Have you heard about the Republican arguments against President Biden’s economic plans? Me neither.
It’s not that Republican opposition doesn’t exist. Every Republican in Congress voted against Mr. Biden’s economic recovery package, the American Rescue Program.
But approximately 100 days into Mr. Biden’s presidency, as he has proceeded with spending plans that the administration and friendly observers have described in historical terms — as an upgrade to and growth of the New Deal and a wholesale reorientation of the relationship between the federal government and the economy — the Republican opposition has largely been a matter of dull reflex.
What Republicans haven ’t done is create a concerted public debate against Democratic economic policies. One complication is the fact that to do so is to engage in hypocrisy so blatant and obvious that it would negate any effect. However, this stems partly from a deeper issue, which is the party no longer has a cognizable theory of government.
Republicans spent the presidency of Barack Obama leveling attacks on Democratic fiscal policy: Debt and deficits were out of control, they said, and spending restraint had disappeared. The Tea Party was, at least initially, nominally a motion in response to Obama-era financial policies the stimulation in the wake of the housing market crash and then the Affordable Care Act that conservative activists viewed as overreach.
Yet Donald Trump campaigned on not touching Medicare and Social Security, and during his presidency, the Republican Party ran up national debt and deficits and increased federal spending even before the pandemic. Tea Party-style lawmakers in the House Freedom Caucus, instead of resisting this movement, became some of the most vocal defenders of the Trump agenda.
And when the pandemic struck, many Republicans supported enormous, deficit-financed spending statements in reaction, totaling almost $4 trillion. It wasn’t the first time that Republicans had recently run up the national tab: Total government spending and deficits grew under President George W. Bush as well.
So who would believe that this party genuinely supports limited government?
Part of the Republican Party’s weakness as an opposition party is structural. Republican politicians don’t care that much about solving problems through public policy because Republican voters don’t care that much, either: In a new Echelon Insights survey , only 25 percent of Republicans said they believed the objective of politics is to reevaluate good public policy; that number shrank to 19 percent among the party ’s most committed Trump supporters.
Part of it is historical, an outgrowth of the party ’s recent strategy of opposing Democratic plans without unifying around alternatives of their own. That generalized refusal to engage with policy trade-offs became endemic under Mr. Trump, whose shallow approach to so much financial policy made the already difficult job of creating and uniting around innovative policy ideas effectively impossible.
It’s not that the party has no ideas at all. But there is little in the way of consensus on economic policy and how to improve it, even among those who want to forge new avenues for the right : Especially, when Senator Mitt Romney of Utah introduced a proposal for a broad-based child allowance, he was attacked by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida — who had formerly made waves by pushing to expand the child tax credit.
This highlights another quandary for the celebration : To the extent that the party is trying out various ideas, they are often scaled back variants on policy ideas more typically associated with Democrats. Mr. Bidens recovery plans, for example, included a one-year growth of the child tax credit.
Mr. Rubio, meanwhile, recently endorsed the driveway for a union at an Amazon facility in Alabama. And Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas has called for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour — not the $15 an hour preferred by Mr. Biden, but still an increase.
Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri had called for a $15 minimum for large corporations and annually teamed up with Senator Bernie Sanders to push larger direct payments to families as part of pandemic relief law. Outside the realm of budgets and spending, Mr. Hawley has proposed antitrust laws of this sort one might normally expect to find coming from Senator Elizabeth Warren.
And this points to the deeper issue : The Republican Party, at the very least, lacks a coherent sense of what economic policy and laws should do and what it’s for.
Because it does not have any theory, the Republican Party cannot offer much in the way of a review of Democratic governance. It’s not like there aren’t arguments to make : The retrieval bill was larded with preexisting Democratic spending priorities that had little to do with pandemic relief.
So the substantive debates are conducted not between left and right but between the left and the center left — or maybe the obstreperous left. It’s telling that a number of the most stinging critiques of Mr. Biden’s macroeconomic policy have come from the likes of Larry Summers, an economist long related to the Democratic Party.
Republicans have effectively abdicated responsibility for both economic policymaking and financial policy debate, and so Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion recovery plan sailed through Congress, with an even bigger wave of infrastructure spending likely to follow.
Republicans have attacked that plan rather than being infrastructures a reasonable point, to some extent, but also not exactly an argument for why Mr. Bidens suggestions shouldnt pass. (Republicans eventually did launch a loose counterproposal.)
Rather than push back on the proposition ’s particulars, they have concentrated more on attacking its tax increases. Taxes are the one important economic policy issue Republicans continue to care about, but a celebration that care only about taxes rather than about spending is, in some ways, how we got here in the first place.
Republicans are not just failing themselves; they’re neglecting their duty, as an opposition party, to present an informed review of the ruling party’s governance. If the party expects to convince the public that Democrats have overreached and overspent with Mr. Biden’s economic applications, they will need to make sure voters also have heard coherent arguments .
Peter Suderman is features editor at Reason Magazine.