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As a Senate Democrats were gearing up for the final votes on their big health and climate legislation late last week, their Republican their counterparts seemed ready to take one last desperate stand: they would force votes on a series of contentious amendments, remove all available procedural delays and wake up their local supporters, all in the hope of shattering unanimity. Democrat or, failing that, making the final vote on the legislation as politically painful as possible.
It was going to be a familiar ritual; there had been similar shows in the past. On Capitol Hill, staff, lawyers and reporters hunkered down and checked supplies ― my tireless colleague Igor Bobic said he was stocking up Red Bull and Girl Scout Cookies ― and the only question was whether it would last until Monday or Tuesday, or perhaps even longer if any of the wavering Democratic senators had doubts or new demands.
But on Saturday night, it was clear that Republican hearts were not in it.
They let an opportunity pass to demand a reading of the bill which, on its own, would have taken several hours, and they finally agreed to shorten the time for debate on each amendment. During the proceedings, GOP leaders issued press releases, pitching familiar arguments about Democratic tax hikes meant to kill the economy or prescription drug price reforms. supposedly killing Medicare. But the whole effort had a bland, superficial feel – it had nothing to do with the emotional outbursts during the last days of debate on the Affordable Care Act.
This It was actually hard to find legislation coverage at outlets like FoxNews.com and Breitbart, at least based on my weekend spot checks.
Ultimately, the bill passed with relatively little drama on Sunday afternoon, leaving Democrats to celebrate and Republicans to rush out to airports, so they can start August vacation. (Here is the full write-up from HuffPostif you missed it, here it is Chris D’Angelo’s explanation on essential climatic provisions.)
The timing may help explain why the GOP response has been so lethargic. With temperatures in the 90s and likely to approach 100 in the next few days, no one wanted to stay in Washington. But I think the apathetic final denial on the Democratic legislation was also emblematic of GOP posturing throughout this debate, dating back to when President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders first presented their legislative agenda early last year.
Remember, those early proposals were far more ambitious than what Democrats eventually passed. “build back better”, as they used to call it, included not only a major action on climate and Health care but also new rights for child care and home carenot to mention what would probably have been the major anti-poverty initiatives in decades. But Republicans have never attacked those plans as vigorously as they have after previous Democratic initiatives.
So what gives? Why have Republicans offered such weak resistance to this sweeping and potentially historic Democratic legislation? A few theories come to mind, including one that may speak volumes about the state of the Republican Party now that it has been fully Trumpified.
The design of the legislation made it more difficult to attack
The first theory is that Democrats have simply done an exceptionally good job of limiting their agenda to grassroots, hard-to-attack initiatives. This is especially true for policies that were left at the end of the process, after Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kirsten Sinema (Arizona) had obtained their concessions.
For their climate agenda, the Democrats had abandoned the Obama-era approach of trying to tax carbon emissions, opting instead to make clean energy more attractive by subsidizing it ― in effect, throwing money away. on industries and consumers opting for climate-friendly options, rather than penalizing those who don’t. “The main reason the bill was defeated in 2010 was that it relied too heavily on sticks,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told HuffPost, referring to a proposed ” cap-and-trade” which passed the House but never passed the Senate. (Slate’s Jordan Weissmann has a great explainer on this change if you want to learn more.)
For their health care program, the Democrats have been content to make prescriptions cheaper by reduce the personal expenses of seniors and give the federal government new lever to lower prices. If the polls are accurate, they are literally some of the most popular politicians in politics todaywith a particularly strong appeal to an electoral bloc (older white voters) that Republicans desperately need to retain.
These plans are all light on pain and heavy on gain, except for big business (whose taxes would go up) and the pharmaceutical industry (whose revenues would go down). Politically, these are not the easiest groups for Republicans to defend, at least publicly.
Another likely reason Republicans never mounted a counteroffensive is that Democratic legislation was so many different things for so much of its existence.
It goes both ways, of course. For most of last year and much of this year, Biden and Democratic leaders have struggled to make their case to the public, and I’ve always thought a big reason was that they couldn’t cut through the noise to tell voters what they wanted. do.
But in hindsight, it seems Republicans ran into a similar problem: They couldn’t draw public attention to one piece of the legislation because there was so much in it.
The GOP’s transformation has left it ill-equipped to discuss
The third theory, and the one that may have the most long-term implications, is that the GOP has lost its ability to engage on bread-and-butter political issues — in part because it no longer seems interested.
There was a time when Republicans had big plans for rights, for example, including not only Medicare and Medicaid but also Social Security. They also had a global vision to reduce regulations and rewrite the tax code.
They were grand plans or terrible plans or something in between, depending on your perspective, but they were real. And while they often matter less than arguments focused on race, gender, or (more recently) sexual identity, they have remained a central and much-discussed part of the GOP brand.
These policy proposals still exist, and you can certainly find members of the larger conservative universe who care passionately about them. But the plans no longer get the attention they once did. And while a party’s interest in politics is a difficult thing to objectively measure, a telltale sign of the magnitude of the changes is the GOP’s 2020 campaign platform. There wasn’t onefor the first time in modern history.
This lack of a platform had a lot to do with the GOP presidential nominee — that is, incumbent President Donald Trump — who, notoriously, had no interest in governing. And it’s hard not to think that his takeover of the party is a major factor in the atrophy of the GOP’s political mind. Developing substantive positions and then promoting them requires patience, negotiation and a lot of serious intellectual work. Suffice to say, these aren’t the hallmarks of Trump or his most dedicated cheerleaders, especially in the press.
GOP ideas on the economy and social welfare remain unpopular
Of course, one of the reasons Trump hasn’t talked much about politics is because he instinctively realizes how wildly unpopular many core GOP ideas are.
People forget that he ran in the 2016 primaries as a different Republican, committed to protecting Medicare and Social Security — and that his vow to repeal ‘Obamacare’ came with a promise quality health care for all, which is nowhere near. to what the GOP repeal regimes actually offered. Today, Republicans know better than to brag about their designs for reduce popular spending programs. When the casual curator takes a chance, like Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) did earlier this year, party leaders are quickly moving away from it.
To be clear, there are some substantive issues that always pique the interest of Trumpified Republicans — everything related to immigration, for starters, as well as the left’s supposed assault on patriotism and Christian values, especially in schools.
But whatever the merits and popularity of conservative positions on these issues, they have very little to do with helping the elderly pay for their medications or addressing the threat of global warming. And so when the conversation turns to these topics, as has been the case when Democrats crafted legislation over the past 16 months, Republicans simply haven’t had much to say.
Whether that helps or hurts Republicans politically remains to be seen. Ignoring economic, environmental, and health policy debates in order to focus on grievances with leftists and their allies in the media and intellectual elite could prove to be a winning long-term strategy for the GOP.
But this approach to governance cedes a great deal of intellectual territory to liberals. It looks bad for conservatives. It also makes the debate less lively. It looks bad for everyone.