“It’s a fairly popular bill that polled well because it’s been sold as a Covid relief bill with direct cash payments to Americans — what’s not to like?” he added. “However, that’s not what the bill is. That’s a huge problem because 2022 has already started and you don’t see the fight here.”
Bannon isn’t alone in his lament. Elsewhere in conservative circles, a feeling of missed opportunity has taken root in the wake of the passage of the Covid-relief bill last week. Republicans were never expected to support the measure and unanimously opposed it when the time came for a vote. But in interviews with top GOP operatives, Trump confidantes, and congressional aides, there was a common refrain that the party could have done more to frame it for the public. Instead, periodic claims that the bill was bloated with progressive add-ons and bailout money for blue states were overshadowed by a more relentless focus on the culture wars du jour.
“Whenever there is something that goes into pop culture and now all this cancel culture stuff, it is catnip for the base and the media and Republicans are going to talk about that,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye.
Before the passage of the stimulus bill, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel criticized the legislation as a “boondoggle” and Democratic “grab bag.” But, all told, the RNC issued just two statements on the bill, both after it had already passed. In that void, others were left to try and figure out how to attack a law with a 75-percent approval rating.
“I think this is a missed opportunity and the GOP has to improve its communications campaign pretty dramatically,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who said he had to assign his production team to do a deep-dive examining the bill for political vulnerabilities.
The Republican Party’s stumbles around the passage of the Covid-relief bill were, to a degree, a microcosm of the difficulties it has had finding its footing in the post-Trump era. Indeed, some Republicans said their party was hamstrung in the relief bill fight by the fact that they had so recently supported bills that relied on deficit-spending and pushed similar provisions, like direct payments.
“Republicans lost credibility on that issue during the Trump years, especially the first couple years when we had the power to do something about it,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican consultant and former campaign manager to Texas Sen. John Cornyn. “There was no interest in doing anything about it. It was just, ‘let’s not even talk about spending or the debt or deficit or anything like that.’”
One Senate GOP aide noted that members held press conferences to push back on the bill, but that the capacity to sustain and prosecute an argument through the press wasn’t there, in part because of former President Donald Trump.
“We were spending the early part of the year dealing with the insurrection and impeachment trial and then we jumped right into passage,” the aide said. “So the attention of the D.C. media wasn’t on this legislation, it was on the fallout of Jan 6.”
In the absence of a cohesive strategy from congressional GOP leaders or the party apparatus, individual Republicans like Gingrich and GOP-aligned outside groups were left to mount their own attacks against Biden’s American Rescue Plan. Some criticism focused on pet projects within the legislation. Others accused Democrats of using the shadow of a pandemic to expand the welfare state.
“This bill was so extreme and so little about it was actually Covid relief,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, which has accused Democrats of “leveraging” the latest legislative response to the Covid-19 crisis “to advance partisan priorities at the expense of everyday Americans.”
But other criticisms of the bill caused headaches. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), likened the bill’s $5 billion fund for Black farmers to “reparations.” And after Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) slammed Democrats for opposing an amendment that would have excluded prisoners from receiving relief checks, critics were quick to point out that he voted for the second relief package last December despite knowing it contained no provision to stop inmates from receiving such payments.
None of the attack lines seemed to resonate with voters, who began receiving stimulus checks as early as last weekend and appear overwhelmingly supportive of the law. A CBS-YouGov survey released on Sunday showed 71 percent of adults believe the American Rescue Plan will benefit the middle class more than wealthy Americans. The bill’s passage coincides with an uptick in vaccinations and recognition from Democrats and allied teachers unions that schools need to reopen soon — which together have the potential for improving the electoral landscape for Democrats as they try to keep both chambers of the Congress.
That’s left the GOP with little left to do but bank on the possibility that voters will, over time, simply forget the ways in which the law impacted them.
“I think once the sugar high of the stimulus checks wears off — as much as they are needed and are important — the bill is going to sink itself over time, if it’s remembered at all,” said another Senate GOP aide. “It’s at the peak of its popularity right now and the more it becomes unpopular we’ll pound against them,” added another.
Inside the White House, the absence of a sustained GOP pushback to the bill did not come as a particular shock.
Aides had long felt that Biden had the upper hand and that Trump had tied his own party in political knots. The former president had pushed for Congress to pass $2,000 direct checks in December and blasted Republican leaders, like then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, when they declined to include them in a relief package. He had also added trillions of dollars to the deficit through a mix of tax breaks to the wealthy and Covid-related legislation with little pushback from his party. What credible argument could Republicans attempt to put forward that would resonate with Americans and enough Democrats to block the package, Biden aides wondered.
John Anzalone, who worked as chief pollster to the Biden campaign and remains a close outside adviser, said the Republican response was both late and head-scratching. The GOP didn’t push back on the bill as a deficit buster. Instead they framed it as unrelated to Covid, which Biden’s team felt only alienated voters who directly tied the virus to their economic plights and saw elements of the bill — like childcare tax credits and lowering healthcare costs — as critical to getting past the pandemic.
“This is just really mind-boggling,” Anzalone said. “At a time that we’re going through three or four crises at once, they have basically just punted. They’ve completely punted.”
While the White House may have been pleased with the lack of a sustained pushback from Republicans, there were still questions about how to handle it. For many, Biden’s pledge to be a unifying president meant that they had to at least show they were trying to win over GOP votes. And, early on, there was some genuine belief that they could get a handful.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), a Biden ally, said he was encouraged when the president sat down with 10 Republicans in the Oval Office in late February. His optimism faded however when the GOP officials, led by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, floated a $600 billion alternative. He believed that the White House would inevitably have to use reconciliation, a budget mechanism that allows for expedited passage of a bill with simple-majority approval.
“But I thought what would happen once we were on that pathway is that in the end, for the final vote, that you would get maybe two, three or four Republicans,” Casey added. “I was not shocked, but I was a little surprised that it was unanimous against it.”
Republicans used the flimsiness of Biden’s outreach to decry that he had reneged on his pledge to seek a middle ground. But inside the GOP, there were concerns that process arguments weren’t moving the needle. A third Senate GOP aide argued that the attack lines surrounding the absence of bipartisan outreach went over the heads of most Americans.
“We got beat on this one,” the aide said, in a blunt assessment of their party’s response.
As Republicans complained about the partisan nature of the law’s construction, the White House settled on a new talking point: While the bill may not have the support of the GOP in Washington, they contended, it was still “bipartisan” because it was backed by a growing list of Republican governors and state and local officials who urged its passage.
On that front, they benefited from the polls, which showed healthy GOP support for the measure, and by local Republicans who, in many cases, embraced the cash that would end up flowing to their cities and states. Casey said he was on a call Friday with a bipartisan group of county commissioners. “I didn’t hear any of them say ‘Hey, we don’t need the money,’” Casey said. “I didn’t hear any of the (national) Republican arguments.”
Asked about Republican critiques that the local government money was effectively a bailout of liberal cities like San Francisco, Jeff Williams, the mayor of Arlington, Texas, said the bill relies on an established and agreed-upon formula the federal government has used for decades.
Williams, a registered Republican, also likened the pandemic to a natural disaster, but instead of leveling homes and hollowing out businesses physically, it took a toll on the localities in an economic sense.
“We didn’t say it was a bailout for Houston when they suffered the flood here,” Williams continued. “Same thing for New Orleans when they were flooded in Hurricane Katrina. We didn’t say we were bailing New Orleans out. Basically, what we’re doing is taking care of a natural disaster and helping our cities, counties and states get back.”
With the relief bill nearing passage during the last few weeks, Republicans recentered their messaging once again, this time to the Southern border, where a wave of migrants and unaccompanied children have overwhelmed facilities and created a new political vulnerability for Biden. But those attacks aren’t meant to damage the relief bill so much as move it out of the political spotlight.
“They weren’t a month ago thinking ‘oh well, we’re going to be rescued by the border,’” when Republicans voted against the package, Anzalone said. “It doesn’t absolve them in any way from basically being partisan and politicians in a time of economic emergency.”
As GOP leaders attempt to amplify their call for strengthened border security with visits to the border, Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and other top officials are embarking on tours of the country to sell the Covid bill. The Republican Party is planning rapid-fire pushback, but there’s little evidence so far that support for the legislation will diminish. And Democrats note that whereas past bills — like the Affordable Care Act — contained delayed benefits, the cash payments in Biden’s package are immediate.
They aren’t sweating the politics and, frankly, never were.
“Comparing the trajectory of this bill to bills in the past is like comparing apples to lasagna. It’s not the same contours. It’s not the same situation,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic operative. “Republicans know that, and that’s why they’ve bounced from messages about this being a liberal wish list to messages about the debt and messages about it not being bipartisan to messages about ‘The Cat in the Hat.’”