US President Joe Biden at the White House on Thursday, March 4.
CNN  — 

The Republican Party’s inability to ignite a grassroots backlash against the $1.9 trillion Democratic Covid relief bill moving toward final passage underscores the GOP’s transformation into a coalition energized primarily by cultural and racial grievance – and the opportunity that opens for President Joe Biden to advance his economic priorities.

Although every House and Senate Republican voted against the rescue plan, it has not generated anything like the uprisings against new government spending and programs that engulfed Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama during each man’s first year in office. Indeed, throughout the legislative fight, congressional Republicans and conservative media outlets like Fox News appeared more interested in focusing attention on peripheral cultural issues, like whether Dr. Seuss had become a victim of liberal “cancel culture.”

That stress on cultural complaints reflects the shifting source of motivation inside the GOP coalition, with fewer voters responding to the warnings against “big government” once central to the party’s appeal and more viscerally responding to alarms that Democrats intend to transform “our country,” as former President Donald Trump often calls it, into something culturally unrecognizable.

“Concerns about cultural influence, political power and status are really overwhelming other ideological concerns on the right,” says Daniel Cox, a research fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who recently published an exhaustive national survey of attitudes among GOP voters. “Traditional conservative principles, whether it’s commitment to a strong national defense or support for limited government, do not animate Republican voters.”

While that shift wasn’t sufficient to attract any Republican votes in Congress for the plan, the absence of grassroots conservative resistance helped Biden unify virtually all moderate Democrats in both legislative chambers, after only some relatively minor policy adjustments. In these votes, congressional Democrats have held together far more cohesively than they did on the principal economic proposals that Clinton and Obama passed during their first months.

Rahm Emanuel lived through both of those earlier fights as a top White House side to Clinton and Obama’s chief of staff. Compared with the gyrations required to pass those economic plans, he told me, the changes that Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and other moderates demanded this time were “a nip and tuck. It’s not even plastic surgery.” The modest changes, he says, shows that compared with those earlier periods, the Democratic congressional caucus today is “much more ideologically cohesive.”

Some Democratic strategists warn that the cumulative price tag of the Biden agenda might still trigger a backlash, particularly if interest rates and/or inflation rise, as some economists warn. But for now it’s clear that Democratic moderates are displaying less fear of being tagged with the “big government” label from the right than their counterparts did during the early months of the Clinton and Obama presidencies. That could help Biden consolidate his party for another expensive proposal he’s likely to unveil soon: a broader, infrastructure-centered, economic recovery plan whose price tag will also likely reach the trillion-dollar level.

“I think it’s very clear that on economic issues, the voters … want them to pass stuff and take action, and there’s not a lot of opposition out there,” says Democratic pollster Nick Gourevitch. “So Biden’s got running room.”

Why it’s different this time

As in the famous Sherlock Holmes story, the most revealing dynamic in the legislative debate over the Covid plan may have been “the dog that didn’t bark”: in this case, the absence of a grassroots conservative uprising against the plan, even though its price tag vastly exceeded the Clinton and Obama proposals that ignited more resistance. Polls have consistently found significant majorities of Americans support the Covid relief plan, with Gourevitch’s firm releasing one survey last week that showed it winning support from more than two-thirds of adults, including a plurality of Republicans.

Democratic Rep. Ron Kind, who represents a rural-flavored western Wisconsin district that Trump carried by almost 5 percentage points last November, told me he felt no hesitation about backing the Covid bill. Calls coming into his office, Kind told me, have been “10 to one positive. … The reaction has been amazing: overwhelming support.”

Likewise, Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, who also holds a seat in a blue-collar district Trump won by more than 4 points, says that among his colleagues in swing districts, “Teeth-gnashing, hand-wringing, pearl-clutching: All of those were absent in this.”

Changed circumstances partly explain the GOP’s inability to stir serious resistance to the plan. Obama’s economic recovery package was buffeted by the broader public anger over financial institutions’ role in triggering the 2008 housing crisis and severe recession. This time, despite Trump’s frequent efforts to blame the virus on China, Americans seem much more inclined to view the outbreak as a kind of natural disaster that demands a collective response.

“In ’09 there was so much anger in the air, the big fat cats being bailed out … and people were looking for blood and who do we hold accountable,” Kind says. “And that’s not as easy to do when you’ve got a global pandemic.”

Different, too, is the breadth of the pain the virus has inflicted. Clinton’s economic plan followed a relatively mild recession; and while Obama’s responded to a much more serious downturn, the housing crisis still spared most homeowners while crushing others. The small-government “tea party” movement that helped power the huge GOP gains in the 2010 election began with a television rant by CNBC reporter Rick Santelli, who asked, “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?”

By contrast, the coronavirus outbreak has touched virtually all Americans: Even those who haven’t faced illness in their families, or disruption to their incomes, have seen the routines of daily life disintegrate.

In his northeastern Pennsylvania district, Cartwright says, “you would struggle to find somebody who wasn’t affected by this pandemic negatively in some way.”

In this September 10, 2013, file photo, tea party activists cheer during a rally in Washington.

That includes local Republican officials in cities and towns, Kind notes, who are eager for the bill’s assistance – despite congressional Republican attempts to tag its aid for local governments as a bailout to poorly run Democratic cities and states. “The [congressional] Republicans are overplaying their hand by trying to make this more partisan than it is back home,” he says. One Republican police chief in his district, Kind says, even told him that by opposing the local aid, Republicans “are the ones who are really defunding law enforcement and our first responders.”

Yet just as important as the changed circumstances may be the evolving priorities of the GOP voter base.

“Donald Trump may have shifted the GOP coalition to a more economically populist position or revealed that there’s just less appetite for spending discipline on the right than there was before,” Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson told me in an email.

If anything, questions about whether to increase or shrink government are now more likely to divide than unite Republican voters, notes Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. Though Republican partisans still generally recoil at higher taxes and oppose programs they view as transfer payments for the poor, a recent poll of Trump voters that Olsen supervised, for instance, found substantial support among them for spending on Social Security and Medicare (entitlements that benefit the predominantly White senior population).

“I think it’s pretty clear that in the modern Republican Party, spending control for its own sake is a minority taste, not a majority taste, and that partly explains why there hasn’t been this massive uprising at a $1.9 trillion bill,” Olsen says.

GOP anxiety about way of life widespread

As concerns about big government recede, anxiety about America’s changing identity in an era of growing racial and religious diversity has emerged as the core unifying principle of the GOP coalition. A February poll from Echelon Insights, Anderson’s firm, offers one measure of that shift. Asked their top priorities, Republican voters identified illegal immigration, lack of support for the police, liberal bias in media and general moral decline among their top five concerns; high taxes was the sole economic issue that cracked the list.

Olsen’s national survey of Trump voters, conducted in January, found them crackling with the sense that they are culturally and demographically besieged. In that poll, roughly 9 in 10 Trump voters agreed with a series of stark propositions: that America is losing faith in the ideas that make the country great, that Christianity is under attack in the US and that discrimination against Whites “will increase a lot” in years ahead. Overwhelming majorities rejected the idea that Whites have any intrinsic advantage in American society or that Hispanic and Asian immigrants face discrimination. In the recent national American Enterprise Institute survey supervised by Cox, three-fourths of Republicans asserted that discrimination against Whites was as big a problem as bias against minorities.

Olsen argues that racial resentment is overstated as a unifying principle for Trump supporters, instead portraying the common thread as a more general “sense that the American way of life is under attack.” Cox, along with many other political scientists and opinion analysts, disagrees: They argue the claim that Whites face discrimination has been the best predictor of not only support for Trump but also of the belief that the “American way of life” is under such threat that anti-democratic means, including violence, are justified to protect it.

Either way, whether these cultural anxieties are motivated primarily by racial resentment or not, what’s clear is they are burning brighter for GOP voters now than hostility to “big government.” “As conservative White Protestants moved from operating at the periphery of Republican politics to becoming the most critical part of the GOP base, their manifest cultural concerns, which have always incredibly important to these voters, have overshadowed the GOP’s traditional economic agenda,” says Cox.

House Republicans effectively acknowledged that shift by devoting so much attention to the controversy over Dr. Seuss – the National Republican Congressional Committee offered copies of his books to donors – while Democrats were passing a spending bill that towered over anything they had approved under Clinton or Obama. Other Republicans, meanwhile, tried to portray Biden’s use of the word “Neanderthal” to criticize GOP governor rollbacks of Covid restrictions as a slur on Republican voters, like Hillary Clinton’s description of some Trump backers as “deplorables.” While congressional Republicans called the Covid plan “socialist” or charged it was stuffed with Democratic pet projects, they hardly pressed that case with as much enthusiasm as these cultural attacks: “It doesn’t seem like they are even really trying” to discredit the package, says Gourevitch, in a verdict privately echoed by some Republicans.

Next up: Big spending on infrastructure

That half-hearted resistance seems likely to encourage Democrats to go big on the next stage of Biden’s economic agenda: the “Build Back Better” long-term growth proposal that will include a substantial infrastructure investment. Though the White House has not decided when to introduce the proposal, it will almost certainly include infrastructure spending in the range of about $300 billion annually, for a cumulative price tag over 10 years in the trillions.

Yet both inside the White House and Congress, Democrats are showing little hesitation about proposing that much new spending immediately after a package this big. Both Kind and Cartwright, holding districts that stretch deep into Trump country, say they would enthusiastically support a big infrastructure plan.

“I’d be very comfortable with it,” Cartwright says. “I have been serving in the US House since January 2013 and the whole time I have been saying out loud we need a big, big infrastructure package. It’s not just that the folks around here who build things for a living will benefit, it’s that the entire American economy will benefit.”

Steve Ricchetti, the White House counselor to Biden, told me the administration expects broad support for the infrastructure package when the President eventually unveils it.

“I believe there will be wide, deep bipartisan support for infrastructure because the need is so great,” he says. “I believe there’s a prospect for securing bipartisan support in Congress for this, but I am certain there will be bipartisan support throughout the country for this: governors, mayors, local officials whose economies are dependent on infrastructure investment, digital, energy, transportation, water. The business community will be enormously supportive of this; it’s an engine for the recovery.”

The open question for Biden, as he finalizes his next proposals, is whether there’s a cumulative weight of proposed spending that awakens the slumbering conservative recoil against “big government.” Both Clinton and Obama saw the grassroots backlashes against their agendas intensify when they followed their initial economic plans with other expensive proposals, particularly their efforts to overhaul the health care system. Each of those dynamics culminated in crushing losses for them in the first midterm after their election.

Compared with the Clinton or Obama experience, Democrats unquestionably feel they have more runway to advance new programs today, largely because the GOP coalition no longer seems as energized by opposition to spending. But if the political limits on new spending seem relaxed, that doesn’t ensure they have been eliminated. It’s possible Americans will accept trillions in spending beyond the Covid plan, but it’s also possible Biden and fellow Democrats might trigger a circuit breaker in public opinion if they go too far – particularly if inflation and interest rates rise from all the economic stimulus as even some Democratic economists have warned. Demands from moderates such as Manchin to find offsetting tax revenues for some or all of the infrastructure plan could also stir more conservative opposition.

The problem is that both the cost of the federal response and the underlying disruption to society from the pandemic are so unprecedented that no one can confidently predict how much more spending Biden can add to his tab without provoking the backlash he has conspicuously avoided so far. Even Emanuel, who rarely expresses doubt, acknowledges, “I’m not even sure I can give you an educated guess on that.”

The safest bet is that so long as the GOP remains fixated on cultural and racial grievance, Democrats will feel confident pushing forward the most aggressive expansion of government’s role in the economy since President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society during the 1960s.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the location of Rep. Matt Cartwright’s district. It is in northeastern Pennsylvania.