters into “Reagan Democrats,” leading to two landslide victories for the Gipper and 12 consecutive years of GOP presidencies. All through the 1980s, Democrats and their intellectual allies tried to grapple with the fact that voters seemed to prefer Democratic policies (on health care, education, taxes), but voted, at least at the presidential level for Republicans. (I have a vivid memory of House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt assuring a group of journalists that once the American people saw his party’s proposals for lower drug prices and access to college, they would return to the fold.)
It took “a different kind of Democrat” (as Bill Clinton defined himself) to win back, at least temporarily, those defecting Democrats by breaking with his party’s orthodoxies on crime and welfare, and by pledging that “the era of Big Government is over.” And it took an emerging demographic sea change that yielded an increasingly nonwhite electorate, and a more liberal cohort of college-educated whites, to outweigh (at least in popular vote terms), the increasingly Republican tilt of less-educated whites and to put Barack Obama in the White House.
But both Clinton and Obama suffered severe political damage in their first midterms from the fact that their principal battles—for deficit-cutting tax hikes on the part of Clinton, and from a stimulus and a health care plan from Obama—had failed to deliver tangible success. While both were reelected, those midterm failures had severe consequences that endure; in particular, 2010 produced a GOP takeover at the state level that now threatens severe voting limits across the country.
With the American Rescue Plan, Democrats are offering something very different: a package that is in a key sense a throwback to its roots first planted in the days of Andrew Jackson. It is an unapologetic assertion of the power of government to redress a set of grievances without any assertion of identity politics; while the stark facts of the pandemic mean that it has hit with special force in Black and brown communities, the remedial power of government is directed to the victims defined by circumstance, not color.
The political potential here is impressive. Consider a 2022 midterm where the future of the now-temporary child tax credits is on the line, and where every Republican House and Senate incumbent will have to explain to the electorate why they voted against them. Consider the votes of tens of thousands of small-business owners—the entrepreneurial heart of what Republicans rhetorically celebrate—whose enterprises survived because of the law enacted with a clear partisan split. Imagine a Republican arguing that only a small fraction of the law addressed the costs of the pandemic, when there are countless parents of school-age children, restaurant workers, retail shop owners, hotel clerks, freelance consultants, who know exactly what happened to their lives when Covid struck.
This is a possibility that Republicans simply may not have imagined, given their midterm successes in running against the initiatives of the past two Democratic presidents, and inflicting on Clinton and Obama successive political catastrophes.
This time, the benefits of the new law are easy to grasp, and will be—literally—in the hands of Americans within weeks. The scope is broad enough to encompass both the poor and large elements of the middle class, which is why it now enjoys a level of support almost unimaginable for a law passed along such partisan lines. There is a hint that an outbreak of public happiness may be about to begin; when American Airlines tells its workers to “tear up those furlough notices!”, it portends the chance of celebration with every reopened restaurant, with every eviction notice burned. More broadly, it appears to contain provisions that leapfrog a dilemma that has plagued Democratic social programs in the past: When they are perceived as helping one class of voters, they meet with a powerful backlash, (often one infused by racial resentment). When a program reaches broadly—Social Security, Medicare and, increasingly, the Affordable Care Act—it becomes politically potent.
Potential is not prediction. There are plenty of ways that 2022 could be another Democratic disaster; perhaps inflation will accelerate, or the looming issues of an overwhelmed border and rising crime may override good economic news, or the Republican efforts to limit the vote in state after state will prove too formidable.
But what does seem clear is that, unlike past measures that required huge congressional majorities, a radical change in the social fabric of the United States has become a reality—and with it, an opportunity for the Democratic Party no one could have imagined 50 days ago.
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