Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) appeared on "Fox News Sunday" yesterday, and Chris Wallace reminded him of some striking statistics: the child poverty rate in the senator's home state of Louisiana is 25%, and 42% of parents in the state lack access to child care.
"Forget whether it's infrastructure or not," the host asked, "wouldn't they benefit" from provisions in the White House's domestic agenda? "I don't know if they would," the Republican replied, before quickly pivoting to complaining about teachers' unions.
The exchange was emblematic of an increasingly exasperating conversation. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that in the wake of President Joe Biden's national address last week, GOP officials are focusing less on price tags and more on "cultural" concerns.
Days after President Biden rolled out his American Families Plan — a sprawling $1.8 trillion proposal to expand federal investment in child care, higher education, employee leave and more — Republicans have, alongside their deep fiscal misgivings, launched a broad social critique of the plan. Key GOP voices are accusing Biden of engaging in a stealth attempt to reshape American life, trying to reframe their opposition to the plan away from dollars and cents toward the culture-war terrain on which they have recently been much more politically successful.
Note the degree to which this is unrelated to governance. The argument is not that the president's agenda is meritless or would prove ineffective, rather, Republicans are eager to try to convince the public that the proposals should be rejected for ideological and philosophical reasons.
The efficacy of Biden's plans, and the material difference the policies would make in families' lives, is apparently supposed to be irrelevant. What matters, according to Republicans like Sen. Josh Hawley, is whether the efforts resemble "social engineering."
The explicit theme of the president's 2020 candidacy was the idea that he wanted to "build back better" -- that is, it wouldn't be enough to simply get the United States back on its feet post-Trump, post-COVID, and post-recession. The goal, the Democrat argued, would be to establish a stronger and more stable status quo for working families.
A New York Times report explained over the weekend, "President Biden's multitrillion-dollar suite of economic proposals is aiming to both reinforce and rebuild an American middle class that feels it has been standing on shifting ground. And it comes with an explicit message that the private sector alone cannot deliver on that dream and that the government has a central part to play."
The piece added, "If the Biden administration gets its way, the reconstructed middle class would be built on a sturdier and much broader plank of government support rather than the vagaries of the market."
For Republicans, the trick is to convince people that a weaker foundation is preferable to stability provided by the public sector. "Sure, investments in child care, higher education, and employee leave might help your family," GOP officials are effectively telling the public, "but these programs constitute 'big government' so you should side with us in rejecting them."
It's entirely possible that such rhetoric will have the intended effect, but there's reason for some skepticism. A national Monmouth poll released last week asked respondents, "Biden is ... expected to propose a large spending plan to expand access to health care and childcare, and provide paid leave and college tuition support. In general, would you support or oppose this plan?"
A 64% majority endorsed the White House's proposal.
To be sure, a relentless conservative campaign may change public attitudes, but for now, Biden and his allies have the upper hand as the debate begins in earnest.