When it Comes to the Stimulus, It’s Not 2009 Anymore

The Tea Party and GOP had the clout when Obama tried to rescue the economy. This time, they don’t have the plans or the juice. Here’s why.

On January 28, the Republican House minority whip joined Rush Limbaugh and laughed along as the radio host mocked the Democrats’ emergency economic package as the “porkulus.”

This wasn’t last week. This was 2009 when President Barack Obama began his presidency in the midst of an economic free fall and rushed to pass a stimulus bill.

Limbaugh’s moniker was a rallying cry for Republicans trying to find their footing after Obama’s decisive election victory. Conservatives flooded the congressional switchboard, out-calling supporters of the stimulus 100-to-1. A young Politico headlined that Obama was “losing [the] stimulus message war.” The GOP largely fell in line, giving the Recovery Act no votes in the House and only three in the Senate.

That was enough for the bill to pass Congress and be signed into law by February 17, but ideological battle lines had been drawn. Two days later, CNBC’s Rick Santelli would deliver his famous “Tea Party” rant, further fueling the right-wing backlash that would help Republicans take the House in 2010.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, of the sort is happening today.

Instead of waging war against Biden’s proposal, Republicans have been tangled up with their own intra-party civil war. They have been grappling with the social media trail of violent and conspiratorial rhetoric coming from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and with the right-wing fury directed at House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney for supporting the impeachment of Donald Trump.

When a group of 10 Senate Republicans opened up bipartisan talks on pandemic relief with President Joe Biden, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did not reprimand them, or in any way criticize the push for relief. His criticism was relegated to process, hypocritically complaining that Democrats are taking a “totally partisan path.” He sought to drive a wedge between Biden and other Democrats, relaying that the Group of 10 “felt that the president seemed to be more interested in [a bipartisan deal] than his staff did, or that it seems like the Democratic leadership of the House and the Senate are.” The focus on process, and the lack of substantive critique, tacitly accepts the Democrats’ premise that more deficit spending is needed for the economy to withstand the pandemic. There’s no way to do the barest essentials—fully fund vaccine distribution and refill the tank on unemployment insurance—without adding to the deficit.

Even the Thursday night-Friday morning “vote-a-rama” blitz of Senate amendments to Democrats’ nonbinding budget resolution (which is a procedural precursor to passing a budget reconciliation bill that cannot be filibustered) exposed the absence of Republican opposition. Republican-offered amendments designed to put Democrats in tricky spots—such as a ban on undocumented workers (trolling Dems by calling them  “illegal immigrants”) from receiving relief checks, a ban on carbon taxes, and a pledge not to raise the minimum wage during the pandemic. But Republicans did not use the amendment process to establish a narrative that challenges the additional relief itself.

Republicans are not arguing that we’ve done enough for the time being or complaining about moochers, which was the basis of Santelli’s Ayn Randian rant a decade ago. There is no sudden pivot toward worrying about becoming a debt-riddled Greece. There is nothing analogous to the “porkulus” rallying cry of 2009.

That’s not just because Limbaugh has been off the air battling lung cancer. More fundamentally, Republicans no longer even pose as the party of fiscal restraint.

Before Trump, Republicans had given up on intellectual consistency regarding fiscal policy. George H. W. Bush was the last Republican president to cut the deficit, even breaking a campaign pledge on tax increases to do it. That belief gave way in the George W. Bush administration, as Vice President Dick Cheney privately declared, “Deficits don’t matter.”

Of course, they mattered to Republicans once Barack Obama became president, and then they didn’t when Donald Trump became president. Many Democrats presumed in the Biden presidency, Republicans would again hypocritically change their tune.

The severity of the pandemic may be muzzling Republicans on this score despite some occasional yips. But since deficits haven’t mattered and haven’t wrecked the economy, and the whole country has been on the dole, it’s harder to score political points as deficit scolds. Relatedly, Trump’s penchant for economic populism may have permanently altered conservative DNA, a populist CRISPR. Republicans seem increasingly aware that their base of working-class whites is not easily moved by austerity.

As a result, Biden has a strong hand and Republicans a weak one. His job approval is solid. Polls show broad support for his relief proposal. We’re not in a debate over whether to provide relief, only over its size and scope. And when Biden argues we should go big, there isn’t much of a counter-argument to go small.

We can’t know yet if Biden and congressional Democrats will use the reconciliation process and pass pandemic relief on a party-line vote. They may well. But don’t be surprised if the Group of 10 Republicans does strike a deal with a price tag much closer to Biden’s $1.9 trillion opening bid than their own $600 billion.

Because so far, unlike the stimulus debate of 2009, today’s pandemic relief debate has been largely de-polarized.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"