GOP Obstructionism's Tragic Results

 by Michael C. Dorf

The For the People Act (H.R. 1)--a bill that would expand voting rights, curtail various state-level measures to disenfranchise minority and urban voters, restrict partisan gerrymandering, reform campaign finance, and more--passed the House of Representatives last month without a single Republican vote of "yea." Its fate in the Senate looks dubious, because unlike the American Rescue Plan Act that Congress passed last month, HR1 is not a budget measure that can be accomplished via the Reconciliation procedure--which requires only a simple majority to end debate. HR1 would need to garner support for ending debate from at least ten Republican Senators, which is not going to happen, or would need all fifty Democrats to change the cloture rule in some way. I'll have more to say about the filibuster in the coming weeks and months, but today I want to explore an especially pernicious effect of the unified Republican opposition to popular spending measures. To get there, I'll start with the calculations on the Democratic side.

Some Democratic Party activists have recently expressed frustration with President Biden for not doing enough to push for changes regarding what they regard as very important issues, including gun control (especially in the wake of the apparent resumption of mass shootings after an apparent pandemic-based lull), immigration (where the complaint extends to concerns about what the administration is doing, not simply its failures to act), and voting rights as per HR1. I share the sense that these are important agenda items but am less disappointed in the administration for two main reasons.

First, to the extent that the activists want to see more in the way of executive action, I think they over-estimate what can be done by the executive branch without legislation (especially on guns though less so with respect to immigration). Second, given the cloture rule, Republican intransigence, and the reluctance thus far of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema to support filibuster reform, Biden is surely right to prioritize bills that can be enacted via Reconciliation, like American Rescue, the American Jobs Plan (infrastructure-plus), and the bill that will likely follow in its wake, should American Jobs be enacted, which reportedly will focus on family-centered domestic policy issues like "free community college, universal prekindergarten and a national paid leave program."

The cloture rule mostly explains Biden's decision to prioritize the massive spending and somewhat less massive and certainly progressive tax increases to pay for some of it. But another factor may also be at work. The central lesson Biden learned from the period between President Obama's inauguration in January 2009 and Democratic loss of control of Congress in the 2010 midterms was not to wait for Republican cooperation, because it wouldn't arrive, and in the meantime, valuable time would be lost. This time around the Republicans did the Democratic president a favor by making clear right away that they would not even pretend to engage with his legislative agenda. Thus, any legislation will need to be achieved without Republican votes. Note, however, that there is urgency even apart from the potential for delay from waiting vainly for Republican cooperation. The Democratic majority is slim enough that a single illness or accident could derail passage of legislation. Under the circumstances, it's clearly the most sensible policy to grab the low-hanging fruit.

The fact that the fruit hangs low raises the question why the Republicans don't also try to grab it. To answer that question, we need to think a bit about whom the GOP represents.

The pre-Trump Republican Party was an awkward coalition of: (1) economic conservatives who favored deregulation, low taxes, and at least in theory (and in reality during Democratic administrations), relatively low spending on social programs; and (2) social conservatives on issues where their religion played a key role (abortion, women's rights, LGBT rights), other litmus test issues (such as opposing the death penalty and favoring gun rights), and hostility to the interests of non-white groups (by favoring restrictive immigration laws, opposing civil rights, etc.) That's an over-simplification, of course. Many people held both sets of beliefs, others mixed and matched, and before the fall of the Soviet Union, the conservative coalition also included anti-communists, whose views on domestic economic or social issues could have landed anywhere. But at least in recent decades, to first order it would have been fair to characterize the GOP coalition as consisting mostly of (1)s and (2)s.

That coalition has been awkward for many years. Thomas Frank first published What's the Matter with Kansas? in 2004, based on observations about facts that had already long held for years. Nonetheless, in the pre-Trump era, the alliance persisted. It is now bending and might soon break.

Trump ran for office in 2016 as an economic populist, but with the exception of his largely ineffective and mostly symbolic tariffs, he governed with respect to economic matters chiefly as a conventional Republican. I put aside for present purposes the corruption, incompetence, meanness, open racism, and anti-democratic behavior. I'm talking now about the Trump legislative agenda, at least for the first three years. But something happened in the last year. Republicans voted for the CARES Act and they voted for COVID relief again at the end of the Trump administration. There was even support among the most Trumpy members of Congress for $2,000 stimulus checks when Trump said $600 was inadequate.

To be sure, that support evaporated once Trump was out of office, so none of the Trumpy House members and Senators voted to top off the $600 with the $1400 in the American Rescue Plan Act. In part, we can chalk that up to standard hypocrisy. It's not all that different from Republicans remembering they're fiscal conservatives only after the Bush wars, tax cuts, and prescription drug coverage expansion. So yes, there is a large dollop of evergreen insincerity here. But there is also something of a shift. The economic populism into which Trump tapped did not find much if any support from Republicans in Congress during his first three years in office. Post-pandemic, however, one can sense some movement.

Presumably there are some Republican Senators and Representatives out there who realize that they court peril by opposing spending measures that are broadly popular. Yet Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy have pretty clearly instructed their caucuses that they must remain unified in opposing any legislation that Biden, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi favor. I'm not a Republican political strategist, so I don't pretend I understand why GOP leadership has adopted utter intransigence as its legislative strategy, but it pretty clearly has. Given that, what follows?

Republicans have argued and will continue to argue that the Democratic spending measures are not really what they purport to be. We are already seeing the same strategy with respect to American Jobs, which Republicans deride as mostly not about infrastructure. The descriptive claim is not entirely wrong. These are omnibus bills that include a mix of measures. However, as I wrote last month in Verdict column discussing American Rescue, the administration hasn't exactly hidden what it was proposing, and the first bill was broadly popular. If that's also true of the subsequent bill, then the Republican talking point about false advertising is unlikely to gain traction outside the bubbliest of the GOP base inside the FOX News bubble.

GOP obstructionists do not simply say that the Biden bills contain things besides the top-line figures. They also go after specifics that they try to associate with "the radical left," "Black Lives Matter," and "wokeness." I critiqued one element of this argument in a blog post that I wrote to accompany my Verdict column on American Rescue. I think I was right about the specifics there, but here I want to focus on the broader GOP strategy, which is essentially the old approach of distracting the base from the fact that the institutional party sides with the wealthy and big business by fueling outrage over social issues. Yet there are reasons to think it won't work this time.

One way we can sense that the zeitgeist is shifting is that high-profile GOP politicians from both the Trumpy wing and the less Trumpy wing of the party are uniting behind a strategy of attacking corporate America as the enemy in a new front of the culture war. That's not my terminology. That's how Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey--who is not even running for re-election--put it in the article just linked, which also quotes Trump himself, as well as the Senator-formerly-known-as-Little-Marco.

Rubio's tweet is especially revealing. He asked: "Why are we still listening to these woke corporate hypocrites on taxes, regulations & anti-trust?" The implicit message there is a threat: The GOP's corporate paymasters should stop siding with the Democrats on culture war issues if they want Republicans to continue to do their bidding on pocketbook issues.

I'm betting that this threat is empty and intended to be so. For one thing, it's not at all clear that Republicans can afford to alienate the donor class--the upper echelon of masters of the universe who may or may not have socially conservative views as well but care most deeply about light regulation and low taxes. Yes, Trump showed that it's possible for a Republican politician to raise buckets of money from smallish donations (especially if you defraud them). But the well of small donors is not infinitely deep and, more importantly, neither are the new voters fully reliable.

Previously-non-Trumpy GOP politicians made a Faustian bargain with the Trumpsters because Trump brought new voters to the polls while largely holding together the old Republican coalition. Of course, he alienated even larger numbers of moderate voters, which is why Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 and again by a wider margin in 2020. But in their most optimistic moments, the likes of McCarthy and McConnell are looking forward to a post-Trump future in which they can hang onto the new blood without alienating centrists. So long as Trump himself flirts with a third run or plays kingmaker and anoints a figure almost as loathsome as himself, that seems unlikely, but absent policy changes or wholesale realignment of the parties, this approach could be their best bet.

The short-term problem, however, is that it will be very very difficult for Republican politicians to hold onto nearly everybody who didn't vote in the pre-Trump era or formerly voted for Democrats but switched, so long as two things are true: (1) some substantial fraction of those voters are energized chiefly by economic populism, with social conservatism playing only a secondary role; and (2) Republican members of Congress consistently vote against popular spending measures because they've adopted a policy of obstructionism.

That leaves the GOP with the likelihood of becoming less popular overall, as it loses its grip on those white voters for whom economic populism is more important than social issues. Even so, however, the GOP will likely remain at least somewhat more popular than the Democrats among white voters overall and considerably more so among white rural voters. That, in turn, will mean that to maintain their grip on power, Republicans will need to press their advantage there as much as possible. Thus, they will stake everything on gerrymandering, suppressing minority votes, and rewriting the rules regarding the counting of votes so that their Trumpiest apparatchiks in state government can "find" votes when they need to. And indeed, that is exactly what they're doing.

It is thus no accident that the immediate occasion for the rhetorical corporation bashing in the story I linked above consisted of statements and actions by Major League Baseball, Coca-Cola, and Delta Airlines in response to Georgia's new law doing everything I've just described. "Cancel culture" is a useful bit of rhetorical red meat for the social conservative base in the same way that the "War on Christmas" is, but legislation aimed at securing white minority rule is life-or-death for the GOP.

It doesn't have to be this way. A GOP pursuing its enlightened self-interest would cooperate with the Democrats on popular economic spending. The parties would then compete on social issues and other policy issues that do not involve direct payments to the middle class. Although I would remain on the liberal side of those issues, I am not confident that my side would win. But at least it would be a contest of political ideas.

We won't have that contest, however, because the GOP, having committed to obstructionism, cannot credibly embrace economic populism. Instead, it will spout faux-attacks on corporate America while pursuing its anti-democratic agenda. Instead of an honest debate between two parties that agree government should spend money for the benefit of Americans in need but disagree about abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, structural racism, policing, gun control, immigration, environmental protection, public health, and more, we have a debate between a Democratic Party that favors representative government  and a Republican Party that opposes it.