To whit: Biden backed a “spending limitation amendment,” and one of his TV ads dramatized it with a conversation between Biden and the parents of a toddler. “What happens if every tax dollar that we pay, 50 to 60 percent of it is just going to pay for the interest on the debt?” Biden asked, pointing at the toddler. “He will be paying for what we lived on.”

Thirty-seven years later, Biden has signed a $1.9 trillion spending bill, bigger than anything Congress had ever handed a Democratic president. Long after decrying “handouts” and “welfare mothers,” Biden has created a monthly payment of $250 to $300 for most families with children, plus a one-time $1,400 stimulus check for people making less than $80,000, plus billions of dollars in health insurance subsidies.

“This is the most left-wing bill ever passed by the Congress,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican, as the bill marched toward final passage.

Legislation of this size and scale changes politics. As Biden gets ready to leave the White House for a sales pitch — and as Republicans counterprogram him with a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border — here’s what the passage of the bill says about the campaigns coming next.

“Stimmys” are here to stay. Biden had far less to do with the collapse of austerity politics than Donald Trump did. The only stimulus bill larger than the American Rescue Act was the Cares Act of 2020, which cost $2.2 trillion, temporarily lifted 8 million people out of poverty and mainstreamed a stimulus idea that the last Democratic administration didn’t consider: Large direct payments in the form of $1,200 checks. 

In less than a year, the popularity of “stimmys” has reset public expectations of what the federal government can do for them. Although the Cares Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, Trump took full credit for it, even keeping Democrats out of the signing ceremony. In November, when Democrats did worse than expected with non-White working-class voters, they found story after story of voters who embraced “Papa Trump” because he delivered cash — why hadn’t any other president? And direct payments became part of the next end-of-year stimulus.

The popularity of the checks reshaped Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoffs, with Sen. Jon Ossoff and Sen. Raphael Warnock running to get bigger checks “out the door,” and winning. In a statement last week, Trump argued that Senate Republican l, eader Mitch McConnell’s “refusal to go above $600 per person on the stimulus check payments when the two Democrat opponents were touting $2000 per person” was a political killer in Georgia. There was an intra-Democratic fight, too, over whether “completing” the checks with $1,400 fulfilled the $2,000 promise. But they were only in a position to argue because they ran on checks, and won.

Republicans aren’t running against deficits anymore. That’s not new, but the party’s erratic messaging against ARPA departed from its old, consistent warnings about spending and inflation. Twelve years ago, Republicans whipped their entire House conference against President Barack Obama’s stimulus bill; by this point in Obama’s first year, a wave of “tea party” rallies had already taken place across the country, with frustrated conservatives attacking the “porkulus” and insisting it would shovel money to Democratic causes without reviving the economy.

Democrats were stunned. They’d put the bill together hoping for Republican votes, combining tax cuts and spending, though none of it as visible as direct payments. They did not expect voters to conflate the stimulus with the Wall Street bailout passed a few months earlier. (That was more bipartisan, and much less popular.) They expected Republicans to take on water for opposing a rescue package, but as the recession dragged on, voters rewarded the GOP, a history that House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy invoked on Thursday.

“Some people at the White House… thought a stimulus bill was really going to turn the country around,” McCarthy told reporters. “It had about the exact same approval rating. A month later, it dropped 12 points. By the time November came around, more people thought Elvis was alive than the stimulus created a job. Why? Because they wrote the bill the exact same way. They rewarded their political friends instead of solving a problem.”

But Republicans made a clear, compelling argument against the 2009 bill. Not so much this time. As ARPA moved through Congress, they argued that too much of the bill was unrelated to coronavirus recovery, that its $350 billion of state aid was a “blue-state bailout,” and that two of its infrastructure projects, in New York and California, were payoffs to the party’s congressional leaders, a rerun of an effective 2009 argument. Senate Democrats stripped those projects from the bill, and by the end of the debate, Republicans were trying to amend it to put reopening conditions on aid to schools — a popular position, but not a real attempt to sink the bill.

Democrats got more liberal, and more cynical. President Biden isn’t the first Democratic president to kick off with a stimulus push. Jimmy Carter began his presidency by calling for a universal $50 tax rebate, about $220 when adjusted for inflation. Before his first 100 days were over, he’d abandoned the idea, citing “recent improvements in all the economic indicators.” 

Bill Clinton started out with similar ambitions, pushing a $16.3 billion stimulus package, worth close to $30 billion now. It was halted by a filibuster, and that was that — Clinton used his first budget reconciliation package, the 51-vote vehicle that Biden used for ARPA, to pass a mixture of tax hikes and spending cuts.

Both men came into office with far bigger Democratic majorities than Biden, who already lost one key nominee because Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia opposed her. But although two dozen House Democrats opposed Clinton’s stimulus bill, and 11 House Democrats opposed Obama’s, just one, Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, opposed ARPA.

These Democratic majorities are more liberal than Carter’s, Clinton’s or Obama’s. Some of that is due to the success that the left has had in moving Democrats since 2016; some of it’s due to attrition, as the most conservative Democrats either lost, switched parties or moved left during the Trump years. Ten of those 11 “no” votes on the 2009 stimulus, for example, are gone; the 11th, Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, backed ARPA. The Blue Dog Democrats, a coalition of moderates that demanded cutbacks to Obama and Clinton spending packages, threw in for ARPA immediately. And one reason, as Biden himself said repeatedly, was that Republicans hadn’t tried to cut deficits when they last had power.

“What Republicans have proposed is either to do nothing or not enough,” Biden said in early February. “All of a sudden, many of them have rediscovered fiscal restraint and the concern for the deficits.”

How long can Democrats ignore Republicans when they talk about the deficit? That’s unclear. In the past, they’ve watched their coalition tremble as their more conservative members agreed with the GOP. In the first sunny hours since the bill got through Congress, they’ve mostly been congratulating themselves, taking special pleasure yesterday when McConnell made a new criticism of the bill. He didn’t argue that it would hurt the economy, or get wasted, or penalize today’s toddler once they had to confront the national debt.

“We’re about to have a boom,” McConnell said. “And if we do have a boom, it will have absolutely nothing to do with this $1.9 trillion.”

Reading list

Special elections

What will the president say, and when will he take more questions?

The steady drumbeat of voting restrictions in red states.

Can a president who gets criticized for traveling to Delaware still barnstorm the country?

A secret history of Republican internal politics.

A deep, data-rich look at the ways voting is getting harder.

Looking ahead to the statehouse wars.

NEW ORLEANS — Months after the president nominated them to his Cabinet, two safe-seat House Democrats finally completed the Senate confirmation process this week, kicking off the special elections for their seats.

The confirmation of Rep. Marcia Fudge as secretary of Housing and Urban Development opened up Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, which was drawn by Republicans to pack most Black Democrats between Cleveland and Akron into a single, kite-shaped seat. It’s up to Gov. Mike DeWine (R) to announce the election’s timing, but state law is specific: The earliest special congressional elections can be held is on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of May. That’s how DeWine handled a 2018 special election for a competitive seat near Columbus, setting the primary in May and the general election in August. 

Seven Democrats have already announced bids to replace Fudge; most, including former state senator Nina Turner, have won elections in metro Cleveland. They joined their first candidate forum last week, hosted by the Jewish Democratic Council of America, where they agreed more than they disagreed, but split on the question of whether U.S. aid to Israel should come with human rights conditions. Turner, former state senator Shirley Smith and party activist Tariq Shabazz said yes; the rest of the field said no.

Timing in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District should get firmed up next, as the nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland for interior secretary cleared a Senate panel and moved to a full vote. When Haaland resigns her seat, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) will have 10 days to announce a single election to replace her. Five Republicans, nine Democrats and one Libertarian-turned-independent have been mobilizing, and the major parties will hold meetings to choose their nominee, with the vote coming no sooner than 77 days after Lujan Grisham’s proclamation.

The impact, for the next few months, will be a Democratic majority shrunk to 219 seats. The sluggish pace of Senate confirmations, slowed in part by Republican refusal to get the ball rolling until the electoral college vote, kept Fudge and Haaland on the rolls to pass the American Rescue Act. But the party will be down three seats until late summer, while Republicans could fill one of their two vacancies, in Louisiana’s 5th District, as soon as next weekend.

Why? Follow along on a journey through state special election laws. In Louisiana, every candidate competes in a “jungle primary,” and if any contender clears 50 percent of the vote, the election is over. Fall short, and there’s a runoff between the top two candidates. The heavy front-runner in the 5th District is Julia Letlow, whose husband Luke won the seat but died of covid-19-related complications before he took office; in Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District, which is safely Democratic, public polls have shown no candidate close to the 50 percent mark. In Texas’s 6th Congressional District, Susan Wright, whose husband Ron died last month, has piled up internal party endorsements. If she clears 50 percent in the all-party primary on May 1, she’d head to Congress right away; if not, there’d be a runoff.

That means that Republicans have a shot at filling their seats before the Ohio and New Mexico races are over. If forced to runoffs, the Louisiana races will be decided on April 24. Republicans would tick up to 213 seats in the House, while Democrats would be stuck at 219. With only 433 voting members seated in the House, Democrats would need just 217 votes to pass a bill; Republicans would need just four Democrats to cross the floor to block a bill, or amend it.

Despite their slim majority, Democrats haven’t lost a key vote yet, and have moved bills that are opposed, at most, by a single member of their House conference. (They lost one on the American Rescue Act, and one on the PRO Act.) They’re not sweating any of their open seats, and are optimistic, at the moment, for making the Texas race competitive. But until sometime in August, they’re going to be strained for those extra votes.

Dems in disarray

One year after their triumph in Nevada’s caucuses, supporters of Bernie Sanders won control of the state’s Democratic Party. Groups that backed Sanders, including the highly active Las Vegas chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, united behind an “NV Dems Progressive Slate.” They edged out more establishment-friendly candidates at last Saturday’s party meeting, winning every office.

That has kicked off a backlash and claims of sabotage, as the old permanent staff resigned. (Some party positions are elected; some are staffed on a full-time basis.) 

The fight is real, though the stakes may have been overhyped by the DSA slates’ opponents. The new state chair, Judith Whitmer, won the job not over a particularly “establishment” Democrat, but over Tick Segerblom, a DSA member and Clark County commissioner who was the first elected Nevada official to endorse Sanders in 2016 and 2020. Even if they had lost the party election, Whitmer said, Republicans were going to accuse Democrats of being socialists.

“They always do that,” she said. “But we are all members of the Democratic Party. We all vote Democratic. Regardless of our ideological differences, Democrats are going to be willing to do the work. Republicans will never be willing to do the work for progressive legislation.”

Whitmer’s slate won because it had the numbers; it also won after arguing that organizers who’d found scores of new voters in 2020 would orient the party toward year-round organizing, keeping activists involved.

Supporters of the slate also rejected the idea that replacing a team associated with former senator Harry Reid’s winning machine would relegate Nevada Democrats to political purgatory. “If they’re so good, why did they lose some of these races last year?” said Shaun Navarro, the co-chair of DSA Las Vegas. “[Rep.] Susie Lee barely beat Dan Rodimer. The state Senate leader almost lost her race. The Biden folks completely dropped the ball on organizing Latinos. There were signs that there was a disorganized GOTV operation, and we can do better.”

Voting wars

Republicans who control swing-state legislatures, busy passing legislation to make voting more complicated, have found another target: billionaires who offer grants to local election officials. Arizona’s HB 2569 would prevent election officials from taking any sort of private grant to aid operations, and Wisconsin Republicans are touting a watchdog report on how grants were used in 2020 to suggest that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unfairly influenced the election.

“Emails show Green Bay’s highly partisan Democrat Mayor Eric Genrich and his staff usurping city Clerk Kris Teske’s authority and letting the Zuckerberg-funded ‘grant team’ take over — a clear violation of Wisconsin election statutes, say election law experts,” reads a summary of the Wisconsin Spotlight report. “And the liberal groups were improperly insinuating themselves into the election system and coordinating with what became known as the ‘Wisconsin 5,’ the state’s five largest communities that split more than $6 million in Zuckerberg money.”

Poll watch

Approve: 60%
Disapprove: 40%

CBS’s YouGov surveys have shown Biden with far higher levels of support than most other polls, but the level of opposition has been pretty consistent: Between 40 and 45 percent of voters, the vast majority of whom supported President Donald Trump over Biden, disapprove of the new president. At this point in his presidency, Obama was more broadly popular; at the same point, Trump was substantially less popular. 

Like Obama, Biden has made some inroads with voters who rejected Democrats up and down the ballot. He’s at 43 percent support from White voters without college degrees, weaker than Obama at this point, but in November just 32 percent of those voters picked him over Trump. Biden’s support from Black voters is roughly unchanged from the election, from 87 percent then to 86 percent now, but his Latino support is higher, rising from 65 percent to 72 percent. The results aren’t broken down by income level, but the passage of the American Rescue Plan, with its direct payments to Americans making under $80,000 per year, will test whether working class voters who drifted away from Democrats are happy with what they’re delivering.

Yes, a lot: 28%
Yes, some: 38%
Not much: 16%
Not at all: 18%

Biden’s popularity in his first six weeks was fueled by confidence in his pandemic response; if he stays fairly popular, it probably will be because voters approve of the American Rescue Plan. But the first polling since the plan’s passage suggests it’s only a bit more popular than the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus that Republicans rallied against, in tandem with the tea party movement. Here, 66 percent of voters say the plan will boost the economy; the same poll question, 12 years ago, found 64 percent of voters predicting the same for ARRA. Back then, just 16 percent of voters thought the plan would help “a lot,” so the well of support is a bit deeper now. The main differences are in the actual bills, and in the external conditions of the economy, far stronger now than it was when Obama was sworn in.

Ad watch

NRSC, Not the Relief Americans Want.In new digital ads, the GOP’s Senate committee warns voters that the American Rescue Act will be a boondoggle. The bill, they warn, sends “stimulus checks to illegal immigrants and violent criminals” (as with previous stimulus bills, prisoners get checks), would “keep classrooms closed” (a reference to how Democrats did not condition school aid on in-person teaching) and bail out “Gavin Newsom and Andrew Cuomo.”

Glenn Youngkin, Standing Up to China.” Donald Trump is back, starring in the latest ad by the former Carlyle Group executive, who’s running a Trump-like campaign for Virginia governor, selling himself as an outsider who can do what politicians can’t. “President Trump brought together real business leaders like Glenn Youngkin and stood up to China,” a narrator says, while a disclaimer notes that Trump has not endorsed in the GOP’s primary.

In the states

How will Virginia Republicans pick their nominee for governor this year? Nobody knows.

Last week, plans to hold a convention on the campus of Liberty University fell apart, with Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Rich Anderson deciding that the “convergence of as many as 4,000 automobiles and 70 buses at a single venue” simply wasn’t workable. On Monday, Anderson sent a letter to the chairs of the party’s congressional and legislative district committees with two options. 

No. 1: Committee chairs could “select remote voting locations for units in their district.” No. 2: The chairs could pick a “remote voting location for their delegates only (or by agreement with one or more other nearby units, one combined voting location for delegates from multiple units).”

That would mean a single day of mini-conventions in a few dozen locations, a more convoluted process than previous years. The final decision could come this weekend; the convention is still scheduled for May 8. Democrats will pick their statewide nominees in a primary one month later.

In Maine, Democrats dominated a special election for a state Senate seat near Augusta, vacated when Democrat Shenna Bellows, the 2014 party nominee against Sen. Susan Collins, became secretary of state. Craig Hickman, a farmer and former Democratic state legislator, triumphed by 25 points in a district that the Biden-Harris ticket carried by a few hundred votes. Republican nominee William Guerrette, also a former state legislator, ran as a critic of state lockdown rules, and was hurt by media attention on his social media activity, which included antiabortion posts that didn’t sell in the moderate-voting district.

And in California, recall organizers who want to pull Gov. Gavin Newsom out of office announced that they’d collected 2,060,000 signatures, enough   they think  to get on the ballot even after the state scours petitions for ineligible names.


… nine days until special House election primaries in Louisiana
… 51 days until the special election in Texas’s 6th Congressional District
… 58 days until the GOP nominating convention in Virginia
… 89 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 103 days until New York Citys primary

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