President Biden’s Gift to Republicans
The Biden administration has been hailed as a return to normalcy: No more Twitter tirades, prickly press conferences, or — at least so far — corruption and dishonesty.
But if recent commentary is to be believed, the return of Democrats to the White House also marks the return of big government. A recent Bloomberg headline blared, “Big Government is Poised for a Rerun with Biden’s Economic Plan;” and CNN’s Chris Cillizza asserted, “The era of big government is back with a vengeance.”
And who’s to argue with them? After the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act to address the COVID-19 crisis, the Biden administration unveiled another $2.3 trillion for infrastructure. Then, in his first major address to the nation, President Joe Biden announced another $1.8 trillion for universal pre-K, paid family leave, child care and a whole host of other items long on the Democratic wish list.
The irony, however, is that the Trump years were already the height of big spending. Even before COVID-19, Former President Donald J. Trump expanded the federal balance sheet across the board. And after the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and other relief packages, the federal deficit swelled to the highest in history.
Much has been written on how Republicans have lost their way, and how, even after January 6, they are more concerned with visiting the Florida Death Star than engaging on policy. Eventually, though, they will have to blaze a new path, and it will have to be something more than just spending a little less than the Democrats.
With the new focus on infrastructure, the time couldn’t be better for the Republicans of yore to mount their return. Here’s how they should proceed:
First, Republicans should argue for funding where it will do the most good, rather than just proposing less for its own sake. That means, sure, spend some money on trains, but focus all or most of it on the heavily used Northeast Corridor line, rather than on the establishment of useless routes in parts of the country that will never be profitable.
On the highway front, Republicans should argue for focusing federal efforts on alleviating interstate bottlenecks rather than building flashy and expensive new roads. The same goes for bridges and other infrastructure in need of repair: as Charles Lane argued recently in the Washington Post, the idea that our roads and bridges are crumbling doesn’t even comport with reality. So call Biden’s bluff: if the goal truly is to “build back better,” laser-focusing federal funding gets us most of the way to where we need to be.
Second, opposing federal involvement does not require denying the underlying problems Biden’s proposal is meant to address. It is possible, for example, to oppose massive federal involvement in broadband expansion without denying that more rural broadband would be a good thing. Proposing alternatives need not require complete opposition to the goal.
In fact, doubling down on broadband in particular could not be savvier politically. After all, in a time when millions of Americans are commuting to work via Zoom, expanding internet access looks a lot more like infrastructure than improving sewer lines and repaving roads. Republicans would be better served pushing for deregulation and suggesting ways to — gasp — improve whatever package ultimately passes.
Finally, dispense with the tired talking points. There are dozens of ways to criticize a bad Biden plan on the merits that don’t require making baseless arguments like it isn’t “real infrastructure.” Infrastructure is a bad way to create jobs, doesn’t stimulate the economy much and is prone to conservatives’ favorite bugaboo of waste: fraud and abuse. So just say that, and skip the arguments that anything that isn’t FDR-style infrastructure isn’t actually infrastructure.
Time will tell whether the Biden administration’s recent spending binge will prove politically wise. Insiders have suggested that he is fixated on dreaming big, laying out an ambitious agenda and ultimately being a transformative president. His recent address to the nation is just the latest manifestation of that vision.
But while a majority of voters may have wanted change from Donald Trump, the overall picture isn’t quite so clear. Despite losing the presidency, Republicans netted 12 seats in the House without a single incumbent loss. Democrats who think they have an overwhelming mandate for all priorities might want to think again.
If Biden wants to outlast his predecessor, he would be wise to ease up on the fiscal throttle. Otherwise, Republicans may find themselves with a real opportunity — if only they open their eyes to see it.