How Is the G.O.P. Angling to Attack Biden?
As Republicans search for a winning message, they’re trying out strategies both old and new.,
As Senator Tim Scott delivered the Republican Party’s rebuttal to President Biden’s congressional address on Wednesday night, he had a big-picture question to confront: Where will the party go, in a time when it is split between two factions?
His speech suggested that, at least officially, it is hewing to a fairly consistent message based on old customs and trusted conservative arguments.
“Republicans can’t figure out whether to walk or run — to Trump or to Reagan,” Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida, said in an interview. “With Tim Scott, that was certainly a Republican response from 2012 or 2009.”
Scott’s 15-minute rebuttal hit a number of notes that will be familiar to any longtime observer of conservative messaging: In particular, as Republicans prepare for a showdown over Biden’s next big agenda items — a $2.3 trillion infrastructure bill, and the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan that he unveiled on Wednesday — they are fixating on the outsize nature of his proposals, labeling him a “tax-and-spend liberal.” They’re criticizing his willingness to pass them without Republican support, despite a campaign promise to seek bipartisanship.
And they’re stirring up racial resentments, possibly in hopes of retaining some of the familiar cultural notes that President Donald Trump struck during his term, without committing the party to all-out Trumpism.
Chuck Coughlin, a G.O.P. strategist in Arizona, has been closely watching the state of play ahead of a critical Senate race there next year. He said the party seemed to be stuck in a holding pattern.
“Republicans haven’t figured out what their message is, other than to be opposed to what the Democrats are for,” he said. Still, he added, “it seems to me that the Democrats are giving them a lot to do that with.”
In his speech last night, Scott used the administration’s insistence on passing big Covid-19 relief legislation without Republican buy-in — rather than seeking common ground on a smaller bill — as evidence of hypocrisy. “Three months in, the actions of the president and his party are pulling us further and further apart,” Scott told viewers.
“Covid brought Congress together five times; this administration pushed us apart,” Scott said, referring to the number of relief bills that Democrats and Republicans had cooperated on when Trump was in office.
It’s true that the American public loves to say that it loves bipartisanship. Take the latest CNN poll of the country, released on Thursday: More than seven in 10 respondents said that congressional Democrats, Republicans and President Biden should prioritize finding common ground over standing firm on their ideals. Asked if bipartisanship was generally a good thing, closer to nine in 10 said yes.
“Americans are prone to choosing divided government, so I do think that holding Biden accountable for pledging to be bipartisan is smart,” Curbelo said. “The Biden administration, I really do think, needs to do one thing with Republicans. They have to give Republicans something, because otherwise he’s going to lose a lot of credibility.”
But ask any political strategist, and they’ll tell you that the public really loves a humming economy, and a strong leader at the helm, more than arguably anything else. Which puts the Republican Party in a complex position as it searches for a strategy while Biden pushes ahead with major legislation, and rides the wave of a speedy economic resurgence.
Curbelo noted that it’s highly rare for a first-term president’s party to come out on top in the midterm elections, but he said that Republicans should seriously consider the possibility that Democrats might retain their slim House and Senate majorities in 2022, “if the economy is roaring, and if they can show that they did try to heal the country — that they did try to work with Republicans.”
Coughlin said that since midterm elections are typically about driving turnout from each party’s base, more than winning over voters at the margins, Republicans could benefit from emphasizing the partisan nature of Biden’s proposals, and framing them as a threat to Republican values.
“The only thing that matters is who votes. And traditionally, without regard to party, the incumbent party turnout is less enthusiastic,” he said, adding that Biden was responding to the same pressures. “He’s hoping to stimulate that activist progressive base to turn out as they did in the presidential cycle.”
Taxing and spending
Scott also accused the administration of using infrastructure legislation as a Trojan horse for “a partisan wish list.” He called the American Families Plan “even more taxing, even more spending, to put Washington even more in the middle of your life — from the cradle to college.”
This is an attack from the classic Republican playbook; complaints about deficit spending helped Republicans justify intransigent opposition to President Barack Obama’s agenda during his first term. But deficit spending was so profligate during the Trump administration that Republicans are now hard-pressed to credibly call out Democrats on the issue.
More important, polls show that the public is far less bothered by the idea of ambitious government spending than it was a generation ago. An NBC News poll released on Sunday found that 55 percent of Americans thought the government should focus on doing more to help people, while just 41 percent said it was already trying to do too many things. In the 1990s, it was the other way around; during the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies, NBC polls usually found the country more evenly split.
“Republicans have been sitting on their free-enterprise hands, and they have not acknowledged the Keynesian view of this, to some degree, that government does play a significant role,” Coughlin said. “That free-enterprise model has been tossed to the side of the road.”
Still, the G.O.P. may not be drawing from an entirely empty well. An ABC News/Washington Post poll also released on Sunday found that 53 percent of the country, including 58 percent of independents, said they were at least somewhat concerned that Biden would do too much to increase the size and role of government in society.
The other major theme of Scott’s speech was identity politics, and here he gestured toward a feeling of frustration with progressives’ present-day focus on representation and racial identity.
“Today, kids are being taught that the color of their skin defines them again — and if they look a certain way, they’re an oppressor,” Scott said. “From colleges to corporations to our culture, people are making money and gaining power by pretending we haven’t made any progress at all, by doubling down on the divisions we’ve worked so hard to heal.”
Again, he was playing a variation on a theme in post-civil rights movement Republican politics: accusing those who seek to redress racial inequity of reverse racism.
What limited polling exists around so-called cancel culture has found that most Americans consider it a problem — though far fewer call it a major one. And when it comes to companies using their public platforms to take a side on political issues, a solid majority of Americans said they didn’t like this trend, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll this month.
But at the center of this conversation is the question of how much credence to give concerns about racial inequality and violence. And polling since the murder of George Floyd last year has shown historic levels of concern about racism in America, with 72 percent of Americans in a Pew Research Center poll this month saying that racism was at least a moderately big problem in the country.
Throughout modern American history, movements for social reform and equality have drawn their strongest support — and made the greatest strides — during economic booms. As the economy recovers, Biden may be particularly well positioned to beat back conservatives’ attacks on cultural issues.
“None of the Republican candidates have figured out how to navigate that narrative,” Coughlin said. “They just keep playing into the same one.”
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