Congressional Republicans are indignant that President Joe Biden and the Democrats passed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package without bipartisan agreement. “Not one Republican voted for it,” protested Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, at a press briefing on Thursday. At a Wednesday news conference, Senate Republicans accused Democrats of “one-party rule” and “refusing to work with Republicans.” Sen. Joni Ernst huffed that “Biden’s promise to be the bipartisan president, a president for all Americans, is going out the window.”
These complaints are mistaken, and the mistake underscores a rift in the GOP. The COVID package has lots of Republican support, but that support is coming from ordinary Republicans, not from the party’s leaders. Congressional Republicans are out of touch with their own voters.
In polls taken over the past four weeks, roughly a quarter to a half of Republicans have endorsed the package. The numbers go up when the question mentions benefits and down when the question mentions costs. In a CNN poll, one-third of Republicans agreed that the plan “would help people like you.” In a Politico/Morning Consult survey, most said it offered the right amount of support or too little. Attributing the bill to Democrats barely dents Republican support for it. When Morning Consult inserted the word “Democrats” before “$1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package,” Republican support dipped from 59 percent to 53 percent.
McCarthy and his Republican colleagues predict that Americans will turn against the package once they discover “what’s in it.” But when Republican voters are told the major elements of the plan, they like it even more. In polls, 55 percent of Republicans favored “sending stimulus checks worth up to $1,400 per person to most families and individuals,” 70 percent said these payments should be $1,400 or higher, and 73 percent favored “providing larger tax credits for families and making them easier for low-income households to claim.” Most Republicans also endorsed “providing nearly $130 billion to K-12 schools to help students return to the classroom.” When Economist/YouGov polls quizzed Republicans who were aware of the package (that’s 92 percent of the party), most supported “additional $300 unemployment benefits,” “expansion of the child tax credit for up to $3,600 per child,” and “extending [the] eviction ban through September.” Two-thirds supported a “$160 billion nationwide vaccine program” and “$1,400 relief checks to every individual making less than $75,000.”
GOP leaders think they can shrink the plan’s popularity by hitting it with their usual soundbites. But those soundbites have been tried in polls, and they’ve failed. McCarthy, echoing his party’s Senate leaders, says the package “includes hundreds of billions in state bailouts.” But in surveys, 44 percent of Republicans endorsed “additional funding to create state and local government jobs,” and 28 percent specifically favored “providing $350 billion in aid to state and local governments.” Together with Democrats and independents, these Republicans form a solid majority for the plan.
At the Senate Republican press conference, John Thune, the party’s whip, said voters would object to “goodies that were tucked in there for special interest groups.” But when a Harvard-Harris survey told voters the cost of the package and asked whether the money was “largely needed aid to those hurt by the pandemic” or whether “special interests” were “inflating the size of the bill,” 42 percent of Republicans said the aid was needed, not inflated. Thune called the package a waste of tax money, and Sen. Rick Scott said “it’s going to push inflation up.” But in the Harvard-Harris poll, most Republicans said they weren’t very worried that the bill would “be wasteful and cause increases in taxes” or “cause inflation.” More than a third of Republicans said they weren’t even “somewhat” worried about these concerns.
Republican leaders think the plan’s price tag will dismay their voters. But many Republicans disagree. In a Marist poll, one of every four Republicans said its size was “about right” or “does not go far enough.” In a Pew survey, 37 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners said the package was the right size or too small. In a Navigator survey, 39 percent of Republicans said they were more concerned that the government would “not do enough to get help to regular people” than that it would “spend too much money” and “push the United States further into debt.” A YouGov poll found similar results.
Beneath this dissent lies a deeper rift over the party’s free-market philosophy. In the Navigator survey, more than a quarter of Republicans said that “American capitalism” isn’t working well and that “some people who talk about free markets” just want to protect “those at the top at the expense of everyone else.” One in three Republicans said “government regulations are mostly a good thing,” and 41 percent said “government needs to do more to help regular people” rather than stay “out of people’s lives.” In an Economist/YouGov survey, 41 percent of Republicans said spending on “aid to the poor” should be increased. Only 19 percent said it should be cut.
The difference in philosophy boils down, in part, to a difference in wealth. In a Pew analysis of Republicans and Republican leaners, those with higher incomes (around $120,000 or more, for a family of three) overwhelmingly opposed the COVID package, but 63 percent of those with lower incomes (below $40,000, for a similar family) supported it, even when the package was attributed to “the Biden administration.” More than 80 percent of the high-income group said the package was too big, but most in the lower-income group and more than a third in the middle-income group said it wasn’t. Together, the middle- and lower-income brackets made up three-quarters of the Republican sample. Republican leaders aren’t representing their voters. They’re representing the Republican elite.
The leaders’ complaints about partisanship ring particularly hollow. In the Harvard-Harris poll, 37 percent of Republican voters said Biden was doing enough or too much to court congressional GOP support. Forty-five percent said it was more important to pass the package “as quickly as possible” than to do it “with support from both parties.” In a Monmouth survey, 53 percent of Republicans said stimulus checks should “remain at $1,400 per person even if it only gets support from one party,” rather than trim the payments “to get bipartisan support.” In the Pew poll, only 13 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners said Biden wasn’t making a good-faith effort to work with Republicans, but 29 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners said the congressional GOP wasn’t making a good-faith effort to work with Biden.
Tens of millions of Republicans support this package. Most favor its major elements, and many are fine with the rest of it. Lots of them are skeptical of arguments against the plan, and they don’t think Biden should have cut it back or bargained endlessly with Republicans in Congress for the sake of bipartisanship. It’s not Biden who has turned away from working-class Republicans. It’s their own putative leaders.