CONTRIBUTORS

OP-ED: How the GOP blew its chance at a 2022 working-class coalition in just 10 hours, 43 minutes

Will Bunch
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, right, talks with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., while walking to the U.S. Senate chamber for a vote on March 5, 2021, in Washington, D.C. The Senate approved the latest COVID-19 relief bill early Saturday morning. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/TNS)

It was less than two weeks ago that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a past and future presidential hopeful for the Republican Party, stood before an annual confab of conservative fanatics and proclaimed he could see the future of the Grand Old Party. In Orlando, Florida, a stone's throw from Walt Disney's Fantasyland, Cruz promised the Conservative Political Action Conference that the GOP will be "the party of steel workers and construction workers and pipeline workers and taxi cabdrivers and cops and firefighters and waiters and waitresses and the men and women with calluses on their hands who are working for this country."

Yet on Saturday afternoon, Cruz and 48 of his Republican colleagues raised their uncalloused, millionaire hands and flipped a giant middle finger to the American middle class who could have returned their party to power in Congress in 2022. In unanimously — and futilely — opposing the Democrats' 50-49 passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that will likely be signed by President Joe Biden this week, Cruz and his fellow GOPers went on the record opposing $1,400 checks for struggling taxi drivers, expanded jobless benefits for waiters and waitresses whose jobs were obliterated by the pandemic, and local aid to stop the feared layoffs of cops and firefighters.

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Even before this weekend's historic vote that will define America's politics of the 2020s, the Republicans provided a giant metaphor for its drop-dead message to the working class when a party stalwart — Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who concedes his "preference" is not even running for another term next year —dug deep in the Senate rule book to force clerks to read aloud the entire 628-page relief bill. The goofy parliamentary stall took some 10 hours and 43 minutes, finally ending around 2 a.m. Friday morning as an anguished Johnson — required to be present — buried his exhausted face in his hands. How bad were "the optics" — in Beltway lingo — of the Wisconsinite's stunt? While the move held up billions to speed up coronavirus vaccines, approximately 750 more Americans died from COVID-19.

New political reality: The father of the now lost-in-the-wilderness American right, William F. Buckley, wrote famously that the modern conservative "stands athwart history, yelling Stop." The political and moral bankruptcy of that philosophy was on full display this weekend, as Republicans planted their flag as the party of obstruction and celebrators of broken, gridlocked D.C. politics, while the Democrats voted to keep history moving forward, with a bill supported by about 70% of the American people, including millions of rank-and-file GOP voters.

Yes, there were moments when the Democrats — still no more of an "organized political party" than when Will Rogers told that joke a century ago — looked determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, confronted with a bill that, with the arguable exception of Obamacare in 2010, does more for the U.S. middle class than any legislation since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society since the mid-1960s. The macho posturing of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — for whom getting on the Sunday talk shows matters more than his state's high rate of poverty — nearly toppled the bill, and the Democrats' blind spot on the $15 minimum wage is deeply disappointing to leftists who voted for Biden last November.

But in the end, the Democrats' resolve and unity among its one-vote Senate majority was a stunning victory for a new American political reality in the 2020s. It involves forging an all-new definition of "bipartisanship" around hardball politics for measures that are supported by majorities of citizens, rather than negotiating with a Republican Party that continues to rally behind a Big Lie around nonexistent voter fraud and the 2020 election that threatens our democracy.

Saturday's bold vote didn't change the overriding dynamic behind America's warring political tribes. The Democrats' base is still college-educated voters, while Republicans' toxic stew of both class and racial resentments will continue to amp up white people without diplomas. But Democrats just passed a bill that, frankly, does more for the nation's broad, multiracial working class and the less-advantaged than for upscale suburbanites who put Biden over the top in 2020. In doing so, the party has a great chance to stop the slow bleed of working-class voters — especially a shift of Latinos and some Black voters to Donald Trump last fall — and ride a booming post-pandemic economy in 2022, thus bucking the powerful trend of a party in power losing seats in a midterm election.

Blown opportunity: After a half-century or so of watching American politics, it's hard for me to overstate what an epic flub we are witnessing from today's GOP. Trump's reckless, demagogic presidency riled up voters on both sides; even in losing badly to Biden, the 45th president increased his turnout from 62 million in 2016 to more than 74 million, in a way that suggested a path forward for a new kind of right-wing populism. Indeed, many voters on the long lines in pro-Trump precincts cited their initial $1,200 stimulus check, and there's little doubt that the GOP standard-bearer would be serving his second term if he'd forced through a second $2,000 check before Nov. 3, as Trump himself realized after it was too late.

The tragedy of the coronavirus had offered Republicans an opportunity to show a kind of economic empathy for the "essential workers" of the blue-collar electorate that would have doubled down on its current limited strategy, which is mostly cultural warfare. But — other than a laudable child tax credit offered by Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who's not super popular among the party's pro-Trump base these days — GOP politicians have only offered the middle class empty platitudes and pale light beer versions of Democratic social welfare, much as the Dems looked utterly lost trying to sell watered-down Republican ideas for 30 years after Ronald Reagan.

The Republicans do have a plan but it's as dumb as it's morally repellent — doubling down on its scheme to try to win national elections with just 46-47% of the popular vote, aided by the anti-democratic aspects of the Constitution and our political norms as reflected in the makeup of the Senate, its arcane rules and, in presidential years, the Electoral College.

Big Lie centerpiece: Last week showed us both what the GOP is incapable of doing — aiding the middle class — but also its fundamental three-prong strategy for the elections of 2022 and 2024. First, burn a lot of empty political calories on cultural outrage such as the supposed banning (not really) of Dr. Seuss and (also not really) Mr. Potato Head, with the subliminal messages that what leftists really want to cancel is their white supremacy. Second, muddy the waters on the pandemic with "free-dumb" policies like Texas and Mississippi ending mask mandates and other restrictions just as new variants appear. Third — and this is really the centerpiece — is to fall back on Trump's 2020 Big Lie to pass a slew of voting restrictions targeting Black voters, Latinos, or the young, to win in 2022 not on the best ideas but by picking the voters.

The fact that the current Republican Party is so quick to fall back on racism, xenophobia and misogyny makes me happy that its leaders seem to have also flunked Poly-Sci 101. The opportunity for the GOP to become a true majority national party as a foil to the increasingly diploma-wrapped image of the Democrats — in a nation where just 37% of adults currently hold four-year college degrees — was right there, if the party had been willing to put its money where its mouth was, on Cruz and his phony-baloney rhetoric about cabdrivers and the wait staff.

Instead, the 2022 election will turn on Republicans' success as an anti-democratic (with a small "d") party trying to keep as many legitimate voters away from the ballot box as possible. For Democrats, the ultimate lesson of this weekend may prove less about economics and more about courage in using just 51 votes to make the tough calls for saving America. Giving aid to the working class was a good first step for the Democrats, but whether it matters at the polls in 20 months depends on their bravery in abolishing the filibuster and passing laws to make sure that the working class can still vote.

— Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer.