March 13, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Republican Party’s magic words have lost their magic

It's why Biden is like no Democratic president in our lifetimes.


Share this article

It seems to me, and it may seem to you, too, that the president says and does things no other Democratic president has said and done in our lifetimes. Yes, there’s Joe Biden’s maddening “tough on crime” posture. There’s the evil of his administration’s border policies. But these are exceptions to an emerging pattern of behavior in which the president regularly demonstrates what his party is, not what it is not.

It may be hard to see what with news of the criminal former president still leading a coalition of Republicans whose primary objective is sabotage, insurrection and tyranny. But it’s there. 

In the near future, we will marvel at a transformation of the political order, from one in which the US government prioritized the interests of the very obscenely rich to one in which the US government prioritize the interests of normal people, like you.

Once you see it, you can’t stop seeing it. Once you can’t stop seeing it, it should become apparent that we’re living in a time of tremendous political upheaval. In the near future, we will marvel at a transformation of the political order, from one in which the US government prioritized the interests of the very obscenely rich to one in which the US government prioritize the interests of normal people, like you.

The magic words
Once upon a time, meaning the last quarter of the last century, the Republicans regularly accused the Democrats of favoring “tax and spend” policies. They said it, because of the effect of saying it on respectable white people. “Tax and spend” were like magic words. They were spoken whenever the Republicans wanted respectable white people to stand against some liberal policy, like universal health care.

We can’t have something taken for granted by all the world’s rich countries, they would say, because that would be fiscally irresponsible. For all of my adult life, that was enough for respectable white people to nod in agreement. A practical consequence of this effect was a Democratic Party that tied itself into knots to prevent respectable white people from seeing them as the “tax and spend” party. 

You may have noticed Joe Biden is not tying himself into knots. His 182-page budget, submitted to the Congress earlier this month, weighs in at nearly $7 trillion. The plan, wrote Heather Cox Richardson, is “a vision of the United States based on the idea that the government should invest in workers, families, and infrastructure to increase the purchasing power of those on the ‘demand side’ of the economy.”

Richardson said it “offers a stark contrast to the theory of the Republicans since the 1980s, that the government should cut taxes and slash government spending to free up capital for those at the top of the economy – on the ‘supply side’ – with the idea they will use that money to invest in new business that will then hire more workers.”

As Professor Richardson said elsewhere in her piece, this theory never really worked as advertised, meaning for all Americans, but it did work for a few, especially the very obscenely rich, who now constitute, as a consequence of the moving of the political order from the “demand side” to the “supply side,” a de facto aristocracy in this country that’s truly above democratic politics and the rule of law. 

This theory also worked for respectable white people, as they were already relatively affluent by the time the Reagan administration finished shifting the political order, and anyway, respectable white people are always susceptible to the whims of the very obscenely rich, because the very obscenely rich are their idea of “success.”

But it took more than emulating their betters for respectable white people to take their side against normal people. The turning of the political order arose from the previous turn of the political order. I’m talking about the triumphs of the civil rights movement, among other movements, after which Black people were secured equal rights. 

Respectable white people, on account of caring about the opinions of other respectable white people, were unsure, to say the least, about the prudence of empowered Black people. In time, the Republicans exploited this to deepen an ideology in which “government” was no longer “of, for and by the people” but instead of, for and by those people. In time, respectable white people convinced themselves “government” took more than it gave back. In time, this view congealed such that all the Republicans had to do was speak the magic words.

Marvel at the times
I’m trying to imagine what it felt like for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, his anticipation – after seeing Biden’s colossal budget, calling for tax hikes on households earning more than $400,000 – and thinking I gotcha. He called it “completely unserious.” Biden, he said, proposes “trillions in new taxes that you and your family will pay directly or through higher costs. Mr. President: Washington has a spending problem, NOT a revenue problem.” (All quotes from Richardson.)

[chirp, chirp]

I’m trying to imagine McCarthy asking himself why the magic words aren’t working. They worked for 40 years. They worked for his entire career. But now, they’re not, because the political order in which they used to work has shifted. Thanks to the covid pandemic, it’s crystal clear supply isn’t where the focus should be. The government, by floating whole sectors of the economy, proved that. All of a sudden, for those respectable white people who believed it was of, by and for those people, government of, by and for the people wasn’t so bad.

The magic words, instead of invoking real political consequences, invoke only themselves – empty, barren, useless. That leaves the president room to define and redefine himself and his party. 

For four decades, the Democrats struggled for the support of respectable white people. For four decades, they denied who and what they are. With the president sounding and acting like no Democratic president in our lifetimes, however, the time for denial seems to be over. And the more the Republicans scramble to reclaim the magic of the past, the more the rest of us can marvel at the times we live in.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

Leave a Comment

Want to comment on this post?
Click here to upgrade to a premium membership.