But the GOP strategy actually refutes itself, in an intriguing but revealing way. The very fact that today’s Republicans keep preposterously painting the plan as rabidly extreme shows how unwilling — or unable — they are to acknowledge the thoroughly mainstream nature of much of it. And that’s exactly why Democrats will likely have to pass it alone.
Axios reports that Republicans have developed a “battle plan” to paint the proposal as a “multitrillion dollar far left wish list.” Central to this is the claim that only a tiny fraction will be spent on real infrastructure, which only includes “roads, bridges, waterways, ports, and airports.”
GOP leaders have amplified this. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky insists the proposal “would spend more money just on electric cars” than on all those categories combined.
Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California dismisses it as a “kitchen sink” of “wasteful progressive demands.” And another top Republican warns of an “out-of-control socialist spending spree.”
But in certain ways, this strategy really underscores just how extreme the GOP has become on these issues.
The ‘real’ infrastructure canard
First, the idea that “real” infrastructure only includes those limited physical categories is absurd to the point of extremism.
The plan would spend $174 billion on electric vehicles, including outfitting 500,000 electric vehicle stations and making municipal and federal government vehicles electric. It would spend $165 billion on upgrading transit and rail systems, and $180 billion on research and development focused on clean energy and climate change.
If this isn’t “real” infrastructure, that’s just another way of saying the GOP simply will not reconcile itself to the need to shift to a decarbonized economy and way of life, and to the need to fund the infrastructure to facilitate it.
This makes the current GOP extreme relative to the party’s own past. Back during the Eisenhower era — the last time public investments approached the level now envisioned — many Republicans supported such investments.
But, crucially, they backed such investments not just to shore up existing infrastructure, but also to create conditions for the development of technologies that would shape future economies.
As political scientist Jacob Hacker puts it, at the time most congressional Republicans “were supportive of huge R & D investment in the technologies of the future,” which took forward-looking risks that ultimately produced foundational knowledge that later “transformed our economy.”
Relative to this, the idea that real infrastructure can’t include investments in a decarbonized future economy is a departure. And given the urgency Democrats ascribe to this transition, how can they work with Republicans who refuse to accept this as a fundamental aspect of infrastructure development? The GOP claim reveals these core differences as unbridgeable.
Republicans are unreachable
It’s true that Democrats want to spend money on things like beefing up our caregiving infrastructure. So a reasonable position for a few Republicans might be to eschew those things, while supporting a separate bill that only rebuilds roads, bridges, waterways and ports.
But even here, given that Republicans seem to have ruled out supporting Biden’s call to fund it all with a corporate tax hike, it’s hard to see many Republicans supporting anything other than infrastructure via a tax-break-and-privatization scheme.
Perhaps a real public investment could be deficit-funded, but Republicans are screaming that we can’t do that either. Which would require Democrats to go-it-alone there, too, via the simple majority reconciliation process.
Yet the very fact that Republicans are refusing any tax hikes or deficit spending, while denouncing these plans as socialism, also underscores that they are the outliers. As Paul Krugman puts it, Biden’s plan would only take us a fraction of the way back to the era during which many Republicans fully embraced such things:
In fiscal terms it would represent a partial return to the Eisenhower era, when we had much higher government investment as a share of gross domestic product than we do now, and also much higher tax rates on both high-income individuals and corporations.
Economist Justin Wolfers recently illustrated this very vividly in chart form:
Yet Republicans are claiming that the very fact that Democrats are even thinking about going it alone shows that Democrats are the ideological outliers:
But what’s the alternative for Democrats to “going it alone?” It’s to agree in advance to dramatically scale down their agenda in the mere hope of winning a few Republicans.
The GOP argument undercuts itself. Democrats need to prepare to act alone precisely because Republicans are so unreachable for so much of what Democrats want to do. This shows the extremism of Republicans, not Democrats.
In the end, what’s really driving Democratic preparations to act alone is what you might call a new realism. It’s a recognition that today’s GOP has drifted away to a place — whether out of evolving principle or tactical calculations, either of which indicates the party’s extremism — where there is zero chance Republicans can support anything close to what Democrats see as urgently needed.
Democrats will likely have to do this alone, and the GOP’s own strategy confirms that this is actually the reasonable course of action for them to take.