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Clarence Page: Voters show more unity in the COVID-19 crisis than their political leaders do

Clarence Page: Voters show more unity in the COVID-19 crisis than their political leaders do

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Are we all socialists now?

In numerous intriguing ways, the pandemic appears to be pumping up the popularity of big government, even among (gasp!) Republicans — as long as you’re not talking about the current crop of the Grand Old Party’s lawmakers.

Republican lawmakers displayed impressive unity as Democrats passed President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid package without a single Republican vote.

But the package received a warmer reception from Republicans outside of Congress.

While conservative media have tried to distract us with chatter about “cancel culture,” Dr. Seuss and disputes within the British royal family, polls taken over the past four weeks show one-fourth to one-half of Republicans have endorsed provisions of the package to which their representatives didn’t give a single vote.

For example, a CNN poll released as the package moved toward passage last week found three-fourths of Republicans favor provisions to fund a return to the classroom for K-12 students (77%) and sending stimulus checks worth up to $1,400 per person to most families and individuals (76%).

Both of those policies also had majority support across party lines. Some 55% of Republicans support each, compared with more than 90% of Democrats.

Similar results turned up in a Politico/Morning Consult poll that found only a slight drop-off from 59% of GOP voters to 53% after they were told it was the Democrats’ plan, compared with a drop among overall voters from 77% to 71% when the party label was attached.

One message I take away from those green shoots of bipartisanship amid the rubble of our current political battles is that voters may have a better sense of bipartisanship than our political leaders do.

After years of success by conservatives at turning “socialist” into a political career-killing epithet for even moderate liberals, I am reminded increasingly of a Newsweek cover headline that rattled national political chatter two weeks after President Barack Obama’s inauguration: “We Are All Socialists Now.”

The stimulus bill of 2009, you may recall, was about to be signed into law almost two weeks later. The cover essay by then-editor Jon Meacham and writer Evan Thomas was pegged on an interview that Fox News star Sean Hannity conducted with then-Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, in which Hannity called the stimulus the “European Socialist Act of 2009.”

The S-word was such a hot button that conservatives immediately pounced on Newsweek for allegedly trying to make socialism cool. But those who were not irony-deficient recognized the headline as an allusion to Richard Nixon’s rephrasing of “We’re all Keynesians now,” a declaration attributed to libertarian economist Milton Friedman as a mildly sarcastic description of how governments turn to aggressive spending to boost economies in time of economic crisis.

That label loosely applied to the aggressive stimulus packages pushed by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, and now Joe Biden. Each marked a pushback against the small-government policies of the Ronald Reagan era, this time by Biden who has become the quintessential centrist under pressure from his party’s re-energized progressive wing.

Biden successfully kept his party’s progressives united despite their disappointment over his taking a $15-an-hour minimum wage off the table for now, even though it has been falling relative to the cost of living since the 1960s.

Yet even a majority of Republicans support raising the minimum wage above its current rate of $7.25 per hour, the Morning Consult/Politico poll found, and 35% of Republicans preferred an $11-per-hour increase proposed by centrist Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat.

That’s hardly a sign of looming revolution, but it does show a discontent in the Grand Old Party’s ranks about the ability of Reagan-era “trickle down” economic policies to address the wage stagnation that helped to fuel the rise of Trump’s presidency.

So do the backhanded compliments handed to Biden by representatives like U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, a Florida Republican, who tried in a tweet to take credit for part of Biden’s package after voting against it.

Let the games begin. The bogus “socialist” charges have been around for decades, most prominently in the battles to pass Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which since have become models of do-not-touch popularity across party lines.

Whether we are all “Keynesians” or “socialists” or not, we should not need a crisis to have both parties actively competing with useful ideas, not just name-calling and culture wars to ease the economic squeeze on Americans across party lines.

E-mail Clarence Page at

cpage@chicagotribune.com.

Page’s column is provided by Tribune Content Agency.

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