“It ranks historically right up there next to the Social Security Act,” says Garfinkel. “And in terms of children, maybe even bigger than the Social Security Act in the actual short-term outcomes.”
The vast scale of this material assistance to financially strained families of all races will test whether any conceivable set of government economic benefits can loosen the GOP’s hold on working-class Whites — or the modest but measurable gains that Trump recorded in the 2020 race among working-class Hispanics and even some Black voters (especially men in each case).
Working class White voters — usually defined as Whites without four-year college degrees — were the cornerstone of the “New Deal” coalition assembled by Roosevelt, which dominated American politics from 1932 through 1968. But since the mid-1960s, the defection of those blue-collar White voters — heavily concentrated among Catholics in Northern states, evangelical Protestants in Southern states and rural residents in both regions — to the GOP has been a constant source of frustration and anxiety for Democrats.
The exit polls did show Biden recording bigger gains in the critical states of Wisconsin and Michigan — where he won about two-fifths of these voters, compared with about one-third for Hillary Clinton. But Biden remained mired at about one-third support among them in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and Democrats’ failure to win more of these voters was a critical factor in their Senate defeats in states including Maine, Iowa and North Carolina.
Appeals to blue-collar Whites
For decades, many Democratic strategists have argued that a key to regaining support among White working-class voters is to deliver them material economic assistance as a means of dispelling the widespread belief among them that government cares mostly about the poor (a view spiked with racial animosities linked to stereotypes such as “the welfare queen”). The conviction that Democrats needed to demonstrate such concern about working- and middle-class families, for instance, helped drive the mammoth political struggles by Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama to expand access to health insurance.
With every congressional Republican opposing the new stimulus plan, some in the GOP have already signaled their intent to reprise these arguments. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida, for instance, have portrayed the expanded child tax credit — which will provide $3,600 annually per child younger than 6 and $3,000 for those aged 6-17, regardless of whether the parent is working — as a handout that reverses the welfare revisions of the 1990s.
Families in the middle of the income distribution (two-thirds of whom are White) will see their income rise by nearly 7% as a result of the bill, while families with children in that income bracket will receive even more assistance, the group calculates. A married couple earning about $40,000 annually with one child at home, the group projects, could see their income rise by nearly $6,000, a 15% increase.
It’s different this time
Rarely, if ever, has a single piece of federal legislation provided so much direct financial assistance to so many families, particularly those in the bottom half of income distribution.
“I think this is by far the largest,” Marr says. The big caveat to that judgment is that the bill’s key provisions — particularly the child tax credit and increase in ACA subsidies — are only temporary. But, Marr adds, “if it becomes permanent … the child tax credit is a potentially landmark achievement that is up there with the ACA, with things that Lyndon Johnson did, Franklin Roosevelt did. It’s a history book achievement.”
Garfinkel at Columbia agrees. “It may be the biggest single increase that we’ve ever had,” he says, in direct government assistance to families at the median income or below. But what makes the legislation especially distinctive, he says, is that it doesn’t stop there; it spreads benefits well into the middle class.
“There is no question that the big beneficiaries are those at the bottom, but it’s also quite different from the ACA and other Democratic Party efforts that focus programs only on the poor,” he says. “We’ve limited and targeted benefits. Even the Earned Income Tax Credit is incredibly targeted at the bottom, food stamps even more so, [welfare] was even more. But the child allowance is going to be a near-universal program and in the short term people well into the middle class will benefit.”
Because even so many Republican-leaning White voters “were desperate [and] so on the edge,” amid the economic devastation of the pandemic, “I think they are going to struggle to turn it into welfare,” says Stanley B. Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster.
John Brabender, a longtime Republican consultant who has often directed races in heavily blue-collar states such as Pennsylvania, agrees the GOP needs to be cautious about portraying the plan as a form of welfare. “That’s a dangerous message because there’s a lot of hard-working people [benefiting from it] and the last thing they want to do is think of this as welfare,” he says.
“This rescue plan isn’t solving somebody else’s problem; it’s solving everyone’s problem,” says Jesse Ferguson, a longtime Democratic consultant who advises the Navigator project. “People are not going to view this as a zero-sum policy solution where somebody else is benefiting and they are losing. Instead, they view this as a rescue from a pandemic where everyone was losing.”
Is this Democrats’ big chance?
That could produce a 2022 election season organized around familiar coordinates, with Democrats portraying themselves as defending working- and middle-class families’ economic interests while Republicans target their cultural values (and, in the case of White families, their sense of racial identity).
“These voters are strongly for raising taxes on the rich; Republicans will fight it,” says Greenberg, whose wife, Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, was a principal sponsor of the child tax credit. “That’s another part of the battle for the midterm. Biden doesn’t have a populist side, but he will on taxes. Having cut [working class families’] taxes and having raised them on the rich, Biden is going to look like an economic populist.”
The number of Whites without college degrees has been steadily shrinking for decades, as a share of both society and the electorate. Yet because of their large numbers in states at the tipping point of both the Electoral College and the battle for Senate control, they retain a disproportionate political influence.
“What matters here are small numbers,” says Greenberg.
The sweeping stimulus plan may constitute the party’s best chance in years to achieve small blue-collar gains that could have big political consequences.
www.cnn.com 2021-03-16 04:32:45