And it would seem to be happening again, with Republican leaders pushing for their party to unite against President Biden’s hugely popular coronavirus stimulus bill. Some are characterizing this as a huge risk.
The reality is more complex.
The chart below caught my eye Wednesday. It’s from the Economist and compares polls of Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package with other major pieces of legislation in recent decades. As you can see, it’s one of the rare policies that the vast majority of Americans seem to have agreed on for a very long time.
As some have logically argued, opposing such a popular bill could pose problems for the GOP. The legislation, after all, even has significant support among Republican voters — close to half favor it, in some polls. It also deals with a very obvious threat that Americans recognize and generally agree on. Republicans may object to the specifics of the measure, but politically speaking, they would be voting against something the vast majority of the American people want.
That said, the passage of the bill, in many ways, is just the beginning of the political (and electoral) fight. And some of the other bills included in the chart are instructive when it comes to how things can change both politically and practically, once something is actually passed.
The last time we were in something amounting to our current situation — at least on the economic side — was the Great Recession of the late 2000s. Then, as today, Democrats called for stimulus. Then, as appears to be the case today, Republicans united against it. Not one House Republican voted for the $787 billion stimulus package, and only three moderate GOP senators did.
The bill wasn’t as popular as today’s stimulus, but it was quite popular. After passage, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that Americans supported the plan 64 percent to 35 percent. They favored it 57 percent to 34 percent in an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. Polls pre-passage weren’t quite as positive, but they trended pretty strongly in favor of the bill as the debate wore on.
Despite that, Republicans calculated that they could still oppose the package, by focusing on some of its more objectionable elements. And by the time 2010 rolled around, about 75 percent of Americans said half or more of the stimulus money had been wasted. In April of that year, 62 percent said the legislation had not created jobs, with just 51 percent of Democrats saying it had. And on Election Day, only about one-third of voters said the package actually helped, according to exit polls. Republicans won the House in a rout and gained six seats in the Senate, after running in many cases on their opposition to the bill.
Tax cuts passed under President Donald Trump are also a relevant example here. Although they were historically unpopular, they became less so after passage. Polls showed that Americans believed they would glean or actually gleaned little benefit personally from the cuts, but the White House made another calculation: that a strengthening economy, which the tax cuts could assist, would bolster Trump’s economically focused argument for reelection. And although Trump lost reelection in 2020, his economic numbers were long his strongest. The tax cuts weren’t really a Democratic focal point.
It bears reemphasizing that these comparisons aren’t perfect. The 2009 stimulus package wasn’t as universally popular as today’s, and the tax cuts were on the other end of the spectrum. But both demonstrate that a big bill’s polling numbers upon passage can be oversold. In the case of stimulus, people generally like throwing money at a major problem they recognize, but then the task is making sure that it’s well-spent and that people understand that.
Republicans will surely focus on supposedly extraneous spending in the bill — an effort that has begun to pick up steam. They have suggested that the money for reopening schools isn’t targeted enough and pointed to funding for things such as the arts that they argue do not belong in the bill (even though that accounts for a tiny portion of the funding).
Thus far, those arguments clearly haven’t won the day. But we’re also just starting to get into the nitty-gritty of debating the bill, as we wait for final word on whether it might include Biden’s proposed $15-an-hour minimum-wage increase. The real test will be how the bill is perceived to have worked if it passes. If there’s a key difference between 2009 and today in the Democrats’ favor, it’s that there appears to be less demand for fiscal restraint after the budget-busting days of the Trump administration.
But two years is a long time for legislation to be implemented and the terms of the debate to be adjusted.