The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Covid relief is controversial in Washington. But not in the rest of America.

(Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The first major legislation of Joe Biden’s presidency will be the covid-19 relief bill, which has engendered a good bit of controversy in Washington over its size, whether it sends aid to the right people and whether the process by which it will pass is sufficiently bipartisan. Given that controversy, you might think the matter is contentious among voters, generating argument, discord and eventually hurt feelings among those who don’t wind up getting their way.

But it isn’t. In fact, this bill so far looks to be one of the most popular pieces of major legislation in U.S. history.

That in itself doesn’t prove it’s a good thing — the public sometimes supports bad ideas — but it should give Democrats confidence that the political winds are at their backs no matter what Republicans do or say. It also shows how skewed the view from Washington can sometimes be.

Here are some recent poll results:

  • A new CBS News poll found that 83 percent of Americans would approve “of Congress passing an additional economic relief package that would provide funds to people and businesses impacted by the coronavirus outbreak.” While 40 percent thought the package being discussed is “not enough,” 39 percent said it is “about the right amount” and only 20 percent said it is “too much.”
  • A Yahoo News/YouGov poll found 74 percent of Americans supporting $2,000 relief checks, and 69 percent supporting increased funding for vaccinations. Those are two of core pieces of the bill.
  • A Quinnipiac poll found that 68 percent of Americans support the rescue package, in response to a question that explicitly mentioned Biden (which might be expected to turn off Republicans). And 78 percent of Americans supported relief checks.

You might say, “People like it when you give them money. It’s not exactly a tough sell.” Which is true. But it demonstrates how small the risks are for Democrats even if they get zero Republican votes for the aid package in either the Senate or the House, which is probably what will happen.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

It isn’t that Republicans haven’t tried to discredit the bill — they have — but their efforts have been desultory and ineffectual. They’ve complained about its overall size, and that too many people may be helped, and that assistance to state and local governments may flow to places where there are lots of Democrats. But none of those arguments seems to persuade anyone.

This is a striking contrast to what we’ve seen in the past, when most any legislation that became partisan quickly became unpopular. In particular, Republicans have been effective at using their media apparatus to create opposition to Democratic bills, especially when the legislation in question is complicated and public understanding of its details is thin.

The most vivid case is of course the Affordable Care Act, the complexity of which allowed Republicans to propagate a series of utterly spectacular lies about it. Remember the “death panels”?

It still may seem ludicrous that one of our two parties could have been so shameless as to make such a claim. But on the other hand, that party (or much of it, anyway) is still arguing that global warming is a hoax and the 2020 election was stolen from its clear victor, Donald Trump.

As a result, the ACA remained unpopular until fairly recently in its life. That’s not an uncommon tale for legislation: Controversy tends to put a ceiling on support as partisans take cues from their elites and line up for and against it.

There’s some variation, of course. The tax cut Republicans passed in 2017, for instance, was the most unpopular tax bill ever, getting less support even than tax increases signed by Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. The GOP’s effort that year to repeal the ACA was even more reviled, but in the end all but 20 House Republicans voted for it anyway, as did all but three GOP senators.

There are also popular bills that fail; the Manchin-Toomey gun background check bill was one of the most broadly supported bills ever, yet it fell to a Republican filibuster.

But what matters in this case is that while the bill is controversial inside Washington, there is only a tiny amount of disagreement about it in the country as a whole. And while most voters may not know much about the specifics, the most visible part of the bill — the direct payments — is almost absurdly popular.

If it’s like almost every other big piece of legislation in history, the relief bill’s implementation will bring with it some complications, and perhaps a few unintended consequences. But it’s vital to show Americans that it’s possible for them to get what they voted for, that government can deliver what it promised. While there are many things on Biden’s agenda that will be difficult to accomplish, this one ought to be easy.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Why Democrats are divided on who gets stimulus checks

Neel Kashkari: We need a long-haul stimulus that will last as long as the pandemic does

Lawrence H. Summers: The Biden stimulus is admirably ambitious. But it brings some big risks, too.

Jennifer Rubin: Biden has the upper hand when he champions popular policies

Catherine Rampell: More covid relief is urgent. January’s jobs report shows where the need is greatest.