The Wedge Issue of Republicans’ Dreams

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S1: I actually want to start by talking about President Biden’s press conference

S2: this afternoon, before I take questions, I want to give you a progress report to the nation on on where we stand. Sixty five days into office

S1: here we are watching the press conference

S3: was

S1: Edward Isaac Devora writes about politics for The Atlantic. He covered the Biden campaign and he knows this administration well.

S2: We will buy my one 100th day in office, have administered 200 million shots in people’s arms.

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S1: That’s right. Well, I was really struck by something. You know, Biden comes out there, he makes his opening remarks, and he does talk about vaccination and school openings and then that’s it. There are no no pandemic questions. Were you surprised by that?

S3: I think a lot of people were surprised by it. There were a lot of questions instead about the filibuster and several about whether he’s going to run for re-election in 2024. But we are it’s not like we’re done with the pandemic.

S1: Maybe there weren’t any questions about it, because every day feels like an ongoing slog. And one of the things that makes this slug feel so unforgiving, so constant for so many people is the lack of regular school. Now to the battle over reopening America’s schools. With more than 40 percent of children in the US still learning remotely, the one thing that seems clear to everybody is that many students are really struggling. And what also seems clear is that many teachers really don’t want to go back to classrooms where they don’t feel safe. So how to reconcile all of that as vaccines slowly roll out and covid cases continue to surge? So here’s a run on question I would have liked to put to the president last week. When will school be open across the country? Five days a week in a classroom. Will the Biden administration push local officials to make that happen? And what does good enough schooling even look like for the Democrats running the federal government and the national pandemic response for what it’s worth? Isaac is asking these questions, too.

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S3: Yeah, it’s a question at the intersection of public health. Obviously, the economy, because of all the parents who need to go back to work, union questions with all the teachers and principals unions that are involved here and just the logistics that are required to make this happen. But the funny thing for Biden and funny is maybe not the right word for it is that he’s going to get the credit for it or he’s going to get the blame for it if the school situation works out or if it doesn’t, even though most of it is beyond his control.

S1: Today on the show, there’s the reality of trying to open schools and then there’s the politics, Democrats and the Biden administration know that they will be judged by what happens in the next school year. Republicans know it, too, and they’re trying hard to turn it to their advantage. I’m Lizzie O’Leary, Infirmary Harris. And you’re listening to what next? Stick with us. There are a lot of different ways you can look at the school reopening debate, you can focus on the science or the labor concerns or the exasperated parents. But what Isaac did is look through the prism of politics and how the politicians are positioning schools as an election issue. And the thesis Isaac poses is Democrats are blowing this.

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S3: I don’t think that you could talk to a parent of a school aged child over the last year and not think that this is one of the most important questions facing them, if not the most important. It’s the kind of thing that motivates parents in a visceral, visceral way. And Republicans have, it seems, not unwisely landed on this as a wedge issue to say it’s the Democrats that are keeping the schools from being open and hoping that they can turn some of those voters who were repelled by Donald Trump, but maybe not so into the Democratic Party overall and suspicious of how the Democratic Party can be catering to other interests, such as the teachers union, the reliable bogeyman of politics, and and not be serving the voters interests or parents interests or students address. That is the kind of thing that politicians look for

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S1: before we get too deep into the the politics and some of the policy questions, I want to figure out kind of the reality of the numbers right now. What do we know data wise about. You know what percent of kids are in school and how that shakes out,

S3: it can get tricky, but it looks like we’re at about half of kids who are in school. Biden said at his press conference he wanted to get it to majority. We’re getting close. That means some form of hybrid, maybe not full days, but there are very few students around the country who are in school in what a normal non pandemic day length would be or even what that day would look like. The exceptions are places like Florida where the governor there has been a covid precaution. Skeptic, I guess, is the best way to put it from the start. And the way he and schools have stayed open in Florida for the most part. But if you look at most other places around the country, it is a patchwork at best of where things are.

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S1: What do we know about what parents want? You know, in terms of what public opinion says?

S3: Well, there are polls that show that parents are very concerned with safety. They don’t want their kids to get sick. They don’t want the kids to contract the virus and bring it home. There are cases that, of course, we hear about of a family getting sick because the child was carrying it, even though the child was not manifesting symptoms. So there’s a lot of worry about that. But parents parents want their kids back in school, and you see that in a majority way. But you also see the concerns and and again, because it’s hard to do a national poll on this, because state by state, you’re in different situations. But parents that have largely been understanding of the restrictions, but a growing impatient

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S1: I’m struck by something that I’ve seen in public opinion numbers. I was looking at some data from the Pew Research Foundation that shows that black, Hispanic and Asian adults are more likely than white adults. To say the risk to teachers and students of getting or spreading covid should be given a lot of consideration in the reopening debate. And I guess I wonder, is the GOP thinking like we’re aiming for this narrow band of of white parents and those are the ones we might be able to move into our camp

S3: when we’re talking about swing voters? Realistically, when Republicans talk about suburban voters, they’re not talking about all suburban voters. They’re talking about suburban white voters, usually of a certain education level that they are hoping that they can swing back to them. The white, educated middle class voter is one of the biggest areas or the biggest demographics that dropped off from Republicans and went to Democrats under Donald Trump. Political operative said to me a couple of weeks ago that the big question for 2022 and beyond is whether the Democrats were just renting the suburbs for the last few election cycles or whether they have established a permanent hold on them. Hmm.

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S1: Well, you have this quote in your story from Rory Cooper, who’s a Republican strategist. And, you know, he has really been marshaling this message a lot. And he said what Democrats have to worry about is, are they going to start losing center left suburban parents who are fed up with some of the special interests who help control Democratic politics. Here in Fairfax County, unreasonable union demands, coupled with a flat footed superintendent and school board, have crippled what was once a premier district. The goalposts keep moving as they run out the clock on the school year and leave students behind.

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S3: I think what he’s getting at in that quote is the number of parents who have been dealing with Zoome school or child care and trying to do their jobs and fed up after over a year of this kind of living. And when they hear things like, well, the teachers union doesn’t want to go back to school or the teachers don’t want to go back, then that has the potential to pull at that very visceral response that sometimes happens with voters to say, well, I’m fed up with that and of course, that I’m fed up with it. Just enough with all of this is very much what powered Donald Trump into the presidency and and powers Trump ism. And if that can be tapped into by Republicans in a real way, then potentially that’s good news for them electorally.

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S1: In a minute, Edwards’s act of terror takes us through the upcoming elections that might show whether this is a winning message for Republicans. That’s after the break. One reason to love 20, 21, this is an off year election wise, we get a bit of a reprieve from campaign fever and that means there are only a few elections coming up, city and state level contests that will test out whether the Republican strategy of hammering Democrats on schools is working.

S3: We’re looking at at most four big races this year. One is for governor of New Jersey. The governor there is Democrat running for reelection. He has so far not looking like he’s going to have much of a challenge. There’s an open race for governor in Virginia. And in that race where there are a lot of suburban parents, as in New Jersey, there are a lot of parents who would potentially be affected by this question of school reopenings. That could be a competitive race. And we’ve seen one of the Republican candidates, a guy named Pete Snyder, really embraced this open the schools message as what he’s talking about.

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S1: Yeah, that’s like the billboard phrase, right?

S3: Exactly. Open the schools. Yep.

S4: I’m running for governor to open up our schools five days a week every week with a teacher in every classroom

S3: chipping in California. We almost certainly will have a recall election for Gavin Newsom, the governor there. And the school reopening issue has been a big one in California, in part because there’s been this fight with the teachers union there, very prominently of whether they would get priority of in the vaccination line and whether they would then commit to going back into the classrooms. The teachers union has not done that so far. And then the other race, and it’s not really as much of a partisan race because it’s New York City is for mayor of New York. That’s an open race, too. And there’s a pretty crowded primary on the Democratic side. Within the Democratic race, though, it’s become an issue in some of the candidates have taken shots at the teachers union in particular, or the incumbent mayor, Bill de Blasio, for not doing enough to to open the schools. And so even among Democrats, it’s a fight. But will that give us a great sense of where voters stand on this and what kind of issue it’ll will be into? Twenty, twenty two? Probably not. And and of course, by the time that it’ll be midterms and House and Senate races and most of these other governors races will be up in the fall of twenty, twenty two will have been through a whole additional school year and into the next one. So who knows what what this will look like by then.

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S1: All of this, of course, is running, as you said, into the Biden administration and kind of where they are and what they can do. And in terms of breaking that out into policy power and messaging power, what’s potentially more effective for them?

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S3: Well, in terms of policy, there is a lot of money in the American rescue plan, the stimulus package that was passed to go out to states for expanding programming and facilities and resources in schools. So theoretically, that will help. It’s not like the checks that are appearing in bank accounts directly. So it’s a little bit more amorphous. And whether voters will realize that that’s what what’s happened there is unclear.

S1: That seems like a hard thing to message like, oh, these these air handlers showed up in your, you know, district school because of the rescue plan. That’s a very complicated thing to get to a parent at drop off.

S3: Absolutely. And so that’s why the question really does come to are there going to be parents to drop off? Right. And this is it’s hard to make the argument to voters writ large that you’ve done some things around the edges that have made it a little bit better to maybe get to opening schools versus schools are open or schools are closed. And that’s what the Biden administration is staring down at this point.

S1: Are they able to use soft power to sort of jawbone some of these big districts? I mean, I think about New York City, where I am the largest public school district in the country, L.A., Chicago. These are Democratic strongholds. And they are very visible targets.

S3: They are. And there’s been success in getting all the parties to the table and getting things reopened in Chicago and in Philadelphia, also both big school districts and big Democratic areas. So what Biden’s role here could be is very much a bully pulpit type role, continuing to say we need to get the schools reopened. I’m there to help with that. But if it seems like the mainstream position is open the schools, then, of course, there’s that creates political pressure on. The people who don’t want to open the schools, if it seems like the Democrat who’s sitting in the Oval Office is talking about opening the schools all the time, that makes it harder for Democratic officials who are anywhere else in the country to not be for opening the schools.

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S1: Well, I wonder about how that part plays within the Democratic Party, right? Because if you’re a Democrat, you don’t want the president of the United States saying or implying that the mayors of some of your biggest cities or the governors of your states are not doing their part. That feels really delicate.

S3: Yeah, especially if it’s imagine 15 months from now. Democratic Congressman X, how do you defend schools not being opened in your district when the Democratic president is saying schools should be open all around the country? That is that’s a hard thing to get around.

S1: But when I think about where we are, where we are in time, both within the pandemic and within election cycles, why do Republicans see this as a winning issue for themselves now? Because as you mentioned, right, we’ve got like a few races. Is it possible that there’s a sort of relative dearth of any other reliable wedge issue right now because the Republican Party is in such a strange place? Post Donald Trump.

S3: You look you see the Republican Party. I think it was 18 senators, Republican senators who went down to the border over the weekend to try to get the talk of a border crisis elevated and expanded in people’s minds. Will that become the issue that they’re able to talk about? A lot certainly was a major and important issue in the 2014 midterms for Republicans, and they did very well because of that. Schools obviously touches all parts of the country. It is almost like the dream wedge issue for any politician. And that’s why the trick here for Democrats is to try to figure out how to take it off the table.

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S1: When do you think we’re going to have our first sense of how this might play out? Like what are what are the data points you’re waiting for?

S3: Well, we’ll know by July at the latest what a lot of the public school plans are going to be for opening and whether you’ll see districts and states making the decision to have kids come back to school. That is not going to be an easy conversation. And most of these places, I think you’ll probably see some states that do things differently, depending on where you are in the state. In New Jersey, for example, I mentioned the governor is one of the ones who’s up for reelection, but there are hundreds of school districts there. So not even the governor has control over what’s going to happen in all parts of New Jersey. And in fact, in Montclair, which is right outside of New York City, in New Jersey, that’s nationally talked about as a district that they just can’t figure out a way to get everybody to agree on what to do. And so those schools have remained largely closed, whereas other parts of New Jersey have the schools open. And then you see private schools in New Jersey that are open as normal except with masks on and testing as part of the regime. But when they make the policy for what next year is going to be, then you’ll see how much of a give there is to the pressure to reopen. I think that we are at this weird stage in the pandemic where it does feel like we’re starting to see the end of it, but we don’t know whether actually variants are going to sprout up in a complicated way that will lead us to continuing our locked down lives. And there’s a lot of trepidation about that in the administration. We don’t quite know what this situation is going to be. But what we definitely know is that if if Joe Biden is going to be seen as being a successful president at all, his only hope is that by this time next year, it seems like we are back to mostly normal.

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S1: Isaac Devora, thank you very much. Thank you. Edward Isaac Tavera is a staff writer at The Atlantic. His book, Battle for the Soul is coming out on May 25th. It’s about the last four years of Democratic politics. All right, that’s the show for today. What Next is produced by Lena Schwartz, Daniel Hewitt, Kamal Dilshad Davis Land and Mary Wilson, our fearless leader, Sir Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. You can find me on Twitter. I’m at Luzie. Oh, really? It’s spelled like Lizy. Oh, really? Very. Lucille Bluth. Right. Jessica Walter. Thanks for listening back in the feed on Friday for your weekly dose of what next, Tweedie?