Susan Collins
Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021 in Washington. (Drew Angerer/Photo via AP)

Most Republicans in Congress—perhaps all of them—appear prepared to oppose President Joe Biden’s pandemic relief bill. Senator Mitt Romney, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, called the proposal a “clunker” that is “filled with bad policies and sloppy math.” The House Minority Whip’s office dubbed the bill “Pelosi’s Payoff to Progressives Act” and now even Congressman Tom Reed, a Republican member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, announced his opposition. Politico reports that “Republicans are now gambling that there will be more backlash over schools staying closed, the Covid bill’s massive price tag and a partisan process.”

“Gambling” is the correct word. After a month without any coordinated messaging in opposition to Biden’s relief plan, Republicans are playing catch-up, and risk having already lost the argument. Polling to date has given Biden’s plan huge numbers; on Wednesday a Morning Consult poll found 76 percent support for the bill among all voters, including 60 percent support among Republicans. And a YouGov poll gauging support for the individual planks found majority Republican support for $1400 relief checks, an additional $400 monthly unemployment benefit, an extended ban on evictions and an expanded child tax credit (but not for state and local government aid, or a $15 minimum wage.)

As a general rule, giving people money is popular, whether by tax cut or government check. In turn, opposition parties usually fracture when facing a first-year president on a political honeymoon who is committed to giving people money.

What’s important for today’s Republicans to know is: those who have crossed the aisle to give people money tend to keep their jobs.

In an April 1981 Associated Press/NBC News poll, among those who had heard of President Ronald Reagan’s proposed tax cuts, the plan earned 71 percent support. A few months later, 131 House Democrats and 37 Senate Democrats joined Republicans to pass the tax cut bill. (Shortly after passage, a Gallup poll put support at a solid but more modest 51 percent with 26 percent in opposition.)

Twenty years later, President George W. Bush was gearing up for another round of tax cuts. Over the course of the spring, polling generally showed support for the tax cut between 56 percent and 61 percent. In that 50-50 Senate, 12 Democrats crossed over, along with 28 Democrats in the House.

President Barack Obama did not get nearly as much bipartisan support for his stimulus plan—a plan that subtly cut taxes by reducing the government withholding in people’s paychecks and was yoked to billions in Democratic government spending. Support in polls was decent but not overwhelming. A Gallup tracking poll taken regularly during January and February 2009 usually gauged support at 52 or 53 percent, with a bump up to 59 percent shortly before final passage. A CNN poll also taken near final passage showed a deeper divide: 54 percent in favor, 45 percent against. Obama finagled only three Republicans in Senate, and none in the House.

Republicans are no doubt nostalgic—and Democrats traumatized—for how they turned their near-unanimous opposition to Obama’s stimulus into a 2010 midterm election blowout. (Republicans may also remember how one of their renegades, Sen. Arlen Specter, soon switched parties, then lost the 2010 Democratic primary to an opponent, Joseph Sestak, who then lost that fall to Pat Toomey, once considered super right and is now the bane of Trumpists.) That recent memory of the 2010 GOP landslide clearly is steering both parties away from robust negotiations, with Democrats reasoning they are better off going big without Republican votes they’ll never get, and Republicans hoping Democrats will overreach. But Obama’s stimulus was never as popular as Biden’s relief package is today, partly because Republicans expended far more energy denigrating Obama’s proposal right out of the gate.

Reagan’s 1981 tax cut proposal, in stark contrast, reached a level of popularity near when Biden’s relief plan is today. Anti-Trump conservative Bill Kristol recently opined on Twitter: “This is such a political opportunity for Democrats. They can hammer this message: Republicans are voting against money for vaccines, tests, schools, small businesses, and the unemployed. Dem leaders opposed the 1981 Reagan tax cuts; it took them a decade to recover politically.”

That’s true, yet it also overlooks two key facts. One, as noted above, large numbers of Democratic backbenchers voted for the Reagan tax cut. (There were still lots of moderate and conservative Democrats back then.) And two, Democrats had a great 1982 midterm election, picking up 26 House seats and one Senate seat. Only six of the 131 House Democrats, and one of the 37 Senators who voted for the final bill lost re-election.

I had the opportunity to talk to Chris Matthews, who in the 1980s was Chief of Staff to Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, about the 1982 elections. Matthews reminded me that Democrats “ran on Social Security in 1982,” while Reagan pushed a “stay the course” message. But with America suffering from economic recession, “stay the course” fell flat. And Democrats took advantage of a late news report quoting an anonymous White House official saying Social Security cuts were in the works. Since Reagan’s tax cuts passed with a strong bipartisan vote, Republicans couldn’t use that as a wedge issue, while Democrats could more easily shift the focus to favorable turf.

In 2002, Democrats were not able to reap immediate electoral gains after some helped Bush enact his tax cuts. The national security panic after the 9/11 attacks greatly aided Republicans who, in the days before Donald Trump, were widely seen as the hawkish party. However, the 2002 elections saw very few incumbents lose on either side and most of the Democrats who voted for the Bush tax cuts kept their seats.

Of the five Senate Democrats who voted for the tax cuts and were on the ballot in 2002, three won. The defeated were Georgia’s Max Cleland, who was falsely smeared as an opponent of a Homeland Security department. Missouri’s Jean Carnahan lost too, but she had been appointed to the seat after her husband died just before winning in 2000—yes, a dead man won. The hastily appointed Carnahan didn’t have a long-standing base of support. Only two of the House Democratic “yea” votes lost, one who was felled by a scandal and another who had to face a Republican incumbent because of redistricting.

Of course, the common refrain today is that Washington is more polarized than it used to be, making it hard for Republicans to break ranks. But there’s no reason for Washington to be more polarized than America, and no reason for Republican politicians to oppose legislation supported by many, perhaps most, Republican voters.

Surely, Republican senators who initially tried to negotiate with President Biden are frustrated that he hasn’t offered any concessions. And maybe concessions can still happen, especially if Senators Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema withhold their votes, making a Democrats-only bill impossible. Or maybe Republicans can, as Sen. Susan Collins hopes to do, alter the bill with amendments passed on the floor. But even if Republicans can’t change the bill, a late attempt to stoke opposition to the bill looks like a riskier bet than simply siding with the American majority. No one can know exactly which way the political winds will blow come 2022 but giving voters money has long been a great way to keep one’s seat.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.