The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans blame Biden for inflation. So what’s their plan?

President Joe Biden speaks on the nation's supply chains. (Ting Shen/Bloomberg)

On many issues, there are stark, easily understood alternatives offered by the parties. Democrats want to expand access to abortion while Republicans want to make abortion illegal, Democrats want to reduce the use of fossil fuels while Republicans want to keep drilling and burning, and so on.

You might think that the higher an issue is on the national agenda, the clearer the choices would be. And right now, any Republican will say there is no more important issue than inflation, which according to data released Friday rose to 6.8 percent in November.

But ask yourself this: For all their criticism and concern, what do Republicans actually think we should do about inflation? If they were in charge, what plan would they be executing? If you think the Biden administration is doing the wrong thing to address this problem, what’s the alternative?

If your answer is “I have no idea what Republicans would do,” you’re not alone. They themselves don’t seem to know.

Look at statements from Republican officeholders and conservative think tanks and you’ll see plenty of extravagant blame-placing but very few concrete recommendations. The occasional conservative will suggest that the Federal Reserve should “cool the economy” — i.e., raise interest rates to slow growth and restrain demand — but the political implications of that idea are too volatile for Republicans to fully embrace.

You can get a clearer answer from Republicans on what we shouldn’t do: pass the Build Back Better bill, because they claim it’s just more government spending, and that’s bad.

When they make that claim, they studiously avoid the question of what we actually spend money on. Republicans don’t worry about inflation when they vote to spend trillions of dollars on the military. It’s only when Democrats propose spending that might improve people’s lives that Republicans suddenly begin squawking about inflation.

Even their critique of the Biden administration’s past actions doesn’t withstand more than a moment’s scrutiny. You can argue that the pandemic spending that began under President Donald Trump and culminated with the American Rescue Plan that passed in March made some contribution to higher prices, but it’s clear that high energy costs and supply chain bottlenecks are far bigger problems. If it were all President Biden’s fault, Europe wouldn’t be experiencing the same inflation surge.

But one of the privileges of being the opposition is that you don’t have to come up with policy solutions. Just saying “Things are bad, blame the guys in charge!” is often enough to gain a political advantage.

The Biden administration, on the other hand, says it’s doing some things that will bring down inflation in the short run — releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, working to ease delays at ports — while the policies in the BBB bill will save Americans money over the medium and long terms.

You can call that “now-more-than-everism,” economist Lawrence Summers’s term for the way people in politics insist that whatever is happening now just proves the wisdom of policies they’ve wanted all along. “If we want to fight inflation and lower costs, the best thing we can do is to pass Build Back Better,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a statement Friday.

But Democrats actually have a pretty good case to make, since many of the bill’s provisions are directly intended to bring down the amount people pay for costly and important needs. If the government has reduced the cost of prescription drugs, child care and health insurance, even if you’re paying more for a gallon of milk for the next few months, you come out way ahead.

What’s more, as 15 Nobel Prize-winning economists noted in a letter released by the White House: “Because this agenda invests in long-term economic capacity and will enhance the ability of more Americans to participate productively in the economy, it will ease longer-term inflationary pressures.”

As a political message, that might not be able to overwhelm every Republican screaming “Bidenflation!” It might not compete with the media’s tendency to write a hundred inflation stories for every one about ways in which the economy is doing extremely well, such as last week’s unemployment claims, which were lower than in over half a century.

But we’re all in somewhat unfamiliar territory. We went through such a long period of low inflation, across both Democratic and Republican administrations, that politicians haven’t had to worry about it for 30 years or so. (For perspective, last month’s inflation is about half what it was in 1980.) We haven’t had an inflation debate in so long that the parties’ ideas certainly aren’t clear to voters — if they even have ideas.

Which, at the moment, only one party really does. Whatever you might think of how the Biden administration is approaching the problem, it does have a plan, one that can be judged on its merits. So in the interest of a real debate, we should ask Republicans what their alternative is.