As the Republican Party finds new ways to pay homage to Donald Trump and attack democracy, Joe Biden is pushing ahead with the grunt work of building a substantive presidency that could change the shape of America.
The contrast in approaches between the White House and the GOP encapsulates the risky bet that each has adopted at what is beginning to look like a tumultuous and potentially decisive turning point in the political history of the early 21st century.
In the country’s relentless march through the next biennial election cycle, each side is making choices now that will provide the foundation of their strategies in 2022 and 2024 elections in which Trumpism and Bidenism will again be on the ballot in some form.
The President traveled to Louisiana on Thursday to promote a package that expands the definition of infrastructure from transportation projects to broadband Internet right through the provision of home health care for sick or elderly Americans.
Biden White House
But he chose a traditional backdrop, an aging bridge, to argue for tax raises on corporations and the wealthiest Americans to fund vital projects – a centerpiece of his plan. He also offered some flexibility on the scale of a hike to corporate rates – as he tries to get GOP senators on board – hinting he may settle for a 25% ceiling instead of his initial bid for 28%.
“I’m not ready to have another period where America has another infrastructure month, and doesn’t change a damn thing,” Biden said at a highway bridge that carries I-10 in Lake Charles.
“The truth is, across the country, we have failed – we have failed to properly invest in infrastructure for half a century.”
Biden also spent the week working on the core task of his presidency – ending the pandemic and repairing the economy. He announced a new target to convince wary Americans to get vaccinated. He made a decision to back waiving patents on Covid-19 vaccines, which reverberated around the world and could help save millions of lives in poorer nations. Biden also highlighted a restaurant rescue plan that is typical of his approach – in that it uses a gusher of government money to safeguard a vital economic sector.
The plan is an apt symbol of a presidency rooted in fixing problems that makes a bet that after a murderous pandemic, Americans have arrived at one of the periodic moments in history when they are willing to endorse the sweeping use of government power to ease social and economic deprivation.
The strategy requires Biden to open a narrow path through tiny Democratic majorities in the House and Senate – which isn’t guaranteed. And if he has misjudged the public mood, he could risk a public backlash that could benefit Republicans next year.
Republicans fixated on personality cult loyalty tests
Ironically, one of the Republicans who has made one of the most targeted attacks on Biden’s big government approach is Rep. Liz Cheney. But the Wyoming lawmaker, who’s the No. 3 House Republican, may no longer have a leadership platform to make those arguments. She is set to be toppled as conference chair simply because she tells the truth, repeatedly, about the ex-President’s lies about election fraud, points out that he whipped up an insurrection designed to overthrow Biden’s victory and punctures his personality cult.
The fact that her likely replacement, New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who has become a fiercely pro-Trump lawmaker and promotes his falsehoods, is far less conservative than Cheney, offers an eloquent picture of the modern GOP’s priorities.
Seeking to ease concerns among fiscal conservatives about her record, Stefanik played her, literal, Trump card, underscoring the power of the former President’s aura in her party. “My vision is to run with support from the (ex) President and his coalition of voters,” Stefanik said on Steve Bannon’s radio show Thursday. Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of the small band of Republican House members willing to stand with Cheney in opposing Trump, refuted Stefanik’s claims that she was a unifying figure.
“I’m gonna just go ahead and say this ain’t unity. It’s capitulation to crazy,” Kinzinger tweeted.
The total embrace of Trump by House Republicans represents a counter-wager on the scale of the President’s belief that Americans want a multi-trillion dollar overhaul of society designed to make the economy more equitable for working class Americans.
Given the popularity of Trump among GOP base voters and their willingness to buy into the false reality he created over last year’s election, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s strategy could work, as he seeks to wrest control of the House next year in midterm elections that may be decided by whichever party manages to excite their core voters.
Yet Trump’s appeal is limited – he never reached a 50% approval rating as president in the Gallup poll. He alienated crucial suburban voters and led House Republicans to defeat in the 2018 midterm elections and lost the White House in 2020 and two subsequent Senate runoffs. It’s far from clear that devotion to the disgraced former President is a viable path for Republicans if Biden makes a success of his presidency and the economy is doing well as voters cast ballots in 2022 and 2024.
McConnell launches his own maneuvers
On the Senate side of the Capitol, meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to signal a characteristic policy of obstruction when he said this week that 100% of his focus was on stopping the current administration. The Kentucky Republican’s comments raised the question of whether a GOP counter-proposal to Biden on infrastructure and negotiations currently taking place with the White House is nothing more than political posturing.
McConnell’s attitude recalled a similar stance he took against former President Barack Obama’s presidency. It may also reflect insight from Biden – a longtime sparring partner – about the gravity of the current political moment. While Republicans in the House are almost exclusively positioning for the midterms already, McConnell, with his chamber’s institutional capacity to serve as a roadblock, is also concentrating on shorter-term efforts to thwart Biden’s transformational aspirations.
But McConnell may also have offered the President an opening to argue that Washington Republicans spurned his offer of compromise on key issues like infrastructure and his plans targeting American jobs and families.
His remarks also immediately trained attention back on West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat who is a bulwark against the power of progressives in the party and wants compromise with minority Republicans on big Biden agenda items.
Manchin said on CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time” on Wednesday night that he didn’t know what McConnell’s reasoning was but insisted “there are Republicans working with Democrats who want to make something happen.”
Building on Trump’s election fraud lies
Outside Washington, Republican state lawmakers continued to build on the ex-President’s lies about election fraud to make it more difficult for Americans to vote. In Arizona, state Senate Republicans pressed ahead with a sham partisan recount of general election votes in Maricopa County after Biden’s win was repeatedly verified by courts and election officials.
The Texas state House, meanwhile, debated a Republican bill that would limit extended early voting hours, give partisan poll watchers more authority and make it tougher to cast a vote in city areas where Democratic voters live.
And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law the Sunshine State’s new restrictive voting measures. Had the goal been to bolster public confidence in the electoral system he might have held a public event. But exposing the partisanship behind the move, he signed it into law on “Fox and Friends” in a stunt that excluded journalists other than those on one of Trump’s favorite mouthpiece networks.
The fact that DeSantis is so willing to use the electoral system – the core of US political freedoms – as a prop to advance his own political career shows why some pundits believe he has the brazenness needed to serve as an heir to Trump – a figure whose power still looms over Washington despite his departure for Florida more than three months ago.