The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans are right to oppose Biden’s bloated spending plans. But they need their own blueprint.

President Biden addresses a joint session of Congress, with Vice President Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the dais behind him, on Wednesday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

President Biden’s proposed $4 trillion in new federal spending gives Republicans a familiar target to attack. The GOP should also treat the bloated plans as an opportunity to craft its own blueprint outlining what it can support.

The Republican Party was not always allergic to government action. From protective tariffs to the first antitrust act to the landmark bill that established the Food and Drug Administration, Republicans offered strong programs to protect the weak while promoting strength. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s transformative New Deal, though, largely pushed the GOP into opposing federal action regardless of the rationale. This unthinking negativity was so pervasive that even a Popeye cartoon in 1948 satirized Republicans, portraying them as elephants rejecting all of President Olive Oyl’s proposals. Republican presidents who tried to buck this belief, such as Dwight Eisenhower and both Bushes, always faced castigation by many on the right for their alleged liberalism.

This strategy can work in times of calm and plenty. But when things get rough, people want action. And that always means that when Democrats eventually take power, they have the upper hand in arguing for action on steroids. That impulse brought us the Great Society’s massive expansion in government during the 1960s and Obamacare. Having forfeited the ability to control the tide, Republicans — or at least GOP policy preferences — are always swept away by it.

Biden’s proposals are a typical Democratic big-government offering. They are over-broad in scope and design, spreading government largesse to people and groups who don’t need the help. The Manhattan Institute’s Chris Pope has an excellent taxonomy of Biden’s plans, dividing them into three categories. He says only 20 percent “could be good ideas depending on the details,” while a whopping 60 percent is “poorly targeted aid, far costlier than necessary.” The final 20 percent is “political pork.”

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His analysis offers a good launching pad for developing a GOP alternative. For example, Biden’s proposals to expand various tax credits relating to children and poverty, such as the child tax credit or the earned-income tax credit, have some merit. Indeed, Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Mike Lee (Utah) proposed expanding the child tax credit as part of President Trump’s 2017 tax bill. But many of Biden’s expansions would give benefits to families earning $100,000 a year or more. It’s one thing to expand tax credits for poor people so that they can make ends meet. It’s another expanding them for the already well-off, who will simply pocket the taxpayer cash and use it to spend for other purposes.

Biden’s proposed paid family leave program is another example. He’s right that many low-paid workers do not have access to paid sick leave or short-term disability insurance to allow new parents to spend time with their child after birth. But his proposal would make federally financed paid leave available to everyone, including the millions of American workers who have privately financed leave programs. A sensible proposal, such as the ones previously offered by Rubio and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), would offer targeted programs that help people who need it without creating a one-size-fits-all government solution.

These considerations lead to a distinctly Republican way of talking about government action that harks back to the party’s Lincolnian roots. Republicans can be against ideas that displace successful private activity for no purpose other than to create a government monopoly. They can be against aid to people who don’t need it because they already earn enough to be expected to support themselves. They can be against proposals that place government in a supervisory or decision-making role across large sectors of the economy. Those ideas are rightly called socialism and should be opposed.

Republicans can be for government action that is limited in scope and directly targeted to meet real needs. That was the impetus for the 19th-century and mid-20th-century government interventions in the economy that Republicans spearheaded — from the Homestead Act that opened up the settlement of Western lands, to Eisenhower’s Interstate Highways Act that built our national freeway system. It also justifies George W. Bush’s Medicare drug plan project, which used market-based competition to deliver needed drugs at much lower prices than anticipated.

This was also Ronald Reagan’s way of thinking. In the speech that made him a star, “A Time for Choosing,” he decried the idea that conservatives are always against something and never for anything. Conservatives often forget that Reagan did not simply oppose Medicare; he supported an alternative — the Kerr-Mills Act — that provided federal subsidies to states to pay for medical care for seniors who could not afford it by themselves.

Nearly 90 years after the New Deal, Republicans still struggle to find their way between socialism and libertarianism. Biden’s extravagant proposals give them another chance to get on the right path.

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