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 Plan.
But roughly 100 days into Mr. Biden’s presidency, as he has proceeded with spending plans that the administration and friendly observers have increasingly described in historic terms — as an update to and expansion 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 make a concerted public argument against Democratic economic policies. One complication is that to do so would be to engage in hypocrisy so blatant and obvious that it would negate any impact. But this stems partly from a deeper problem, which is that 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 at first, nominally a movement in response to Obama-era economic policy — the stimulus in the wake of the housing market crash and then the Affordable Care Act — that conservative activists saw as overreach.
Yet Donald Trump campaigned on not touching Medicare and Social Security, and during his presidency, the Republican Party ran up federal debt and deficits and increased federal spending even before the pandemic. Tea Party-style lawmakers in the House Freedom Caucus, instead of resisting this move, became some of the most vocal defenders of the Trump agenda.
And when the pandemic hit, many Republicans supported enormous, deficit-financed spending bills in response, totaling nearly $4 trillion. It was not the first time that Republicans had recently run up the federal 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 recent Echelon Insights poll, only 25 percent of Republicans said they believed the goal of politics is to enact good public policy; that number shrank to 19 percent among the party’s most dedicated 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 economic policy made the already difficult work of developing 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 are looking to forge new paths for the right: Notably, 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 previously made waves by pushing to expand the child tax credit.
This highlights another quandary for the party: To the extent that the party is trying out different ideas, they are often scaled back variations on policy ideas more typically associated with Democrats. Mr. Biden’s recovery plan, for example, included a one-year expansion of the child tax credit.
Mr. Rubio, meanwhile, recently backed the drive 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 favored by Mr. Biden, but still an increase.
Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri has called for a $15 minimum for large corporations, and last year teamed up with Senator Bernie Sanders to push for larger direct payments to households as part of pandemic relief legislation. Outside the realm of budgets and spending, Mr. Hawley has proposed antitrust legislation of the sort one might normally expect to find coming from Senator Elizabeth Warren.
And this points to the deeper problem: The Republican Party, at the very least, lacks a coherent sense of what economic policy and legislation should do and what it is for.
Because it has no theory, the Republican Party cannot offer much in the way of a critique of Democratic governance. It’s not as if there aren’t arguments to make: The recovery bill was larded with pre-existing 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 perhaps the obstreperous left. It’s telling that some of the most stinging critiques of Mr. Biden’s macroeconomic policy have come from the likes of Larry Summers, an economist long associated with the Democratic Party.
Republicans have effectively abdicated responsibility for both economic policymaking and economic policy argument, and so Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion recovery plan sailed through Congress, with an even larger wave of infrastructure spending likely to follow.
Republicans have attacked that plan as not being infrastructure — a fair point, to some degree, but also not exactly an argument for why Mr. Biden’s proposals shouldn’t pass. (Republicans finally did release a loose counterproposal.)
Rather than push back on the proposal’s particulars, they have focused more on attacking its tax increases. Taxes are the one major economic policy issue Republicans continue to care about, but a party that cares only about taxes and not about spending is, in some ways, how we got here in the first place.
Republicans are not only failing themselves; they are failing their duty, as an opposition party, to present an informed critique 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 programs, they will need to make sure voters have also heard coherent arguments against them.
Peter Suderman is features editor at Reason Magazine.