The honeymoon was over quickly for the Biden administration. Republicans are drawing battle lines with Senators like Roy Blunt calling his relief package a “nonstarter” as minority leader McConnell and others disingenuously whine about a lack of “bipartisanship” coming from the Democratic side. This only weeks after an attempted coup.
As the Washington Post reported, Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki did her best to contest this framing last Friday:
“Is unemployment insurance only an issue that Democrats in the country want? Do only Democrats want their kids to go back to schools? Do only Democrats want vaccines to be distributed across the country?” Psaki said at a White House news briefing. “He feels that package is designed for bipartisan support.”
The answer is, of course, yes. If the Republicans had wanted to get any of this right, they would have already followed up the first relief bill with another robust round of aid for the American people long ago. Instead, they have been refusing to give any significant resources to states and municipalities at all with then leader McConnell calling it a “blue states bailout.” The endgame, as always, is to push state budgets to the brink, force austerity measures, and do harm to their perceived enemies: the public sector and unionized public sector workers. It’s a sad but familiar story.
The reason for this is that underneath the noisy extremism and culture war hysterics of the angry political base lies the one core mission of the Republican party: starve the beast of the government while further enriching the elite. As the freshly pardoned Steve Bannon put it while he was still sitting in the White House, their every day mission is to “deconstruct the administrative state.”
One does not have to delve too deeply into the annals of the contemporary American right to know that it’s not QAnon driving the agenda but the billionaires who have funded rightwing think tanks, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and a host of other affiliated organizations devoted to cutting taxes on the rich and corporations, eviscerating regulatory agencies, and undermining the central democratizing accomplishments in the United States from the New Deal on that have given ordinary people a chance to more fully participate in American democracy.
As historian Nancy MacLean has noted, the elite radical right views any aspect of our democracy that empowers the people to tax the wealthy in order to protect workers, underserved communities, or the environment as a form of “collective gangsterism.” Thus the goal for decades has been to put as many “locks and bolts” on the democratic process as possible to restrict the ability of the majority to tax or regulate the activities of the opulent minority.
Therefore a moment such as the present represents a grave threat to the party that has protected elite interests. Most Americans want their government to serve them competently with adequate public health infrastructure, quality, fully-funded educational institutions from K-12 to college, and social services to lend a hand when millions are in need. Crisis, as they say, is opportunity, and the Republicans know that if the Democrats can use the tools of government to effectively serve the American people, it will be a game changer.
Hence, they will do anything it takes to make President Biden fail.
The beginning weeks of the new administration have shown that the reporting that Biden had been looking back to the New Deal era for lessons on how to navigate the present crisis were on target. Biden’s head spinning slew of much-needed executive orders has demonstrated a real desire on his part to move quickly and boldly on the Covid-19 crisis, immigration, the environment, and more. That and the roadmap he has put forth that starts with a big relief package and then follows that up with a recovery package that looks to address climate and infrastructure in a transformative way deserve fulsome praise.
Indeed, in the relief package alone we would see billions of dollars head to higher education. As the national AFT has pointed out, “President Joe Biden has already sent Congress a $1.9 trillion relief package that includes another $35 billion for higher education. The funds will help implement public health protocols, pay for distance learning and provide emergency grants to students.”
But now, with the Republicans lining up to obstruct and undermine his agenda, Biden is facing a decisive moment of truth.
He can either follow the lead of neoliberal Democrats in the recent past and let feckless compromise be the enemy of the good, or he can go further back to the legacy of FDR and fight hard for the American people and the future of democracy and the planet.
This will mean that after he gives the Republicans a chance to come to the table and they predictably rebuff him, he needs to quickly give up on the bipartisan fantasy and do what it takes to win for the good of the country. As David Sirota pointed out last week in the Guardian:
Biden almost certainly will not be able to make major public investments if he is conflict-averse. Passing a bold agenda will likely require an epic confrontation with Republicans, who are already girding for obstruction. After years of profligate tax cuts and spending, Republican leaders are suddenly pretending to care about the deficit, and, if history is any guide, they will renew their efforts to block the changes to environmental and labor laws that Biden has promised are forthcoming.
Biden has solid progressive warriors like Sherrod Brown on the Banking Committee and Bernie Sanders chairing Budget. He needs to let them do what it takes in the Senate to drive a bold agenda that will make a real impact on the lives of ordinary Americans. To do this, they will need to use reconciliation, end the filibuster, and run over the objections of the Republican party to finally make government work for the majority of Americans rather than catering to the billionaire class. That may not be bipartisan, but it’s a winning strategy.
At present, we sit on a razor’s edge, and the country’s new leadership can either meet the moment and speed the end to the pandemic, forge a bold recovery, and address the looming climate catastrophe, or, if they blink, fail to deliver and open the door for a resurgence of ugly, angry rightwing politics and send the country on an even darker, descending path. As unionists who care deeply about the future of America both for ourselves and for the students and communities we serve, we should be doing everything we can to keep pushing President Biden and the Democrats to fight harder than they have since the New Deal era.
Hope you all enjoyed the virtual inauguration, now it’s game on.