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Opinion Tom Cotton’s silly attack on covid relief shows how Republicans will fight it

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 22. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Never one to be caught overestimating the intelligence of the American voter, future Republican presidential candidate Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has found the silver bullet that will turn the tide of public opinion on the covid-19 relief bill now on its way to passage:

In its way, this is even more repugnant than the inane culture war faux-controversies Republicans have been trying to stir up of late over everything from Dr. Seuss to Mr. Potato Head. They’re both built on misleading constituents, but arguments like Cotton’s are also about discrediting policy choices that affect people’s lives.

The truth is that Cotton has no idea whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is going to get a relief check through the American Rescue Plan or not (it would depend on whether he filed a tax return recently). But let’s quickly review the actual facts before we get into how this relates to the political dilemma Republicans face.

When the Cares Act overwhelmingly passed Congress last March — with the votes of Tom Cotton and just about every other congressional Republican — apparently nobody had even thought about whether incarcerated people would get a stimulus check. So when the IRS later tried to declare prisoners ineligible, a federal judge struck down the action because the law didn’t say prisoners couldn’t get the money. Congress didn’t bother changing that in the December stimulus (which Cotton also voted for), and it didn’t change in this one either.

The logical question is: Who cares? So a few prisoners’ families get money they can use to fix their cars or pay the rent; in the context of a $1.9 trillion bill, should that matter to anyone?

Cotton is betting it will, and you can be sure that eager young Republican researchers are poring over every line of the bill to see what can be used to discredit the entire effort.

That’s because the GOP made a choice: This relief bill was going to be purely partisan, and therefore is has to be vilified.

That is not the choice Democrats made with the Cares Act. While the two bills are not identical, they’re similar in key ways; the difference is that now, the president who would benefit politically is a Democrat, while then it was a Republican. But almost every Democrat voted for the Cares Act knowing that it might help Donald Trump get reelected, because it was the right thing to do.

Not a single Republican voted for the American Rescue Plan in the Senate, and not a single one is likely to vote for it in the House in its final vote. But that puts them in an awkward position, because not only has the bill been extremely popular so far, it could easily become even more popular in the future.

That could happen for both direct and indirect reasons. First, people will be getting large amounts of money from the federal government, and — news flash here — people like getting money. Not only does the ARP include those $1,400 checks, it also enhances the child tax credit for a year, which will mean thousands of dollars more for millions of families.

So Republicans will essentially be saying, “We know the government just gave your family $8,000, but aren’t you mad that some prisoner’s family might have gotten some money, too? C’mon, get mad!”

The indirect reason the bill could become more popular is that not only will it help the economy recover, it’s likely that the economy will be recovering anyway as coronavirus vaccines are widely distributed and businesses that were limited or shut down entirely can get up and running again. If we’re headed for a strong recovery, combined with a national outbreak of hope and joy as we get back to normal life, it’s probably not going to be all that persuasive for Republicans to be running around telling people that the ARP was actually a disaster.

Still, there’s a long and dishonorable (and bipartisan) history of political campaigns taking an enormous bill their opponent voted for, then using an easily demagogued provision in attack ads. It has worked before, and it could work again.

Omnibus spending bills are particularly fruitful for this purpose; for some reason, minor spending items involving animals are irresistible to those looking to cast all federal spending as frivolous and wasteful. “Congressman Smith voted to spend $100,000 of your tax money on claw-cleaning for bears — bears that might one day use those claws to kill your children. We just can’t trust Congressman Smith.”

Those attacks are effective when people don’t see government spending as worthwhile — but this is a case where government spending will be landing right in their bank accounts. Republicans will have an uphill climb to convince them that it was a nightmare.

Read more:

Eugene Robinson: Democrats shouldn’t wait for Republicans to come to their senses

Brian Klaas: Meet the Republicans who want to end the electoral college

Megan McArdle: I get the indignation. But where are the ideas, Republicans?

Greg Sargent: Democrats are going big — and it’s working. There’s a lesson in that.