Despite newly elected President Barack Obama’s inclusion of various elements Republicans should have supported, his 2009 stimulus package faced sustained and ruthless attacks from conservative politicians and, just as importantly, the right-wing media. At the time, the “de facto leader” of the Republican Party was Rush Limbaugh, whose audience size beat that of all his radio rivals. His assaults on the Obama stimulus package are representative of those put forth by the rest of the right-wing media ecosystem.
Day after day, the host attacked Obama’s plan—at a time when the president was immensely popular, more so than Joe Biden at a comparable point in his presidency. The Obama stimulus itself was broadly popular when it was enacted on Feb. 17, 2009, although it did not garner quite as much support as Biden’s plan does right now. Conservatives like Limbaugh made it their business to turn the American people against the bill, and not just by criticizing it on the grounds of small-government ideology. They had a good deal of success, in part because of flaws in the ARRA, but also because they were laser-focused on poisoning the discourse around it.
In addition to lying about the specifics, Limbaugh race-baited his listeners by slamming the ARRA as a “welfare payment”—a racially loaded term that conservatives going back to Ronald Reagan used as a dog whistle, to evoke stereotypical images of Black people supposedly not working while being supported by the government. The host linked the Obama plan to welfare in different ways, on numerous different broadcasts, and mentioned how “civil rights coalitions” supported the push to “redistribute” money by “taking it from you” (given that his audience was overwhelmingly white, we know who “you” referred to). He went after the bill for sending money to ACORN—which advocated for low-income folks and people of color, and worked to increase voter registration—despite the fact that the group got no money from the ARRA. Limbaugh also speculated baselessly that Al Sharpton and his group got stimulus funds.
The host also lied about the ARRA giving tax credits to “illegal aliens”—which did not happen. Additionally, he characterized the Obama stimulus as an “effort to buy votes,” and then immediately played an exchange of the president talking with a Latino student. In this and other similar segments, the host’s goal was to paint the plan as seeking to help those Black and brown people whom he depicted as wanting to avoid work. As Limbaugh told it, the ARRA was another plank in a race war fueled by Obama’s “rage”—and inspired by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Bringing it all together on June 22, 2009, the host spewed the following racist claptrap: “Everything in the stimulus plan, every plan he’s got is reparations. … Redistribution of wealth, reparations … whatever you want to call it, it’s reparations.”
Although today’s Republicans are employing different tactics in opposing Biden’s plan, some habits are hard to break. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham went after a provision aimed at helping Black farmers who suffered a century of systemic discrimination after the Civil War, using the same language as Limbaugh: “In this bill, if you're a farmer, your loan will be forgiven up to 120% of your loan if you're socially disadvantaged, if you're African American … some other minority. But if you're (a) white person, if you're a white woman, no forgiveness! That's reparations!” House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn, who hails from the same state, called Graham out: “He ought to be ashamed of himself. He knows the history in this country and he knows what has happened to Black farmers,” and added that his fellow South Carolinian ought to “go to church … Get in touch with his Christianity.”
Graham didn’t attack the overall bill in race-baiting terms, however. I’m not suggesting that’s because the 2021 version of the Republican Party has grown more enlightened on race since it fell under the sway of Donald Trump. It’s because the circumstances around the American Rescue Plan are different from those in play in 2009. Republicans haven’t stopped using racially or culturally divisive attacks as a way to distract from the unpopularity of their policy positions. It’s just that, with over half a million deaths that have affected all communities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, even they don’t think it’s a winning move to attack Biden’s relief bill on the same sort of race-baiting grounds, or with the same level of intensity, as they did Obama’s ARRA package.
Republicans can’t even successfully go after the ARP as “big government” overreach or for increasing the national debt, because they supported multiple COVID-19 bills last year that in total spent even more, not to mention their having busted the budget on Trump’s Rich Man’s Tax Cut in 2017. The last thing Republicans want to do is remind voters that they blew a trillion-plus dollar hole in the national debt and sent just about half of that money to the richest 5%, while Biden’s bill will put 70% of its money into the pockets of the bottom 60% of Americans by income.
Democrats must make sure voters don’t forget that. New York. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney’s messaging nailed it: “We should shout it from the rooftops that we are passing historic legislation that will reboot the economy and end the pandemic. They're always ready to help a big corporation or a rich person, but when a working family needs help, the Republicans tell them to drop dead.”
Even Republican mayors—32 of them in fact, from states ranging from Oklahoma to North Carolina to Indiana to Arizona to Michigan—signed on to support the Biden plan. Directly countering lies from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell about “blue state bailouts,” Republican Mayor Bryan Barnett of Rochester Hills, Michigan, stated: “This isn't because of some gross mismanagement or some bad contracts that were signed or historic deficits. This is about addressing the needs of a global pandemic that are really (for) the same constituents they serve in D.C. that we're serving here at the local level.”
For multiple reasons, including the fact that their current leader, aka Mr. Former Guy, supported the main element—a check going out to most Americans—the Republican response to the American Rescue Plan has been “more muted” than 12 years ago, and that includes the response from Trump.
The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote (Twice) actually slammed his once and possible future ally McConnell over his opposition to those very checks. Republicans can’t seem to get on the same page when it comes to the specifics of the ARP, so it’s hard for them to condemn it in a coherent way. Sen. McTurtle has issued a few statements rebuking the relief package, but it’s nothing compared to 2009.
Rather than go hard after the ARP in the way Limbaugh had done with the ARRA a dozen years ago, Trump all but ignored it at his biggest and best opportunity: CPAC. He devoted only two sentences to the bill during a speech lasting an hour and a half, instead spending much more time talking about the election, impeachment, and those who truly demonstrated, in the words of Luca Brasi, their “ever-ending loyalty.” As for those who didn’t, they could sleep with the fishes as far as Trump—who has himself been accused of acting like a mafia boss—was concerned.
Instead, Trump and his party made a decision to attack Biden in a very incoherent way. This is not to suggest that they don’t know what they are doing, but rather that what they are doing is not going to work. They are banking on people, when they vote in 2022, somehow not remembering how bad the situation was when Biden took office, so that Republicans can then say that the ARP didn’t really do all that much, or wasn’t necessary in the first place—as Moscow Mitch just claimed on Thursday—or was just a bunch of progressive ideas (yeah, and people like those ideas). Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi is actually trying to take credit for the bill, even though he (and every other Republican) voted against it. Talk about incoherence. You know their attacks are pretty weak when they sound like this one, from Texas Sen. John Cornyn: “Unfortunately, there’s going to be a sugar high because free money is very popular … So this may be temporarily popular, but it’s going to wear thin over time.”
If you have to say twice that the bill is going to be popular, then maybe you’ve got a political problem here, senator. Republicans are already trying to “pre-deny” credit for the coming boom to Biden’s policies—even as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s analysis found that the American Rescue Plan would increase economic growth in our country by an impressive 3% over previous estimates, and would add over 1% to worldwide economic growth. That’s a Big Fucking … oh, forget it, everyone else has already used that line. It is a BFD, though.
There were a couple of other echoes of 2009 coming from conservatives. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee issued a statement in early February criticizing the increased child tax credit that ended up in the final bill as “welfare assistance.” Chris Hartline, National Republican Senatorial Committee spox, went off about Democrats not caring if stimulus checks went to undocumented immigrants. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has made similar complaints, and also carped about ARP money going to incarcerated prisoners.
However, there are two problems for The Man Who Threw His Own Daughters Under The Bus: first, his proposed amendment would have blocked 2 million American citizen children from receiving stimulus checks just because their parents are undocumented. As Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the majority whip, noted: “These American kids should receive this relief just as other American kids do.” Second, the previous COVID-19 stimulus checks—the ones with the Orange Julius Caesar’s name on them—also went out to prisoners, something Cruz absolutely knew before the December COVID-19 bill was passed. Did he utter a peep about it when that bill was under discussion? I think you know the answer.
So, although conservatives have made their pro forma condemnations of the ARP, what they are actually spending the bulk of their time and energy screaming about these days reveals their fundamental strategy. Their goal is not to rile up their voters about what the president is doing—which will help just about every American—but instead distract them with totally unrelated culture war issues.
Do Fox News viewers even know about the American Rescue Act, the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill that passed the Senate? They might not. The network, like most right-wing media, has largely ignored the Covid-19 relief legislation, instead fixating on silly culture-war controversies involving Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss. In the days leading up to the Senate vote, the network was far more concerned with the availability of Dr. Seuss’s Scrambled Eggs Super than it was with any aspect of the bill itself.
Want to guess how many times Fox mentioned Dr. Seuss just through March 3? Not one fish, and not two fish. Try 60 times, as counted by The Washington Post. Beyond the cancel culture crap, the Party of Trump has one arena of actual policy that it seems to think is worthy of more time, attention, and vitriol than COVID-19 relief: the great danger they insist is posed by transgender athletes. To his eternal credit, Florida (Man) Rep. Matt Gaetz combined two manufactured controversies in a single bank shot when, at CPAC, he quipped: “Mr. Potato Head was America’s first transgender doll and even he got canceled.” I haven’t seen anyone get this worked up about Mr. Potato Head since this guy yelled at his little nerdy buddy.
Just look at a snapshot of Fox News’ website after the ARP passed compared to that of CNN. The latter has the vitally important piece of legislation at the top, over the entire three-column page. The former leads with the Meghan Markle/Piers Morgan clash, and its largest mention of the president is in an article about how his “handlers” are, wait for it, “hidin’ Biden.” Yep, they’re still going with that campaign calumny about the guy who trounced Trump being somehow infirm.
Anything to avoid reality.
Why are Republicans following this strategy? After being fed political junk food for so long—especially by the demagogue who has led their party going on five years now—it’s the only thing their voters want to imbibe. These kinds of culture war attacks “unif[y] the party but expands it into the area we need to—the suburban moms, the college educated men that we struggled with in 2020, there’s common ground with these constituencies,” according to Mercedes Schlapp, who worked for the twice-impeached president. Republican strategist Matt Gorman added that such tactics represent “a cultural touchstone for folks that shows where a party's priorities are.” Famed Republican pollster Frank Luntz thinks they are “definitely” a good way to excite the right-wing base.
Daniel Cox, a researcher at the American Enterprise institute who has done extensive research about the topic, found that "concerns about cultural influence, political power and status are really overwhelming other ideological concerns on the right. Traditional conservative principles, whether it's commitment to a strong national defense or support for limited government, do not animate Republican voters." Other Republicans offered similar opinions.
Even the recently deceased Limbaugh typically used to tie his race-baiting attacks to larger ideological questions or at least policies under discussion in the moment—not that that’s praise, mind you. Now, however, the Party of Trump can’t even bother to do that, as per POLITICO: “Today, much of the fracas doesn’t even involve Biden, or his administration, or his policy agenda. Instead, it involves things like corporate decisions around kids’ toys.”
In the end, as Ron Brownstein pointed out, Republicans were unable to “ignite a grassroots backlash” against Biden's COVID-19 relief package. One Democratic pollster, Nick Gourevitch, saw a lack of passion behind the Republican attacks on the bill: “It doesn't seem like they are even really trying.” Brownstein reported that, off the record at least, a number of Republicans agreed.
For their part, the Biden White House is more than happy to put its actual policy accomplishments up against the trash the other side is throwing out there.
One of the criticisms leveled at Obama—including by Barack himself—was that he didn’t always do a great job advertising his own achievements to voters. The 44th president acknowledged: “We did not always think about making sure we were advertising properly what was going on,” and added that his White House should have taken more “victory laps.” His veep, now the 46th president, appears to have learned the lesson well, as evidenced by the primetime address he delivered Thursday night.
Democrats think they have a winner with the American Rescue Plan, and it looks like they know how to tell the story of what they’ve accomplished.
The most recent polling shows not only that the American people favor the bill, but also that there’s a significant class divide that portends even more danger for the Party of Trump. Overall, 41% of Republicans like the ARP, which is bad enough for them. However, among the quarter of Republicans who are lower income, that percentage is 63%.
Here’s the analysis from Daily Kos’ Kerry Eleveld: “This GOP divide along class lines gives Democrats a real opening to both win back some blue-collar voters as well as remind some Trump voters why they were never sold on the Republican Party to begin with (thereby discouraging them from turning out next year).”
It’s easy to say that, come the next election, the bullshit will win out over substance. We are Democrats, after all, which means we often see the glass as half-empty when it comes to electoral politics. But that’s not always how it plays out. Republicans may hope that if they just yell and scream about other, unrelated topics, voters in 2022 will forget that Biden’s relief plan significantly helped just about every American finally get past this devastating pandemic.
It’s up to all of us to help Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and the rest of the Democratic Party make sure voters remember who did that for them.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)