Few seem more worthy of mockery than Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), one of the generation of Republican officeholders who consider lawmaking an irrelevant distraction from their primary job of going on Fox News to yell about how Democrats are dragging us all to hell. Here’s what he’s telling his constituents:
This is truly cause for celebration.
We are in a moment when the proper role and place of government is a matter of particularly consequential debate, with President Biden and Democrats seeking not only to dramatically expand the federal government’s footprint but reorienting it away from some of the presumptions that have held sway in Washington since the Reagan era. Democrats are starting to win that debate, and if Republicans want to help them, that’s all to the good.
For decades, one of the core axioms of political science and public opinion has been that as a whole, Americans are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal. They say they dislike government in the abstract, but it turns out they like almost everything government does.
So they say “big government” is bad, but they also want government to spend more on defense and health care and environmental protection and food safety and education and infrastructure and on and on.
Both parties play to these preferences: Republicans say they’ll get government out of your hair and off your back (often without specifying precisely how you’re supposedly being oppressed), while Democrats say they’ll keep all those important government benefits coming.
While the operational/ideological distinction is certainly meaningful, in truth the public is warmer toward government, even in the abstract, than you might think. Last year the Pew Research Center asked respondents whether they preferred “a bigger government providing more services” or “a smaller government providing fewer services,” and a bigger government won by 52 percent to 45 percent. Even 25 percent of Republicans said they wanted a bigger government.
Obviously the parties differ on which services they prefer — Democrats are much more likely to want more spending on Medicare, while Republicans are much more likely to want more military spending, and both like infrastructure. But there’s something for everyone.
And every time a Republican such as Cawthorn talks about how great it is that government is spending money in his district, he’s making the Democrats’ case for them.
That doesn’t mean he’s going to lose to the next Democrat that comes along saying they can more effectively bring home the bacon to Cawthorn’s heavily Republican district. But in the big picture, you’d rather have even Republicans setting the expectation that government should be doing things in the places people live that will have a positive impact on their lives.
When it happens, Democrats should draw more attention to it. For instance, one of the most ideologically consequential parts of the American Rescue Plan was an increase in the child tax credit that made it refundable (making it available to parents with little or no income tax liability) and will send it out as monthly checks. No drug testing, no work requirements, no bureaucratic red tape meant to humiliate people and make the benefit hard to obtain — just regular money to help you raise your kids.
It was the most emphatic rejection of the punitive GOP approach to government benefits we’ve seen in years. And while it was being debated, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah — he of the offshore accounts and the car elevator — had a similar proposal that was even more generous. While Romney got some praise from Democrats, he should have been given a party at the White House to celebrate the new bipartisan safety net paradigm.
To be clear, Republicans have hardly abandoned their contempt for government as a general matter. But when they find it in their own interests to portray the federal government not as the heartless boot-heel of oppression but as the kindly hand of support, it ought to be welcomed, no matter how hypocritical it is. It means Democrats are winning.