Republicans are still the real culture warriors
Federal support for families is triggering them
On Wednesday night, Joe Biden gave his first presidential address to a joint session of Congress. I talk with family policy expert Matt Bruenig on this week’s podcast about what’s in Biden’s American Families Plan, what will work, and what still needs work.
As a rhetorical effort, the speech marked a complete break from the Reagan-Clinton consensus that dominated the past 40 years, choking the ability of government to even be talked about as a potential force for good. “My fellow Americans, trickle-down economics has never worked,” he declared correctly.
The address reflected an impressive politics of multiracial, progressive populism that, if actually implemented, ought to ensure a durable majority for whichever party embraced it. Instead of the “shared sacrifice” that Obama and even Sen. Bernie Sanders were calling for back in the dark days of the 2010s, Biden was clear about who ought to pony up this time. “I will not add to the tax burden of the middle class of this country. They’re already paying enough,” he said. “When you hear someone say that they don’t want to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1% and on corporate America – ask them: whose taxes are you going to raise instead, and whose are you going to cut?”
(Now, before I get a few hundred emails from Modern Monetary Theory acolytes, let me say I’m good with MMT. Stephanie Kelton is a friend and somebody whose work I admire. It’s fine to say that taxes don’t fund government spending, I get that. But tax policy has other objectives, and reducing inequality, checking private equity, and diminishing the power of the very rich are all worthy goals that having nothing to do with “paying for” the American Families Plan. Okay, back to our regularly scheduled programming.)
In my last email, I laid out some of what I expected Biden would unveil during his address: Expanding the child tax credit through 2025, subsidizing child care, and free preK4 and preK3 make up the backbone of it.
The opposition to the American Families Plan from Republicans is largely cultural. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican senator from Tennessee who is one of the leaders of the evangelical wing of the party, was the most explicit about it. “What this would do is incentivize women to rely on the federal government to organize their life. It takes away from them the ability to organize their family life as they would like to organize it,” she said.
Notice how her criticism begins coherently, but ends in a jumble of incoherence. That’s not an accident. Blackburn no longer feels like she can say outright what she means here, which is that giving women a level of financial independence threatens the traditional patriarchal family structure. Blackburn and the movement she’s part of has always used the frame of the best interests of women in advancing this idea, and it’s no different now, but it’s much harder for her to say it out loud given the growth of progressive ideas in our society. (For more on the sophistication of Blackburn’s politics, check out our October interview with NARAL boss Ilyse Hogue.)
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, meanwhile, delivered the Republican rebuttal, and while Biden’s speech largely focused on class, Scott zeroed in on race and woke corporations, writing his rebuttal as if he expected Biden to issue an academic lecture on critical race theory.
As Congress debated and passed Biden’s last $1.9 trillion covid relief package, the GOP was focused on Dr. Seuss. This time, their ire might be directed at Coca Cola, but either way, they seem unable to mount any serious opposition to Biden’s agenda the way they did against Obama.
But Democrats don’t need Republican votes, and the obstacle that stands between Biden and implementation of a genuinely transformative agenda remains the filibuster. Whether Democrats can actually be the party Biden talked about last night depends on reforming it.
That it is Joe Biden -- an eager fellow traveler of the Reagan-Clinton consensus -- who is actively working to dismantle it is an irony lost on nobody. A review of his career produces a dangerous amount of whiplash. My colleague Jeremy Scahill this week published a fascinating historical project, researching Biden’s position on foreign policy issues going back to the Vietnam War. It’s a fascinating look through 50 years of American history, and you could get lost in it easily. Check it out here.