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As political attitudes shift, have Republicans even noticed?

We're engaged in a political process that's quantitatively and qualitatively different than anything from the last half-century.
Image: Sunrise over the U.S. Capitol ahead of former President Trump?EUR(TM)s impeachment trial in Washington
The sun rises over the U.S. Capitol ahead of former President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial on Feb. 8, 2021.Tom Brenner / Reuters

As Democrats advanced their ambitious COVID relief package, Republicans didn't bother to put up much of a fight, preferring instead to shift the focus to culture-war issues such as access to Dr. Seuss books. But in late February, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) expressed great confidence to Politico about the direction of the political winds and the reactions to the American Relief Plan.

"What's in it is not going to be popular," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "It's bad politics for them. Because the narrative is that they're liberal, they just spend money like there's no tomorrow, that every time there's a crisis they load it up with spending."

To be sure, Graham's assumptions were familiar for a reason. For four decades, the United States has been stuck in the same debate, featuring the same stale rhetoric. Democrats endorse a progressive priority, which invariably leads Republicans to scream about "big government," "tax-and-spend liberals," "socialism."

This, in turn, makes popular ideas less popular, and leads Democrats to temper their ambitions.

Except, Graham was wrong. The Dems' COVID relief package was quite popular -- and more than a month later, support for the expansive and progressive plan hasn't waned. Republicans said it was an example of big-spending liberalism, and much of the country just shrugged in response.

Indeed, as the usual GOP voices push the usual GOP lines, note that President Joe Biden is popular. So is his infrastructure plan. And so is his plan to increase taxes on the wealthy and big corporations. Heck, even Congress' popularity has reached a level unseen in over a decade.

We're looking at a political landscape in which Republicans are telling the American public, "Those rascally Democrats want to increase spending, increase government, and raise taxes!" And much of the public, at least for now, is responding, "Yep, that's fine with us."

The New York Times had a good report along these lines today, contextualizing Biden's infrastructure push.

It will take years to know whether Mr. Biden's initiative will have the lasting power of the New Deal or the Great Society, or whether it can "change the paradigm," as he argued a few weeks ago. Yet it is already clear it is based on the gamble that the country is ready to dispense with one of the main tenets of the Reagan revolution, and show that for some tasks the government can jump-start the economy more efficiently than market forces.

The analysis added that Biden is betting that the nation's "political center of gravity" has changed.

To be sure, that center may yet shift. In fact, it's very easy to believe the public is more open to robust government action as a direct result of the pandemic, and as the COVID crisis eases (if/when the COVID crisis eases), widespread skepticism of the public sector may well return. In the spring of 2021, Americans are ready to spend trillions and raise taxes on those who have the most; in the spring of 2022, attitudes may be in an entirely different place.

But as things stand, we're engaged in a political process that's quantitatively and qualitatively different than anything from the last half-century.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, I'm reminded of something Chris Hayes told Rachel after the American Relief Plan passed.

"[I]t feels like we drove a stake through a certain kind of anti-welfare austerity politics that was incredibly powerful for four to five decades.... The kind of marking of an era of transition to the politics of government support and investment to me is as significant as anything that I've seen in the time I've covered politics."

For more than a generation, Democrats have entered nearly every major policy dispute by asking themselves a series of constrictive questions: "Are we aiming too high? Are we going too fast? What will the centrist pundits think? What kind of attack ads should we expect? Should we start compromising now or later?"

The questions were rooted in internalized Reagan-era assumptions about the public sector being inherently unreliable, the inefficacy of public investments, and the government being untrustworthy.

In 2021, Democrats appear largely comfortable putting many of these questions aside and focusing instead on results. That's not to say the infrastructure effort will be easy -- there are about 1,000 ways this thing could fail spectacularly -- but Biden's multi-trillion-dollar plan itself reflects a welcome shift in the political paradigm.