Why Republicans are Betting Wrong on COVID-Relief

Unified Republican opposition to Obama's policies helped them retake Congress in 2010, here's why it may not work again

When the House of Representatives passed President Biden’s COVID-relief plan last weekend, every single Republican voted against it. Earlier this week, Senator John Thune, Mitch McConnell’s deputy, predicted that every Republican Senator would vote against the Biden plan. Thune’s reasoning was typically cynical. He said the Republicans wanted to:

make the Democrats own a piece of legislation that I think is going to have long-term adverse consequences.

This was the latest example of Republicans saying the quiet part out loud. Thune is admitting they are making a bet that the Biden plan won’t work, and Republicans can reap the political rewards of a sub-standard economy in 2022. This is the same bet the Republicans made in 2009 when they decided to oppose Barack Obama’s efforts to address the financial crisis.

Politically, the 2009 bet paid off. The Republicans rode a wave of economic discontent to control of the House and a massive set of wins down-ballot that would impact politics for more than a decade. But just because it worked then doesn’t mean it will work now. The Republicans may be making a massive miscalculation by re-fighting the last war.

What Happened in 2009

If Republicans fighting tooth and nail to stop a Democratic President from cleaning up a mess made by a Republican President sounds familiar, it probably means you are old enough to have been around in 2009. As the Washington Post recounted1:

On inauguration night four years ago, pollster Frank Luntz organized a strategy session for leading Republicans at the Caucus Room, a steakhouse in downtown D.C. The widely reported dinner has become the creation myth of the Obama opposition, in which Luntz, former speaker Newt Gingrich, Reps. Eric Cantor (Va.), Paul Ryan (Wis.) and other leading Republican lawmakers from both chambers plotted how to confront the president. The Republicans giddily came away from the four-hour dinner with a plan to weaken Obama through blanket opposition.

The first test of this strategy was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) — Obama’s first bill to address the spiraling financial crisis that was causing the economy to spiral and unemployment to spike. While the parties have always clashed, they have historically put those differences aside during times of national crisis. The Great Recession was one of those national crises. But this time, there was no unity. Every member of the House voted against the bill. All but three Senate Republicans did the same — and one of those three was under such assault by the GOP base that he became a Democrat a few months later.

The nearly unanimous opposition allowed the Republicans to sit back, watch the world burn, and win some elections. That is very clearly their plan again, but the circumstances and politics are very different this time around.

Biden’s Bill is More Popular

We live in the middle of an era of tremendous polarization, yet Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan is shockingly popular. It’s one of the most popular, least polarizing pieces of legislation in recent memory. According to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, 76 percent of voters support Biden’s plan, including a majority of Republicans.

It’s worth noting that most polls show that 70 percent or so of Republicans believe Joe Biden is an illegitimate president. Therefore, a large segment of people who think Biden stole the election also supports his COVID and economic recovery plans.

Obama’s Recovery Act was never this popular. A January 2009 Gallup poll found that the public favored Obama’s plan 52 percent to 38 percent.

These are good numbers but nowhere near the sky-high popularity of the Biden plan. At the time of this poll, Obama’s approval rating was hovering around 70 percent. Biden’s plan is more popular than he is — Biden’s job approval is 52.8 per FiveThirtyEight. That disparity is evidence of Biden’s COVID plan's political durability — and the dangerous game Republicans are playing by opposing it. People who don’t like Biden but like his plan are the exact people who the Republicans need to win over to take back Congress.

Biden’s Plan is More Likely to Work, More Quickly

The mess that President Biden inherited from Trump is much worse than the one Obama inherited from Bush. However, the solution is more simple, and a quick turnaround is much, much more likely.

The root causes of the 2009 crisis were multi-faceted, interconnected, and very hard to unwind. Recessions caused by financial crises take longer to recover from and are less likely to snap back quickly. Even under the most optimistically realistic scenario, Democrats were looking at a pretty tough economy on Election Day 2010. While hindsight has proven that the Recovery Act was too small, it did achieve its primary goal — stopping the country from tumbling into a second Great Depression. Democrats, therefore, had to campaign (in part) on a message of “Imagine how much worse things could have been.” Counterfactuals are the hardest political arguments to make.

The situation in 2021 is much different. The cause of the current economic difficulties is singular. The solution is simple — in conception, if not execution — vaccinate as many people soon as possible. The combination of vaccinations and economic aid is highly likely to make the Biden plan's success widely felt when people start voting in 2022. Even the notoriously pessimistic Congressional Budget Office is optimistic. According to CNBC:

U.S. economic growth will recover “rapidly” and the labor market will return to full strength quicker than expected thanks to the vaccine rollout and a barrage of legislation enacted in 2020, according to a government forecast published Monday.

Notably, this rosy prediction does not factor in the passage of the American Rescue plan. It is reasonable to project that if everything goes as planned, the economy could look very good in November 2022.

Imagine the collective euphoria we will all feel when we can gather together again. Simple acts like attending a concert or a ballgame will be cause for celebration. Republicans are deciding to take no ownership of that success — a decision they could very much regret.

Will Voters Remember?

Republicans will only pay a political price for their blanket opposition if voters remember. And voters will only remember if we remind them. While every news outlet in the country ran a story about the House passage of the bill, it happened in the early hours of a Saturday morning — the single worst time to make news. The bill's limited coverage — and the GOP opposition — was quickly overwhelmed by Trump’s speech at CPAC and a bunch of trumped-up controversies about absurd issues like a potato-shaped toy and Dr. Seuss. Democratic campaigns will need to start advertising quickly to drill home that Republicans are on the wrong side of this very popular and important plan. At every juncture, all of us need to remind our networks that Republicans deserve no credit for the success we very much hope is around the corner.

After passage of the Recovery Act in 2009, Republicans responded to every piece of economic news by screaming, “Where are the jobs?” at the top of their lungs. Democrats should respond to every piece of good vaccine and economic news by screaming at Republicans, “Where were you?”

Two years is an eternity in politics, and a lot can happen, but as we sit here today, it seems that the bet Republicans are making is much riskier than the one they made in 2009.

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1

This dinner was originally revealed in Robert Draper’s excellent book — “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives.”