CATHERINE RAMPELL COLUMN
Advance for release Tuesday, April 6, 2021, and thereafter
(For Rampell clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)
Republican politicians have proven themselves an admirably selfless bunch. Time and again, they've handed over credit to Democrats - and Democrats alone - for all sorts of popular policy initiatives.
A year ago, Washington Republicans abdicated leadership on any coherent federal response to the pandemic, praising a Republican president who proudly didn't "take responsibility at all" on the issue. (That president left office with a 38% approval rating for his handling of the outbreak; President Joe Biden's marks are now roughly double that, at 73%.) Then last month, Republicans effectively conceded political credit for the strengthening economic recovery by refusing to award a single vote to Biden's popular $1.9 trillion fiscal relief bill. (The bill was favored by most Americans, in some polls by a supermajority.)
Now, astonishingly, Republicans are on the verge of surrendering to Democrats solo credit on yet another popular issue: upgrading the nation's crumbling infrastructure.
Last week Biden pitched a $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Survey after survey has found that investing more government money in "infrastructure" has broad, bipartisan support: 85% of voters overall, and 82% of Republicans specifically, agree that "America is in need of an infrastructure improvement," a recent Morning Consult poll found. Perhaps this is unsurprising; whatever your politics, you're probably no fan of potholes or lead pipes.
Donald Trump somehow failed to turn "infrastructure week" into anything beyond a political punchline - a missed opportunity, given that Democrats repeatedly expressed interest in collaborating on the issue. Biden has picked up the mantle of infrastructure and asked, reasonably, for Republican support.
But whatever Republican voters think about the idea, Republican politicians are against it. Although GOP politicians are still casting about for reasons why, exactly, they oppose it.
Sometimes their objection is that the proposal defines infrastructure too broadly, a "liberal wish-list the White House has decided to label 'infrastructure.'" Biden's plan includes not only investments in roads and bridges but also broadband, energy, manufacturing, wastewater systems, electric cars, housing, school buildings and more.
This talking point presents at least two problems, though.
First, Republican politicians have referred in the past to many of these same priorities as "infrastructure" - and endorsed them.
For instance, Gov. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said she was "shocked by how much doesn't go into infrastructure," citing "pipes" as among Biden's supposed boondoggles. Noem, though, has previously backed upgrading and removing lead from plumbing systems as valuable "water infrastructure" investments. Similarly, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, slammed Biden's inclusion of "workforce development" as an initiative that's "a far cry away from what we've ever defined as infrastructure"; but in 2017 and 2019, Portman co-sponsored the Building U.S. Infrastructure by Leveraging Demands for Skills (BUILDS) Act. His explanation at the time: "If we are going to invest in our nation's infrastructure, we are going to need a skilled workforce."
The other issue is that even those Biden initiatives that do seem a bit of a stretch to call "infrastructure" are still extremely popular. For example, the proposed investments in home-based care for the elderly and disabled. That's supported by 78% of Americans overall and 74% of Republicans, according to an Ipsos poll.
"If you're going to tell me that the way that the Republicans are going to try to capitalize on this is by going negative on the Democrats for trying to improve elder care, I say bring it on," says Jefrey Pollock, president of Global Strategy Group, a Democratic polling firm.
Most of the key planks of Biden's proposal poll well among Republican voters, whether or not those planks technically constitute brick-and-mortar infrastructure. The challenge for Republican politicians "is they have a talking point they can't back up with an example of an investment they oppose, since nearly all the investments in the plan are popular in their own right," says Geoff Garin, president of Hart Research, which also polls for Democratic and progressive clients.
Some Republican politicians have also attacked the proposal's cost, but the plan appears to be popular regardless of price tag. Recent Hart polling found that respondents were as likely to support Biden's infrastructure plan when told it costs $2 trillion (the actual amount) as when they were told it would cost double that. There was a similar dynamic when Republicans attacked the size of the $1.9 trillion fiscal relief plan last month - that bill proved slightly more popular when people were told the enormous price tag, per YouGov.
So, Republican pols continue scrambling for other excuses to oppose the infrastructure proposal. Maybe it's the plan's pay-fors, those evil tax hikes on corporations! Alas, raising taxes on corporations is super popular too.
Because GOP officials can't articulate a coherent or consistent case for their objections, and they're surely in favor of political unity, the only possible explanation left is that they're just extremely generous souls - eager to bestow as many political brownie points upon their opponents as possible.
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Catherine Rampell's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.