Something odd is happening in the national political discourse: Republicans are conducting their usual routine of bad-faith complaints, lies, and tantrums, and … it’s not working.
Republicans have long been masters of whipping up outrage to intimidate moderate Democrats and get media attention, but few are taking the bait. It remains to be seen if this will last — the bipartisanship fetish runs deep in Washington, D.C. But for the moment, it seems that Republicans have been too dishonest, too hypocritical, and too nakedly corrupt for too long.
Take the ongoing discussion about President Biden’s coronavirus relief package. In anticipation of negotiations, Republicans tried to whip up a frenzy of concern about the budget deficit. “I think spending, entitlement reform, growth, and the economy are all things that we’re going to have to be focused on next year,” said Senator John Thune (R-N.D.) in late November last year. But the argument has fallen completely flat. This surely is partly because Republicans blew up the deficit themselves with tax cuts for the rich back in 2017 — part of a routine they have been pulling since the 1980s. They cut taxes and spend hugely on military boondoggles, then when Democrats replace them in power, demand cuts to social programs to compensate. The cynical dishonesty of the move is simply getting too obvious.
The effort among Senate Republicans to trick Democrats into some protracted negotiation or into slashing the size of the relief package has also borne little fruit. President Biden met with 10 Republican senators this week, but immediately afterward he attacked their proposed relief package as “way too small,” while Senate Democrats have quickly moved forward with a reconciliation bill that can be passed with 51 votes. Even Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) said on Morning Joe that if the bill is $1.9 trillion, “so be it,” and added that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had reminded him it would be foolish to waste nine months negotiating only for Republicans to vote against it anyway, as they did with ObamaCare.
Or consider ongoing conservative efforts to whip up some kind of scandal over Hunter Biden. Now, there are some entirely legitimate questions over how Hunter (and his uncle James) have used their relationship to Joe to make money. But Republicans have less than zero credibility on this issue. They are still lockstep supporters of Donald Trump, who ran by far the most corrupt presidential administration in American history. His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner recently filed financial disclosure forms showing income between $23,791,645 and $120,676,949 last year from sources that are incredibly suspicious or nakedly corrupt — like over $1.4 million income from the Trump International Hotel which is now deserted because you can no longer bribe the president by staying there.
Indeed, Republicans are effectively running interference for Hunter, because their party leaders are so corrupt that any sustained focus on his comparatively penny-ante alleged scams cannot help but be disproportionate and unfair in terms of the partisan “balance” the mainstream press supposedly cares about. (Though I hope that once some of the dust around Trump settles, reporters do continue to investigate Biden and his relatives.)
A final messaging belly flop can be seen in the attempt to draw an equivalence between Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s advocacy of violence and deranged, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and Rep. Ilhan Omar’s criticism of Israel. Even New York’s Jonathan Chait, who is no friend of anti-Zionists, argues clearly and correctly that the comparison is nonsense and designed to excuse Republican bigotry.
All this makes quite the contrast with the early Obama years. Back in those days Democrats were terrified of spending “too much” on stimulus, leading them to badly undershoot the size of the Recovery Act, and therefore doomed the U.S. to a decade of high unemployment and weak growth. Obama himself was so desperate for bipartisan compromise that he put hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to Social Security and Medicare on the table (which Republicans then rejected). The defensive crouch was so pitiful that when James O’Keefe published some misleading videos about voter registration group ACORN, the Democratic Congress panicked and killed it.
Mainstream media coverage of these issues was also hideously gullible. Paul Ryan got worshipful profiles, economic coverage generally focused on demanding why the deficit wasn’t coming down faster, and political coverage generally blamed Obama for not somehow extracting bipartisanship from a party that was categorically opposed to compromise.
But it appears the Democratic Party and the media have actually learned at least a little from the Obama experience. The substantive justifications for austerity and deficit reduction have been comprehensively blown apart, and there is now a growing consensus among economists that America can spend without limit to reach full employment. Many of the most passionately pro-austerity voices in media during the Obama years, like David Broder or Michael Kinsley, are dead or retired, and have been replaced by Keynesian liberals or even socialists. It is very hard to deny now that Republicans cannot be trusted as good faith interlocutors, or that the risk of doing too little to help the economy in a crisis is vastly larger than that of doing too much.
If that upsets Republicans, they might try being honest for a change.