Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN-CNN.COM
(CNN)Prominent Republicans rededicated themselves to Donald Trump’s creed of grievance, lies and demagoguery this weekend as President Joe Biden bolstered his counter bet on the use of expansive federal power to ease America’s crises.
The dueling approaches reflect a nation torn not only by ideological divides and disputes over the role of government but one that often lacks a common version of the truth as the 45th president stokes the discord and resentments still boiling after his single, turbulent term.
Trump tightened his grip on the GOP as potential future candidates and lawmakers flocked to party and donor meetings in Florida capped by the ex-President’s profane rant that laid out the culture war blueprint he insists will return the party to power.
By contrast, Biden’s administration has quickened the pace of vaccinations, setting another 24-hour record for reported doses administered. His team cranked up the sales job on the next stage of his effort to beat a longer-term malaise — a $2 trillion infrastructure package meant to ease the pain of working Americans who have consistently lost out in an economy that has favored the wealthy.
His push for action reflects the audacious gamble he’s made on the belief that the country is open to a President willing to fix the nation’s problems with sweeping federal spending. The strategy is not only designed to drag the country out of the pandemic. It could offer him a chance to make his case to some of the blue-collar voters that were attracted to Trump’s populist economic message in 2016.
It’s almost as if Democrats and Republicans are fighting parallel battles right now on a separate set of issues — with the GOP especially appealing only to its own base voters.
Republicans have ceded the fight against the pandemic and economic inequality in favor of hardline rhetoric on immigration, race and transgender rights plus a flurry of voter suppression laws built on Trump’s election falsehoods and a policy of obstruction of Biden’s agenda in Washington. Not a single Republican in Congress, for instance, voted for Biden’s pandemic relief plan and the prospects for GOP buy-in for his massive infrastructure package seem just as remote.
How Americans perceive the struggle over the coming months will be crucial to Biden’s chances of moving ahead with even more ambitious plans — on issues like climate change and election reform. But if the 2022 midterm elections go well for the Republican Party — despite its current state of civil war — Trump’s influence will only be enhanced heading into the 2024 presidential race.
Biden to hear from Republicans but expectations are low
As he seeks to maintain early momentum, the President will meet with Republicans at the White House on Monday as part of a bipartisan group that will discuss whether common solutions are possible on the infrastructure plan at the center of pitched battle on Capitol Hill. But the huge dollar cost of the plan, and Biden’s definition of infrastructure as broader than fixing roads, bridges and highways into areas like boosting home health care for the elderly and the disabled, means GOP support is unlikely. Some Washington Republicans also doubt the President’s sincerity in negotiating and believe he is simply paying lip service to a campaign vow to work across the aisle, while others who believe Biden are more skeptical of the staff and Democratic leaders around him. But the biggest uncertainty facing the bill may be whether Biden can get 50 Senate Democrats on board.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg unveiled a swift timeline for action on the bill on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday and challenged the GOP to join the President in steps that would boost the well-being of the party’s own less wealthy supporters.
“The President wants to see major action in Congress and real progress by Memorial Day,” Buttigieg told CNN’s Jake Tapper, defending the scope of Biden’s ambitions for a package that stretches traditional definitions.
“Infrastructure is the foundation that allows us to go about our lives. To me, it makes no sense to say, ‘I would have been for broadband, but I’m against it because it’s not a bridge. I would have been for eldercare, but I’m against it because it’s not a highway.’ These are things the American people need.”
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said on ABC’s “This Week” that old definitions of infrastructure were outdated. “Historically it’s been: What makes the economy move? What is it that we all need to ensure that we, as citizens, are productive?” Granholm said. “We don’t want to use past definitions of infrastructure, when we are moving into the future.”
Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, however, didn’t hold out much hope for progress, saying he would go to the White House to talk to Biden if his plane arrived in time.
“We are willing to negotiate with him on an infrastructure package, and this trillion-dollar number is way too high for me,” Wicker said, also on “This Week.” He accused Biden of not taking Republican offers seriously on his previous Covid relief plan.
“Americans voted for a pragmatic moderate that they thought Joe Biden was. Where is that centrist candidate they thought they were voting for back in November of last year?”
It’s true that the Covid relief plan, Biden’s infrastructure package and an expected future package, which could reach $1 trillion on issues including education, represent some of the most audacious bids to reshape the economy in modern history. While Biden appears to believe that in a time of crisis he has a window to act, Wicker’s comment did hint at possible consequences should his approach backfire. Voters in midterm elections often take the opportunity to rein in a first-term President if they are seen to be overreaching. So the President’s willingness to aim so high is a significant risk.
Trump’s torrent of lies and anger
While Washington Republicans seek to interrupt Biden’s fast start in office, the man he replaced did more this weekend to set the terms of the Republican Party’s midterm election campaign, exploiting the hold he retains on the party’s grassroots. Speaking at Mar-a-Lago on Saturday, Trump vowed to help the GOP win back control of Congress next year and to help them recapture the White House.
The question, however, is whether an extreme message that helped the Republican Party lose the House and the Senate and the White House is likely to recapture the suburban and more moderate voters that deserted the party when he was in power. Still, a strategy designed to inflame base turnout could conceivably give the GOP an edge in some tightly contested state races — especially if its state voter suppression tactics succeed in limiting Democratic votes.
In his Saturday speech — which was dripping with falsehoods about his own presidency, the pandemic, Biden’s program and a boiling desire for revenge and cultural war arguments — Trump demonstrated how he has his party in a vise.
He waded through debunked claims that the election was stolen from him, a person in the room said. In addition to insulting Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump lashed out at Dr. Anthony Fauci, who, unlike the ex-President, took seriously a crisis that erupted on his watch and that has killed more than half a million Americans and counting.
According to Trump’s prepared remarks for the event, which was closed to the press, he attacked Biden for choosing his “radical, open borders” Vice President Kamala Harris for the task of stopping the flow of child migrants from Central America. He singled out transgender athletes competing in women’s sports. And after Biden signed an exceedingly modest executive order on limiting the production of homemade firearms, Trump warned in his prepared remarks, “He is coming for your guns, he is coming for your money, and he is coming for your freedom.”
The ex-President also claimed that Biden was leading corporations like Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines in a “slanderous effort to cancel and punish the entire state of Georgia.” In reality, Trump sought to overturn Biden’s win in the Peach State and state lawmakers have reacted to his lies about fraud by passing a tough new law that discriminates against minority voters.
Trump’s months of false claims about the election have had a profound effect in convincing Republican voters that the last election was stolen, meaning the entry point into the midterms and 2024 presidential race for candidates that want to woo his voters is acceptance of his big lie. Proof of this can be found in a new Reuters/Ipsos poll that showed that 55% of Republicans falsely believe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election was the result of illegal voting or rigging. And 60% of Republicans incorrectly agree that the election was stolen from Trump.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the kind of old-school, pro-business Republican that Trump has driven out of the party, warned Sunday that the ex- President’s behavior was “divisive” and “not helpful” on “State of the Union.” Trump last week blasted Hutchinson for vetoing an anti-transgender state law that would outlaw gender-affirming “procedures” for transgender youths. The ex-President is confident that his former White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, who is running for governor in Arkansas with his blessing, will be yet another of his acolytes to extend his power and influence.
That is a lesson that has already been learned by a crop of Republicans who may run in 2024 if Trump doesn’t. Top Florida office holders — Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott and Gov. Ron DeSantis — all made sure they were on hand this weekend. As did South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton.
Inside the Republican Party, it’s clear there’s no path to advancement without Trump’s endorsement. But it’s also possible that by recommitting to his divisive message, Republicans are playing into Biden’s hands.