There's conflicting news coming out of the White House today. Some reports say the president and his team are trying to figure out ways to sell the American Rescue Act, which was passed by Congress Wednesday, to the American people. Other reports say they feel they don't need to sell it, because the covid relief package sells itself.
I'm guessing the latter is more applicable. We've been through this process five times before. Most people have received some kind of aid, in the form of unemployment benefits or cash or both, during this year of the covid. Most have gotten used to the practice of getting help from the government. Some may start expecting it. Joe Biden won't have to sell the pending law too hard, because most people are already sold.
The president is set to give tonight a prime-time address during which he will mark the one-year anniversary of a pandemic that has killed over half a million Americans, more than all who died fighting in all foreign wars combined. It will be a solemn speech delivered the day before Biden signs the legislation into law. The White House hopes the occasion will illustrate how the country is slowly returning to normal.
That, however, is more rhetorical than factual. It would be more accurate to say the country is moving out of an old period of abnormal instability and moving into a new period of normal stability. I say this because what the president and the Democrats are doing is not anywhere near normal. Normal would be fear of inflation. Normal would be fear of debts and deficits. Normal would be fear of the Republicans screaming about both. The American Rescue Act, as you are tired of me saying,1 breaks from the norm.
But saying the country is returning to normal has political benefits. Most Americans are conservative in that they fear newness. The problems of the status quo might be bad, but the solutions might be just as bad, or worse. What's more, the Republicans are masterful at exploiting that fear. Every time the Democrats propose a solution to the problems we all face, they find ways to heighten fears, or cast the Democrats as being so outside the boundaries of normal politics that anything they say is un-American.
Crises of the size and scope of the covid pandemic, however, destabilize everything, including the natural, understandable and conservative fear of newness. With so many Americans getting sick and dying, the electorate became (I'm speculating here) more receptive to experiment. Anything's better than living in fear of joblessness, isolation and death. The urge to act was so strong that even a formerly conservative political party, the same one that once said we're too "broke"2 to spend money in the aftermath of the 2008 panic, quickly embraced the idea of spending money like never before.
Which is to say the Republicans under Donald Trump normalized liberalism and its preference for a government that's more active in the lives of individuals. That's not to say they became a liberal party. Far from it. It's to say the party that demonized the very word "liberal" made it acceptable for Americans to receive government aid without thinking of themselves as communists. In a very real sense, the Republicans broke the spell that anti-government rhetoric cast over the electorate for 40 years.
Fear-mongering has always been the GOP's greatest weapon. With that mostly out of the way, thanks to the Republicans themselves, the Democrats are free to move ahead with policy ideas that have been incubating for years. The passing of the American Rescue Act marks their moment. Unlike previous stimulus bills, it pushes more money to more people living in the bottom half of society than any law since the Great Society programs of the late 1960s.3 If it works, it will not only normalize but solidify the idea of using the government as a clearinghouse for distributing wealth more equitably.
For the Republicans, this should be terrifying. They face the real possibility of being so outside the mainstream of political discourse the scariest of scare tactics won't work on a national audience. In the past, they could paint the Democrats as radical. Lots of people already believed they were. But now that Biden is making permanent what the GOP itself began, the Republicans must work twice as hard at demonizing them, coming off like fools. Ted Cruz said Biden's "radical agenda" is masked by being "boring." Translation: Bidenism could be a new acceptable and defensible norm.
It's not "could be," though. It already is. Roger Wicker is the senior United States senator from Mississippi. Like every single Republican in the entire United States Congress, Wicker voted against the relief bill. Yet he recognized what it's going to mean to his constituents, especially small businesses. That's why he tried taking credit for the law. (It's true.) In that, he's telling us he fears being on the outside looking in.