We Can Finally See the Real Source of Washington Gridlock

America’s political dysfunction is rooted not in ideological polarization, but in the Republican Party’s conviction that it alone should be allowed to govern.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Updated at 4:06 p.m. ET on April 1, 2020.

Deep into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Republican leaders had one question for President Barack Obama, as his administration sought nearly $1 trillion in funds from Congress: How are you going to pay for this?

The unemployment rate was greater than 7 percent in January 2009, and would rise above 8 percent by February. Mitch McConnell, then the Senate minority leader, insisted, “The question is not doing nothing versus doing something,” but “the appropriateness of an almost $1 trillion spending bill to address the problem.”

Others in his caucus made similar points. “If you believe this is a good process to spend $800 billion, we’re on different planets,” Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, declared. Chuck Grassley of Iowa complained that “the package's massive government spending and long-term entitlement commitments … will leave the next generation with trillion dollar deficits.” Lamar Alexander of Tennessee demanded, “Should we ask every American family to increase their $531,000 debt in order to spend money for a stimulus package to try to restart the economy?”

Some Democrats had been spooked by the price tag for the stimulus, and both Senate moderates and the Obama administration focused on keeping the number under $1 trillion rather than ensuring that it was large enough to bring the economy back quickly, an error liberal economists warned against making. That skittishness made it easier for Republicans to unify against the bill. Obama had promised to achieve bipartisan cooperation on behalf of the American people, and Republican opposition proved a simple way to deprive him of the ability to fulfill this promise.

McConnell “wanted everyone to hold the fort,” one Republican senator, George Voinovich of Ohio, later told the journalist Michael Grunwald in his book The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era. “All he cared about was making sure Obama could never have a clean victory.”

In the House, where the stimulus bill would ultimately pass without a single Republican vote, Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, then chair of the GOP conference, claimed that "the Democrat bill won't stimulate anything but more government and more debt.” The stimulus bill would ultimately pass the Senate with three Republican votes. “Yesterday the Senate cast one of the most expensive votes in history,” McConnell said. “Americans are wondering how we’re going to pay for all this.”

The unified Republican resistance to government spending to stimulate the economy was somewhat newly discovered. Under President George W. Bush, a much smaller stimulus had passed the Senate with more than 80 votes. But under Obama, both Republican voters and the officials they elected seemed to have grown concerned about deficits. Two days after Obama signed the stimulus bill, the CNBC anchor Rick Santelli, reporting from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, flew into a rage on air, attacking the Obama administration for “losers’s mortgages,” and demanding the government “reward people who actually carry the water instead of drink the water.”

The federal government, during both the Bush and Obama administrations, was ultimately far more generous to banks than it was to homeowners. But understanding the Santelli episode, or the Tea Party movement it inspired, is impossible without the alternative explanation for the financial crisis that emerged on the right. Although most mainstream economists concluded that the crisis was caused by, as The New York Times put it, “widespread failures in government regulation, corporate mismanagement and heedless risk-taking by Wall Street,” most conservative media hewed to the idea that federal laws targeting racial discrimination in lending were largely to blame. In other words, it wasn’t the banks who caused the crisis so much as Santelli’s “losers,” the voters who put Obama in office.

The Tea Party movement was ostensibly a rebellion against government debt and overreach. That movement helped sweep Republicans into office at every level of federal and state government in the 2010 midterm elections, and sustained the GOP through the balance of the Obama presidency, during which it continued to rail against government spending. Less attention would be paid to the crucial ideological distinction Santelli had made—that he did not want the government to waste money on “losers,” rather than the deserving.

As for McConnell, his opposition to the Obama administration was identifiable as partisan rather than ideological even at the time. As one Republican aide later told Grunwald, “If this thing works and the economy is booming and everybody is happy, your vote against the stimulus won’t be held against you. In good times, people get reelected.” On the flip side, Grunwald noted, “if the economy wasn’t booming by 2010, Republicans could return from the wilderness.” Republicans went home and bragged to their constituencies about the projects funded by the stimulus they had voted against.

The Great Recession annihilated the accumulated wealth of millions of Americans, particularly the small nest eggs of black and Latino homeowners. Millions more lost their livelihoods, or were plunged into debt, or were forced to work multiple jobs for lower wages. The recovery was slow and painful, and relief was concentrated among top earners, rather than those who had been hurt the most.

Nevertheless, as the Republican sweep of the 2010 midterms showed, McConnell’s calculation was correct. Deliberately inflicting greater suffering on the American people did help bring Republicans back from the wilderness.

Eleven years later, America is facing a different crisis: a global pandemic and a president who downplayed the threat of the disease until the bodies of the dead in New York City piled so high, they had to be stored in refrigerated trucks.

In order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, federal health experts and local leaders have encouraged or ordered social distancing, and shut down all but essential businesses such as grocery stores, a strategy that is necessary but also will inflict great economic pain on the country. Last week, 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment insurance.

This time around, though, the president is a Republican named Donald Trump, not a Democrat named Barack Obama. And so the $2 trillion relief bill, more than twice the size of the stimulus legislation meant to combat the Great Recession, flew through the Senate with more than 90 votes. The supposedly insurmountable ideological divides in Washington parted like saloon doors, as congressional leaders from both parties negotiated a compromise that left neither side fully content.

Indeed, the bill is far from perfect, and almost certainly inadequate for the scale of the problem. “It is a very good start,” Heidi Shierholz, a former Obama Labor Department economist who is now director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, told me. “I think because of the way it's designed, we're likely going to need more.”

Although the unemployment-insurance benefits are helpful, the $150 billion in aid to states appears insufficient. The direct payments to families are essential, but will not sustain them for as long as social distancing is expected to last. The $350 billion meant to prop up small businesses is crucial, but the Trump administration has already said it will ignore oversight mechanisms designed to prevent corrupt use of the more than $500 billion given to the Treasury Department to disburse as it sees fit. Workers relying on the gig economy, such as ride-share drivers, will get less money to tide them over while the economy is at a halt than those who lost full-time jobs. And the lack of triggers for additional spending, should the coronavirus shutdown continue for longer than anticipated, promises another political fight over recovery measures down the road.

“You could have written this bill so that the checks go out again in three months if this problem is still going. Unemployment insurance continues for four months. But you could imagine them saying, ’Okay, if unemployment is about 6 percent, or if the CDC thinks we're still in an outbreak, we could automatically renew it,’" Mike Konczal, director of progressive thought at the Roosevelt Institute, told me. “The fact that, in three months, we're gonna have to do this again—we might even have to do it again in a month, with less political leverage, with a volatile executive branch, with Mitch McConnell, who has his own intense sense of political objectives and interest—is really worrisome.”

McConnell, who had demanded to know “how we’re going to pay for” the $831 billion American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, enthusiastically supported the $2 trillion CARES Act. Graham, who had complained that $800 billion was far too much spending in 2009, said last month’s bill would “help save the country.” Grassley bragged about having “beefed up” funding for small businesses and unemployment insurance. Alexander declared, “We are here not as Democrats and Republicans, but we are here to work together to do whatever we can to address COVID-19.” The soaring spirit of civic responsibility that was altogether absent during the Great Recession suddenly reasserted itself, even as the overriding concern about excess government spending disappeared.

The distinction between 2009 and 2020 cannot be explained by the fact that this economic slowdown was a necessary part of combatting the coronavirus. Although those affected today are hurting through no fault of their own, the same was true of millions of Americans in the Great Recession. For that matter, most Republicans—including McConnell, Graham, Grassley, and Alexander—had voted for the 2008 bank bailout prior to voting against the stimulus. In other words, they voted to help those most responsible for the Great Recession, then voted to stiff those Americans whose lives and livelihoods had been destroyed by the bankers’ greed and regulators’ ineptitude, and who would suffer through a sluggish recovery as a result.

The complete Republican reversal on the need for the federal government to address an economic crisis is not merely hypocrisy, although it is also that. Ideological divides between the left and right did not evaporate during the negotiations—in fact, they fell along familiar lines. Democrats wanted more generous provisions for unemployment insurance and aid to families, and Republicans wanted more money for big business and fewer strings attached to it. But those differences did not prevent Congress from legislating. Washington gridlock does not stem from ideological differences about the size or role of government, although those conflicts inevitably shape legislation. It stems from the ideological conviction, held by much of the Republican Party, that the Democratic Party is inherently illegitimate and has no right to govern.

McConnell and the Republican leadership saw prolonging the Great Recession as a political opportunity to be exploited. The longer and more grueling the economic recovery, the easier it would be to evict Obama from the White House and Democrats from Congress, even if their own constituents suffered as a result. Democrats, by contrast, did not attempt to block help for Americans navigating the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus. On the contrary, they sought more generous provisions, despite the knowledge that the president they had recently impeached for trying to coerce a foreign country into framing his prospective Democratic challenger would take the credit and use the aid as an argument for his own reelection. At the signing ceremony for the CARES Act, Trump was flanked exclusively by Republican leaders; Democrats were not invited.

Tens of millions of people who received aid that would not have reached them without the efforts of the Democratic Party will end up casting ballots for Donald Trump this November. In one important way, that’s how it should be: The Democratic Party as it is currently constituted correctly understands that it has civic and moral obligations to ensure the well-being not only of its own voters, but of those who vote against its candidates. The Republican Party, and particularly the GOP under Trump, acts as if it has no such obligations, which is why the president himself has portrayed aid to Democratic-controlled states ravaged by the coronavirus as personal generosity rather than his fucking job.

This crucial distinction, obvious from the very moment in 2009 when Santelli demanded the federal government help real Americans like himself and abandon the “losers” who were ruined by Wall Street malfeasance, was lost in much of the coverage of political disputes in the Obama era. It wasn’t government spending the Tea Party opposed, it was government spending on “losers,” imposed by the party that the “losers” had brought to power. That’s why a less-than-$1 trillion bill meant to stave off a depression garnered enough outrage from those on the right to start a movement, while a piece of legislation more than twice its size prompts celebration by those same people. The CARES Act, the largest spending bill in American history, sparked no Tea Party rebellions, no protesters in tricorne hats, no cries of “take our country back,” and no invocations of “Second Amendment remedies.” The illegitimacy of Democratic Party governance, not the size of the deficit, the reach of the federal government, or the fact of economic stimulus itself, was the problem.

“Tea Partiers feared government responses orchestrated by a president they despise, who might spend more on the less privileged and hike taxes on people like themselves,” Theda Skocpol wrote in The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. “This moral social geography, rather than any abstract commitment to free-market principles, underlies Tea Party fervor to slash or eliminate categories of public benefits seen as going to unworthy people who are ‘freeloading’ on the public sector. For Tea Party people, it is illegitimate to use taxes and public spending to redistribute wealth from productive taxpayers like themselves to people who have not earned their way.” As with so many other issues, Trump is less a departure from  Republican Party conservatism than a vulgar expression of its deepest principles.

The Republican Party has not abandoned its ideological convictions about the deserving rich and the parasitic poor. Every Republican but Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado voted for an amendment put forth by Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, which would have cut unemployment benefits on the grounds that they create “a perverse incentive for men and women who are sidelined to then not leave the sidelines and come back to work."*  Every Democrat but Joe Manchin of West Virginia voted against it, depriving it of the needed 60 votes. But the bill itself passed without a single vote in opposition from either party. Instead of following the lead of the Obama-era GOP, and aggravating the economic crisis for the purpose of bringing down a president they had tried and failed to remove from office, the Democrats felt morally obligated to cushion the impact of the inevitable recession.

The source of the GOP’s extremism, and the Democrats’ relative moderation, is not personal virtue. It is, rather, the fact that one party is relatively ideologically, religiously, and ethnically homogenous, while the other has to represent a constituency that is ideologically, religiously, and ethnically diverse. The Republican Party’s leadership and propaganda apparatus have trained their base to view Democratic voters not just as political rivals but as an existential threat, whose claims to American identity and therefore power are intrinsically invalid. This sense of being under siege allowed Trump to seize control of the party, to govern as though his voters are the only ones with legitimate claims to American citizenship, and to command absolute, unquestioning loyalty even as his ignorance and vanity prove lethal.

As of this date, more than 3,000 Americans have died from COVID-19—a disease the president announced would be down to zero cases in February and that he dismissed as contained by China in January, contrary to what his advisers were telling him. The pandemic has now claimed more lives than the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; on Monday, the president sought to set expectations that a six-figure death toll would represent a triumph. On Tuesday, the White House clarified that the number of dead could range from 100,000 to 240,000; the low end of that range is comparable to the deaths of American servicemembers in World War I. Some American chief executives have presided over similar mass-casualty events, and others have had to deal with economic catastrophes, but Trump is probably the first not only to abysmally mishandle both at once, but to then to insist with unquestioned conviction that this represents competent—even exceptional—leadership.

Should Joe Biden defeat Trump in November, he will likely face the challenge of helping the nation recover from another economic catastrophe against similarly implacable GOP opposition. The Republican Party will rediscover its concern for debt once there is no longer a Republican in the White House. The more ideologically diverse Democratic caucus will be vulnerable to splintering and half measures. The crucial obstacle to necessary intervention under such circumstances will not be traditional divides over the role of the state or the size of government. It will be, as it has been for more than a decade, the Republican belief that no one else should be allowed to wield power.

* An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated every Democrat voted against the Sasse amendment and every Republican voted for it; Joe Manchin of West Virginia voted for it, while Susan Collins and Cory Gardner voted against it.