Perhaps the most surprising element of President Joe Biden’s first presidential speech on Thursday night was what it did not include.
A day after the passage of the most far-reaching domestic piece of legislation in decades, Biden spent only the last few minutes in touting his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. The lion’s share of his talk was a detailed account of the effort to contain and control the coronavirus pandemic. Apart from a passing reference to the “denial” and “silence” of his unnamed predecessor, politics was not on the agenda.
There may well have been good reason for that decision. His first prime-time speech as president called for a message of unity—the same message he had sounded during his campaign and in his Inaugural. No mention of the unanimous opposition of Republicans to his plan; no attempt to draw partisan lines. The selling of his Rescue Plan is expected to begin any time, but Biden clearly decided it could wait a day or two.
Yet there is no doubt that the political implications of his plan have the potential to be nothing less than radical.
It was 11 years ago, almost to the day, that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of Obamacare, “we have to pass the bill so that you can know what’s in it.” That notion, which seemed borrowed from the Queen of Hearts’ absurdist “Sentence first! Verdict afterwards!” approach in Alice in Wonderland, turns out to have been even more applicable to this week’s American Rescue Act.
It was after the bill’s approval by the Senate that we learned the full dimensions of the most audaciously ambitious social welfare legislation since the New Deal. Most tellingly, the congressional Republicans, who had voted unanimously against it out of force of habit, never bothered to train the full fury of their fire at a series of provisions that took the nation several steps down the road to social democracy.
There’s the tax credit for children that in effect provides thousands of dollars a year for each child—an idea that’s been debated since Daniel Moynihan proposed it as a member of the Nixon administration. There’s the significant expansion of subsidies to buy into health care, along with months’ worth of free access to health insurance for those who’ve lost their jobs and health insurance—not “socialized medicine,” but a significant step toward more public underwriting of health care. And there’s an $86 billion commitment to protect the pensions of a million retirees whose multi-employer plans were in danger of insolvency—without even a pretense that this is linked to the Covid pandemic. It’s the kind of bailout you might expect in a nation where organized labor is a significant share of the workforce. Now, in a United States where unions represent barely 6 percent of the private sector labor force, that protection is law.
From a policy perspective, the key question is whether these and other provisions lead to a robust economy or one eroded by a spike in inflation. From a political perspective, the potential impact of the rescue plan is hard to overstate; what it represents is the possibility that the Democratic Party has found a tool to reconnect it to a working and middle class whose loyalty has been threatened for well over half a century.
There are a host of centrifugal forces pulling at the Democratic Party coalition: In the early 1960s, clashes over housing, jobs, schools, crime and welfare divided Black and white working-class voters. Cities like Berkeley and Seattle repealed fair housing laws, and in 1964—the high-water mark of postwar Democratic Party strength—voters in California overwhelmingly banned such laws. By 1968, George Wallace’s campaign for president was striking chords beyond the South. The fraying of the New Deal coalition was very much on the mind of Robert F. Kennedy, whose presidential campaign was based on holding it together. In his last weeks, he began talking about an issue he believed had broad appeal: specifically, how many of the wealthiest Americans avoided paying a fair share of taxes. By the end of 1968, divisions over the war in Vietnam, deadly riots in the cities and upheaval on college campuses reduced the Democratic share of the presidential vote from 60 percent in 1964 to 43 percent; Richard Nixon and George Wallace divided the rest.
Little more than a decade later, the twin demons of recession across the industrial heartland and double-digit inflation helped turn millions of voters into “Reagan Democrats,” leading to two landslide victories for the Gipper and 12 consecutive years of GOP presidencies. All through the 1980s, Democrats and their intellectual allies tried to grapple with the fact that voters seemed to prefer Democratic policies (on health care, education, taxes), but voted, at least at the presidential level for Republicans. (I have a vivid memory of House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt assuring a group of journalists that once the American people saw his party’s proposals for lower drug prices and access to college, they would return to the fold.)
It took “a different kind of Democrat” (as Bill Clinton defined himself) to win back, at least temporarily, those defecting Democrats by breaking with his party’s orthodoxies on crime and welfare, and by pledging that “the era of Big Government is over.” And it took an emerging demographic sea change that yielded an increasingly nonwhite electorate, and a more liberal cohort of college-educated whites, to outweigh (at least in popular vote terms), the increasingly Republican tilt of less-educated whites and to put Barack Obama in the White House.
But both Clinton and Obama suffered severe political damage in their first midterms from the fact that their principal battles—for deficit-cutting tax hikes on the part of Clinton, and from a stimulus and a health care plan from Obama—had failed to deliver tangible success. While both were reelected, those midterm failures had severe consequences that endure; in particular, 2010 produced a GOP takeover at the state level that now threatens severe voting limits across the country.
With the American Rescue Plan, Democrats are offering something very different: a package that is in a key sense a throwback to its roots first planted in the days of Andrew Jackson. It is an unapologetic assertion of the power of government to redress a set of grievances without any assertion of identity politics; while the stark facts of the pandemic mean that it has hit with special force in Black and brown communities, the remedial power of government is directed to the victims defined by circumstance, not color.
The political potential here is impressive. Consider a 2022 midterm where the future of the now-temporary child tax credits is on the line, and where every Republican House and Senate incumbent will have to explain to the electorate why they voted against them. Consider the votes of tens of thousands of small-business owners—the entrepreneurial heart of what Republicans rhetorically celebrate—whose enterprises survived because of the law enacted with a clear partisan split. Imagine a Republican arguing that only a small fraction of the law addressed the costs of the pandemic, when there are countless parents of school-age children, restaurant workers, retail shop owners, hotel clerks, freelance consultants, who know exactly what happened to their lives when Covid struck.
This is a possibility that Republicans simply may not have imagined, given their midterm successes in running against the initiatives of the past two Democratic presidents, and inflicting on Clinton and Obama successive political catastrophes.
This time, the benefits of the new law are easy to grasp, and will be—literally—in the hands of Americans within weeks. The scope is broad enough to encompass both the poor and large elements of the middle class, which is why it now enjoys a level of support almost unimaginable for a law passed along such partisan lines. There is a hint that an outbreak of public happiness may be about to begin; when American Airlines tells its workers to “tear up those furlough notices!”, it portends the chance of celebration with every reopened restaurant, with every eviction notice burned. More broadly, it appears to contain provisions that leapfrog a dilemma that has plagued Democratic social programs in the past: When they are perceived as helping one class of voters, they meet with a powerful backlash, (often one infused by racial resentment). When a program reaches broadly—Social Security, Medicare and, increasingly, the Affordable Care Act—it becomes politically potent.
Potential is not prediction. There are plenty of ways that 2022 could be another Democratic disaster; perhaps inflation will accelerate, or the looming issues of an overwhelmed border and rising crime may override good economic news, or the Republican efforts to limit the vote in state after state will prove too formidable.
But what does seem clear is that, unlike past measures that required huge congressional majorities, a radical change in the social fabric of the United States has become a reality—and with it, an opportunity for the Democratic Party no one could have imagined 50 days ago.
Green Party in turmoil, leader resists calls to step down
Canada‘s Green Party was increasingly mired in an internal dispute over its position on Israel on Tuesday, and a news report said the bloc would hold a vote next month on whether to oust its leader, Annamie Paul, who was elected just eight months ago.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp (CBC) reported that the Greens had triggered a process that could remove Paul, the first black person to head a mainstream Canadian party, beginning with a vote next month.
A Green Party spokesperson declined to comment on the report, but said the party’s “federal council” would meet later on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, Paul, 48, rejected calls from the Quebec wing of the party for her to resign after a member of parliament left the Greens due to the Israel controversy.
“I believe that I have been given a strong mandate. I believe that I have been given the instructions to work on behalf of Canadians for a green recovery,” Paul said at a news conference in Ottawa.
Paul herself is not a member of parliament. The Greens – who champion the environment and the fight against climate change – had only three legislators in the 338-seat House of Commons and one, Jenica Atwin, abandoned the party last week to join the governing Liberals.
Atwin has said that her exit was in large part due to a dispute over the party’s stance on Israel. Atwin on Twitter has criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, while a senior adviser to Paul, Noah Zatzman, has posted on Facebook that some unspecified Green members of parliament are anti-Semitic.
The party’s executive committee voted last week not to renew Zatzman’s contract, local media reported. Paul converted to Judaism some two decades ago after she married a Jewish man.
While the Greens are the smallest faction in parliament, they perform well in British Colombia and hold two seats there. The current turmoil may favor their rivals ahead of a national election that senior Liberals say could be just a few months away.
The Greens would win about 6.7% of the vote nationally if a vote were held now, according to an average of recent polls aggregated by the CBC.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer and Julie Gordon; editing by Jonathan Oatis)
Hope, anger and defiance greet birth of Israel’s new government
Following are reactions to the new government in Israel, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, FORMER ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER
“We’ll be back, soon.”
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
“On behalf of the American people, I congratulate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and all the members of the new Israeli cabinet. I look forward to working with Prime Minister Bennett to strengthen all aspects of the close and enduring relationship between our two nations.”
NABIL ABU RUDEINEH, SPOKESMAN FOR PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT MAHMOUD ABBAS
“This is an internal Israeli affair. Our position has always been clear, what we want is a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.”
BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER VIA TWITTER
“On behalf of the UK, I offer my congratulations to
@naftalibennett and @yairlapid on forming a new government in Israel. As we emerge from COVID-19, this is an exciting time for the UK and Israel to continue working together to advance peace and prosperity for all.”
TOR WENNESLAND, U.N. MIDDLE EAST PEACE ENVOY VIA TWITTER
“I look forward to working with the Government to advance the ultimate goal of a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
CHARLES MICHEL, EUROPEAN COUNCIL PRESIDENT VIA TWITTER
“Congratulations to Prime Minister @naftalibennett and to Alternate PM & MFA @yairlapid for the swearing in of the new Israeli government. Looking forward to strengthen the partnership for common prosperity and towards lasting regional peace & stability.”
FAWZI BARHOUM, HAMAS SPOKESMAN
“Regardless of the shape of the government in Israel, it will not alter the way we look at the Zionist entity. It is an occupation and a colonial entity, which we should resist by force to get our rights back.”
BENNY GANTZ, ISRAELI DEFENCE MINISTER
“With all due respect, Israel is not a widower. Israel’s security was never dependent on one man. And it will never be dependent on one man.”
CHUCK SCHUMER, U.S. SENATE MAJORITY LEADER
“So, there’s a new Administration in Israel. And we are hopeful that we can now begin serious negotiations for a two-state solution. I am urging the Biden Administration to do all it can to bring the parties together and help achieve a two-state solution where each side can live side by side in peace.”
JUSTIN TRUDEAU, PRIME MINISTER OF CANADA
“Congratulations on the formation of a new Israeli government, Prime Minister @NaftaliBennett and Alternate Prime Minister @YairLapid. Together, let’s explore ways to further strengthen the relationship between Canada and Israel.”
MANSOUR ABBAS, ARAB MEMBER OF NEW ISRAELI GOVERNMENT
“We are aware that this step has a lot of risks and hardships that we cannot deny, but the opportunity for us is also big: to change the equation and the balance of power in the Knesset and in the upcoming government.”
DAPHNA KILION, ISRAELI IN JERUSALEM
“I think it’s very exciting for Israel to have a new beginning and I’m hopeful that the new government will take them in the right direction.”
EREZ GOLDMAN, ISRAELI IN JERUSALEM
“It’s a sad day today, it’s not a legitimate government. It’s pretty sad that almost 86 (out of 120 seats) in the parliament, the Knesset, belong to the right-wing and they sold their soul and ideology and their beliefs to the extreme left-wing just for one purpose – hatred of Netanyahu and to become a prime minister.”
SEBASTIAN KURZ, CHANCELLOR OF AUSTRIA, VIA TWITTER
“Congratulations to PM @naftalibennett and alternate PM @yairlapid for forming a government. I look forward to working with you. Austria is committed to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and will continue to stand by Israel’s side.”
(Reporting by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Daniel Wallis and Lisa Shumaker)
Boris Johnson hails Biden as ‘a big breath of fresh air’
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday as “a big breath of fresh air”, and praised his determination to work with allies on important global issues ranging from climate change and COVID-19 to security.
Johnson did not draw an explicit parallel between Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump after talks with the Democratic president in the English seaside resort of Carbis Bay on the eve of a summit of the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies.
But his comments made clear Biden had taken a much more multilateral approach to talks than Trump, whose vision of the world at times shocked, angered and bewildered many of Washington’s European allies.
“It’s a big breath of fresh air,” Johnson said of a meeting that lasted about an hour and 20 minutes.
“It was a long, long, good session. We covered a huge range of subjects,” he said. “It’s new, it’s interesting and we’re working very hard together.”
The two leaders appeared relaxed as they admired the view across the Atlantic alongside their wives, with Jill Biden wearing a jacket embroidered with the word “LOVE”.
“It’s a beautiful beginning,” she said.
Though Johnson said the talks were “great”, Biden brought grave concerns about a row between Britain and the European Union which he said could threaten peace in the British region of Northern Ireland, which following Britain’s departure from the EU is on the United Kingdom’s frontier with the bloc as it borders EU member state Ireland.
The two leaders did not have a joint briefing after the meeting: Johnson spoke to British media while Biden made a speech about a U.S. plan to donate half a billion vaccines to poorer countries.
Biden, who is proud of his Irish heritage, was keen to prevent difficult negotiations between Brussels and London undermining a 1998 U.S.-brokered peace deal known as the Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Britain that Biden had a “rock-solid belief” in the peace deal and that any steps that imperilled the accord would not be welcomed.
Yael Lempert, the top U.S. diplomat in Britain, issued London with a demarche – a formal diplomatic reprimand – for “inflaming” tensions, the Times newspaper reported.
Johnson sought to play down the differences with Washington.
“There’s complete harmony on the need to keep going, find solutions, and make sure we uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement,” said Johnson, one of the leaders of the 2016 campaign to leave the EU.
Asked if Biden had made his alarm about the situation in Northern Ireland very clear, he said: “No he didn’t.
“America, the United States, Washington, the UK, plus the European Union have one thing we absolutely all want to do,” Johnson said. “And that is to uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, and make sure we keep the balance of the peace process going. That is absolutely common ground.”
The 1998 peace deal largely brought an end to the “Troubles” – three decades of conflict between Irish Catholic nationalist militants and pro-British Protestant “loyalist” paramilitaries in which 3,600 people were killed.
Britain’s exit from the EU has strained the peace in Northern Ireland. The 27-nation bloc wants to protect its markets but a border in the Irish Sea cuts off the British province from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Although Britain formally left the EU in 2020, the two sides are still trading threats over the Brexit deal after London unilaterally delayed the implementation of the Northern Irish clauses of the deal.
Johnson’s Downing Street office said he and Biden agreed that both Britain and the EU “had a responsibility to work together and to find pragmatic solutions to allow unencumbered trade” between Northern Ireland, Britain and Ireland.”
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Andrea Shalal, Padraic Halpin, John Chalmers; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Giles Elgood, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Mark Potter and Timothy Heritage)
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