Not only has activist government proved itself essential, the ideological alternative has proved itself wacky and dangerous. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the conservative embrace of federalism turned into a patchwork response by states that spread and deepened the crisis. The conservative tradition of individualism and self-reliance became the selfish, reckless refusal to wear a mask that could save the life of an elderly neighbor. The conservative belief in limited government was transformed into armed marches in state capitals and a terrorist attack on Capitol Hill. For more than a year, Republicans have displayed their deepest beliefs in the worst possible light.
Although Biden lacks a political mandate, there is no serious ideological alternative on the table. Biden proposes clean water, a better electrical grid, electric charging stations along highways, cancer research, four additional years of public school, paid family leave, child care and refundable child credits. Republicans propose timidity, obstructionism, conspiracy thinking, cultural warfare and sedition — or at least the tolerance of sedition.
In this contest of visions, two things should concern us. First, it is appalling that the Republican Party — after rallying around a failed and racist president, tragically mishandling a health crisis, and cynically betraying its fiscal conservatism, constitutional conservatism and moral conservatism — should be within striking distance of congressional control. Extreme polarization has led many Republicans to side with anyone carrying their partisan flag — even if it’s a Q or Confederate flag. This gives elected Republicans little reason to change course. And as long as one of America’s two major political parties is dominated by authoritarian thinking, American democracy is at risk.
Second, Biden should be encouraging the reform of government as well as its expansion. The tasks at which the federal government has excelled — particularly writing checks and helping distribute vaccines — are largely technical, requiring competence and scale, but not the construction or expansion of working public institutions. This is why conservatives should have sympathy for Biden’s extension of the child credit. It provides money directly to the most basic, nongovernmental institution: the family. It achieves income redistribution (in this case, from old to young) without social engineering.
But a proposal such as adding four years and vast sums of money to the existing educational system should give us pause. Educating children is not the equivalent of vaccine distribution. Public education is a complex, organic system that in many places does not serve children well. Increasing the funding at a failing school by 20 percent does not improve its outcome by 20 percent. Providing federal and state money to the public education system for two years of preschool, even with a minor bump in teacher pay, does not guarantee children will reap the benefits.
Biden’s education approach, as eventually filled out in a bill, may well allow parental choice, include rigorous performance standards and promote innovative approaches such as social and emotional learning. But in his address, Biden positioned himself as a spender, not a reformer. He needs to be both.
One other item was notable for its absence. Biden talked about the threat of China, but not the unfolding tragedy in India and Brazil, where health systems are unraveling under pressure from covid-19 and hundreds of thousands more may die. He mentioned that the United States will become “an arsenal for vaccines for other countries,” but only after “every American will have access.”
If strictly applied, this is an absurd, destructive standard. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis, it may be only two weeks before the U.S. vaccine supply exceeds current demand. Then a surplus will begin accumulating, as we wait for the hesitant to cease hesitating. The United States has an urgent, humanitarian duty to start sharing vaccine doses with countries in crisis. Biden should have used his speech to announce a major effort, in the tradition of the Marshall Plan and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, to provide medical supplies and vaccine doses to countries in the shadow of death. This wasn’t his last opportunity to do so, but it was a lost opportunity.
That said, Biden owned the evening. And for a specific reason. Unlike his opponents, he has a credible ideology to offer.