What a Difference Six Months Make
by Neil H. Buchanan
Six months ago today, Joe Biden took the oath of office and became President of the United States. (He actually would have become president at noon that day without taking the oath, but no matter.) At the time, the only reasonable emotion to feel was relief, especially because of the insurrection that had taken place only two weeks before. Even setting that trauma aside, however, finally having Donald Trump out of office was a very big deal.
Although I was tempted to devote today's column to describing an alternative time line in which Trump stayed in office, instead I will discuss what should have been obvious before Biden moved into the White House. In particular, I want to explore why non-Republican pundits so often refuse to recognize the extremism of this millennium's version of the Republican Party. This tendency has never made sense, and it is especially interesting (in a frustrating way) to look in the rear-view mirror at a particularly good example of this naivete.
Having pegged this column to the six-month mark of Biden's presidency, I confess that I am in fact going to focus on a piece that was written a few months before Biden's inauguration -- indeed, two weeks before Election Day. I do this because, although January 6 had a searing effect on American politics, the belief among self-styled centrists in the good faith of some Republican officeholders has continued unabated beyond that fateful day. If anything, there was a palpable belief among some pundits that Republicans would suddenly and finally snap out of it.
Centrist commentators and politicians have long held firm to their belief that there is a Reasonable Middle, where people on both sides of the political divide can meet each other and join hands. We therefore continue to see elaborate virtue signaling by politicians creating things like the Problem Solvers Caucus, made up of Republicans and Democrats who define themselves by whatever counts as the center-right of the moment. Similarly, political animals like Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg continue to say in interviews that the problem with American politics is "Washington politicians," even when they are describing examples of pure Republican obstructionism.
Thus it was on October 19 of last year that Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin (a lifelong conservative who has made the principled and praiseworthy decision to walk away from the Trumpified Republican Party) published a column under this headline: "Here’s the Biden economic agenda that might draw GOP support." When I saw that headline, I bookmarked the URL (without reading the column) and promised myself that I would go back and read a few months down the road. Notwithstanding my respect for Rubin, my thought at that moment was that it would be amusing/instructive at some point in Biden's presidency to look back and see what nonsense she had written -- what a high-profile pundit (especially one with plenty of reasons to be cynical about Republicans) had believed might actually fly with Republicans in the Biden era.
I was right: It is amusing and instructive.
To be clear, I am not faulting Rubin (or anyone else) for failing to predict the future accurately. Predictions, even well informed predictions, can be wrong. It would be easy, for example, to go back to the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and criticize experts like Anthony Fauci, who were offering their best scientific judgment based on the then-available information; and when the information changed, their judgment changed. But of course, nobody would ever do something so specious and opportunistic as to attack Fauci for following the evidence, would they?
The exercise, then, is not to offer a scorecard for anyone's specific predictions. When Rubin was writing that column, after all, the polls were predicting a blowout for Biden, with possible wins not only in Arizona and Georgia but in Florida and even Texas. Meanwhile, there was a chance that the Democrats were on the verge of picking up as many as ten Senate seats and adding dozens of seats to their House majority. Even Mitch McConnell's reelection bid had briefly looked competitive.
That is the information on which everyone was operating at the time, and Rubin reasonably noted in her column that a lot of the particulars of policy would be determined by how big the Democrats' win turned out to be. Although I happened to write a column that week that tragically turned out to be correct ("There Will Be (More) Blood"), there were plenty of presumptions in my writings during that time that were similarly skewed by what turned out to be inaccurate polls.
So this is not a gotcha moment. I continue to find Rubin's writing engaging and compelling, and she is one of the few pundits at the very top of the pyramid who consistently uses her position to hold Trumpists to account. She continues to have at least muscle memory that pushes her toward conservative policy views, however, which can be infuriating but is no different from many other high-profile commentators.
Reading Rubin's headline from that day (which, again, was "Here’s the Biden economic agenda that might draw GOP support"), probably the snarkiest of many snarky thoughts would be: "If I click on that link, will it just be a blank page?" Which Democratic agenda items, especially on the economic side, could garner any Republican support? Even with Biden's richly deserved reputation as a centrist, there was no reason to believe that Republicans would get on board with anything that Biden proposed.
After all, Biden had served for eight years as the right-hand man to the supposedly post-partisan president who continued to believe that the best response to Republican obstructionism was to try even harder to get them to play nice. Biden had also been in the Senate in the 1990's, when Republicans impeached Bill ("the era of big government is over") Clinton and did everything they could to undermine his presidency.
Were Biden to offer a centrist-pleasing agenda as a way to draw support from supposedly moderate Republicans, then, there was no reason to think that any Republicans would jump aboard the bipartisan express.
As we have seen in the ensuing months, Biden did engage in a process that was supposed to prove that there are ten reasonable Republicans who could agree to vote for at least some infrastructure spending. That effort, however, is now in the process of falling apart, because those faux-centrist Republicans are suddenly refusing to restore enforcement funding to the IRS, which was the "pay-for" of the bill that they said they would support. Centrists like Rubin simply cannot believe this, because they understand that there is no good-faith argument against allowing the tax cops to enforce the law.
And despite claims that Biden has turned out to be a born-again New Dealer, much of what he has offered is in fact centrism. After all, Rubin's source for the Republican-bait agenda that Biden could offer was a report from that most Clintonian of center-right triangulators, Third Way. Rubin reproduced Third Way's entire suggested agenda, and it was admittedly bad in certain ways, such as carefully not endorsing even a Public Option for health care, and leaving it to states -- some of which to this day continue to reject Medicaid expansion, even though it would be financially beneficial for those states to accept it -- to administer worker retraining programs.
But the rest of the list is an endorsement of pretty basic, popular federal programs: an expanded child tax credit, benefits for gig workers, "[a] substantial expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to make it more generous and reach more people," and so on. So it might have been reasonable to think that, especially if anti-left groups like Third Way could support this stuff, reasonable Republicans could be found to join the coalition.
Note, however, that I wrote just now that "it might have been reasonable to think that" there was a post-obstructionist, non-extreme economic agenda that could move forward once Biden became president. But Rubin never even mentions Mitch McConnell, whose views and influence were already so legendary that he is often viewed as the Grim Reaper. The closest she came to addressing that problem was when she admitted that "[n]o one expects the worst anti-government, demagogic Republicans to go along with anything that departs from supply-side plutocratic economics."
The problem is that the quoted sentence then continues:
"... but there are more than a few Republicans who have embraced pieces of this (e.g., Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah on expansion of the child tax credit). Moreover, given that many of these moderate policies poll extremely well, the Republican survivors of 2020 may look for issues on which they can show themselves not to be knee-jerk obstructionists."
Did Rubio or Lee actually support the expansion of the child tax credit earlier this year? Are they lining up to include "human infrastructure" in the Senate's spending plans? Of course not. They are not even among the eleven Republican senators who signed the non-binding infrastructure agreement that is now falling apart.
Ending in a flourish, Rubin writes: "[I]f Democrats start with things Republicans ostensibly support — the value of work, helping families — Democrats stand a good chance of assembling, at least for a time, a broad coalition. They might even end the notion that our federal government is dysfunctional."
Again, the purpose here is not to say that Rubin has turned out to be wrong. It is that it was easily foreseeable at the time that she would turn out to be wrong. Although Rubin quite appropriately continues to ridicule Joe Manchin's bipartisan fantasies, this is all part of the same delusion. The Twenty-First Century Republican Party has revealed itself over and over again to be what it is, but the Rubins, Manchins, and Bidens of the world simply cannot believe (or claim not to believe) what they are seeing with their own eyes.
So what is "the Biden economic agenda that might draw GOP support"? It is tempting to say, "Tax cuts for the rich and large businesses, gutting all regulations, and so on" -- or "supply-side plutocratic economics," in Rubin's words. Even that, however, is obviously not true. Republicans will not support any agenda that Biden might propose. They have told us, again and again, that their goal is to make him fail, and they clearly are not lying about that.