And it was only a matter of time before we were treated to another round of tired, old, libelous birtherism. Hey, the U.S.-born Harris is the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, so in the Trumpian worldview, there must be something wrong. The greatest hits of racism and nativism keep on coming.
But this manic incoherence speaks to a larger problem for a radicalized Republican Party: They have moved so far to the right that they see even moderation as socialist radicalism.
A party closer to what can fairly be called the political center would grasp that this moment of national crisis demands more aggressive and coherent action by government than the GOP’s low-tax, free market, wait-and-see bromides would admit.
Republicans briefly accepted this when they joined with Democrats earlier this year to send more than $2 trillion of relief into an ailing country. But although the economy continues to stagger, Republicans have lost their sense of urgency. Many in their ranks just can’t accept how much support Americans facing hardship, and the economy as a whole, need.
So, they refuse to meet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in the middle.
Republicans are saying they can’t accept much more than $1 trillion in new assistance. Pelosi and Schumer rightly think it will take something closer to $3 trillion to ward off personal and collective disaster. While the Senate was sleeping, Pelosi pushed her package through the House in May.
In the sort of middle-ground compromise that Congress was once good at, Pelosi suggested the parties split the difference, agree on a $2 trillion package and negotiate its content from there. No dice, said the Republicans. And Congress went home without a deal.
This failure of contemporary U.S. conservatism to grasp the realities of the moment extends beyond the immediate crisis. Over the past four decades, the distribution of income and wealth in the country has become wildly unequal.
This is a social problem for the country, aggravating divisions of all kinds. It hits hardest at Black Americans and Latinos, but also undermines the living standards of working-class Whites, many of whom gravitated to Trump in protest in 2016.
But it is also bad economics. In a consumer-driven economy, it makes good sense, as former president Barack Obama once said, to “spread the wealth around.” Republicans assailed Obama for saying that. But his words were simply a description of how modestly more egalitarian policies in the decades after World War II produced widely shared income growth and a booming economy overall.
And this is where the Harris conundrum comes into focus. She is, at once, a pragmatist and a progressive — and, at the moment, those two dispositions make a good fit.
Supporters of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are not wrong in seeing Harris as less invested in attacks on corporate power than the candidates they championed. But Harris has been consistent in favoring policies that would take large steps to redress the country’s economic imbalances.
The most innovative idea that emerged from her brief presidential campaign in 2019 was the “LIFT the Middle Class Act” to help lower- and middle-income workers. It provided an income supplement of $250 a month for single people and $500 a month for married couples, phasing out at $50,000 a year in income for singles without children and at $100,000 for singles with kids and married couples.
As Vox’s Dylan Matthews noted at the time Harris introduced the idea, it was “arguably the closest thing that any 2020 contender has proposed to a universal basic income.” According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, it would lift 9 million people out of poverty.
Harris’s response to the current downturn was consistent with this approach. With Sanders and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), she co-sponsored a bill in May that would provide $2,000 a month for every American in a family with an income of below $120,000.
It’s unlikely that Biden will fully embrace these ideas. But they show that Harris is serious about inequality and in search of practical ways to push back against it. And unlike Trump and Senate Republicans, Harris acknowledges the extent of hardship in the country. No wonder they keep flailing away at her: Her pragmatism exposes their radicalism.