Biden Secures Liberal Priorities With Little Republican Backlash

On marijuana, student loans and climate, the GOP has backed down ahead of the midterms.

President Joe Biden has uncorked a series of wins on major liberal policy goals in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections with little pushback from Republicans. The GOP has mostly ignored Democratic victories in fighting climate change, marijuana reform and student loan forgiveness.

Republicans have aired just two ads against Democratic candidates attacking Biden’s loan forgiveness plan and are disregarding the climate provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act in television spots. While Biden only rolled out his marijuana reform plans on Thursday, the official organs of the Republican party ignored the announcement entirely.

The silence from the GOP on crucial issues shows how the American public has moved to the left on key issues since the last time Democrats controlled the presidency and both chambers of Congress. It also highlights how the White House has worked to find a middle ground on progressive policy goals while simultaneously defanging the most potent GOP attacks against them.

“The throughline of these decisions is the president’s belief that the American economy needs to be based on opportunity for hardworking middle-class families, not tilted to wealthy special interests,” Andrew Bates, a White House spokesperson, told HuffPost.

“The American people support student loan relief, reforming marijuana policy, and the historic actions the president and congressional Democrats have taken to fight the climate crisis and generate new manufacturing jobs all over the country at once,” he added.

There are obvious caveats. Republican advertising on crime and record-high inflation levels has proven effective, so there is little reason for the GOP to broach other topics. But it’s still striking to watch Biden achieve long-standing Democratic goals with little disagreement from a party fiercely devoted to opposing him.

The White House pointed to Biden’s approach on climate as emblematic of how he managed to avoid provoking a backlash from Republican officeholders and the broader electorate.

“It’s clear that the politics of climate change have shifted, and Republicans know that they’re on the wrong side of public opinion.”

- Democratic strategist Jared Leopold

Compared to the Democrats’ climate push in 2010, which centered around a cap-and-trade system the GOP argued would lift energy costs and hurt business, Biden and the broader climate movement instead emphasized subsidies for clean energy. Discussing the latter would create additional jobs, an argument the public bought.

In a speech last week in Hagerstown, Maryland, and other public appearances, Biden has touted the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and a bipartisan package supporting the semiconductor industry. He argued the GOP’s plan to repeal the climate package — something House Republicans have promised to push if they win control of the chamber in the midterm elections — would kill a manufacturing revitalization in the cradle.

“We made a historic government investment in America, and it’s spurring incredible private-sector investment in America,” Biden said in Hagerstown, pointing to announcements of new plants and jobs in New York, Ohio and elsewhere.

None of the wins have turned around the Democrats’ political fortunes or Biden’s middle standing with the public. Republicans are still favored to win control of the House of Representatives after November, and the Senate remains a toss-up.

However, they have helped improve Biden’s standing with some critical blocs of the Democratic base, including Black and young voters. Since both groups tend to drop out of the electorate during midterm years, minor improvements could make or break the party’s chances in key states.

“It’s a safe bet that Biden’s approval will tick upwards again after his marijuana announcement just like it did after the student debt announcement,” said Stephanie Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which worked on student loan forgiveness for years with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “That’s because when Democrats do popular things, people like it.”

But the popularity of each move varies. Marijuana reform, up to and including full legalization, is very popular. A Data for Progress poll found roughly two-thirds of the electorate backed pardons for nonviolent marijuana users, the centerpiece of Biden’s announcement on Thursday. (He also directed Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to review the classification of marijuana under the federal Controlled Substances Act.)

So it’s not surprising that the official organs of the GOP ignored Biden’s announcement rather than start a political war they might be destined to lose. The Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee were all silent, as were key congressional leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Other polls have shown marijuana reform splitting Republican voters. For instance, a Pew Research Center survey found younger Republicans were almost as likely as their Democratic counterparts to support legalization. But just 27% of Republicans over the age of 65 supported the legalization of cannabis.

The climate provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act have also generally proved popular in public surveys. However, disentangling them from the more significant legislation — which raised taxes on corporations and gave Medicare the power to negotiate prescription drug prices — is difficult.

But compared to the 2010 midterm, when a failed effort to pass climate legislation nonetheless led to a barrage of ads against vulnerable House Democrats, the absence is striking.

“In 2010, you couldn’t turn on a TV set without seeing a Republican ad attacking the cap-and-trade bill,” said Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist. He worked for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that cycle and later worked for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate-focused presidential bid. “It’s clear that the politics of climate change have shifted, and Republicans know that they’re on the wrong side of public opinion.”

One major factor was the lack of an industry campaign against the legislation, compared to the Chamber of Commerce’s barrage of advertising against the Affordable Care Act and climate legislation ahead of the 2010 midterms.

“Rising education polarization and the unpopularity of Trump mean that the C-suite is more Democratic than it’s ever been,” said Sean McElwee, the executive director of the Democratic polling outfit Data For Progress. “You didn’t have a unified business community backing the Republican Party for ideological reasons.”

The trickiest proposition remains student loan forgiveness. The policy has always divided the public, with a New York Times/Siena College poll released last month finding 49% of registered voters supporting forgiving $10,000 worth of student debt and 46% opposed.

But the seemingly simple class politics of the issue, asking an electorate of primarily high school graduates to subsidize the student loans of the educated, led pundits across the political spectrum to predict a fierce backlash. (This analysis ignores that 40% of people with student debt do not have a bachelor’s degree.)

That backlash never arrived. “The idea that this was going to be some sort of ‘wow, this is favoritism, this is financial recklessness, this is favoritism, this is a handout.’ If it doesn’t affect you, who gives a shit?” said Ben Wessel, the former executive director of NextGen America, which long pushed for student debt relief. “And if it does affect you, it’s awesome.”

At the same time, the plan’s popularity has held up partly because it is much smaller than progressives originally envisioned. While Warren and others pushed for $50,000 or more forgiveness per borrower, Biden instead forgave $10,000 for most borrowers making less than $125,000 and $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients. Biden’s decision to means-test and limit the total amount canceled per borrower lowered the overall cost of the program dramatically. While Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ original proposal to wipe out all student debt would have cost $1.2 trillion, the Congressional Budget Office says Biden’s plan will cost just $379 billion over three decades.

That approach ensured more benefits flowed to the working and middle classes — 90% of those eligible make less than $75,000 a year — and protected the proposal’s popularity.

“If we had done a mass cancellation, you would have seen much bigger backlash from Republicans who could say we were helping the wealthy on the backs of working-class voters,” McElwee said. “Targeting relief to working- and middle-class voters made the policy stronger with voters.”

Republicans, so far, have aired two ads attacking Democrats over debt cancellation. The first is a cheeky ad from a conservative nonprofit pretending to praise Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) for his Biden-friendly stances. It includes student loan forgiveness among a laundry list of other purported progressive stances and achievements.

The second, from the GOP’s main Senate super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, attacks Democratic senate candidate Cheri Beasley for supporting Biden’s plan using the exact rhetoric one would expect.

“It’s a question of fairness: Should a waitress pay for a doctor’s student loans? Cheri Beasley thinks so,” a female narrator says in the ad. “She backs student loan bailouts for the rich.”

The ad, however, only appeared after Beasley’s campaign attacked the Republican nominee, Rep. Ted Budd, for voting against job training and apprenticeship programs.

“Cheri Beasley gets it,” a worker says in the ad. “She knows that you shouldn’t need to go to college to get a good job.”

And the journey of student loan forgiveness is far from over. The White House and Department of Education are still working to implement the plan, saying recently they hope to roll out an online application form by the end of October. At the same time, conservative groups and Republican attorneys general are filing lawsuits aiming to stop forgiveness from going into effect.

“Republican officials from these states are standing with special interests and fighting to stop relief for borrowers buried under mountains of debt,” White House spokesman Abdullah Hasan said.

And if Republicans have not made a sport of slamming loan forgiveness, Democrats are not necessarily embracing it either. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), who pushed Biden to implement the policy, has not mentioned it in his television advertising but has featured it extensively in digital ads.

And Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who is defending a swing seat in suburban Virginia, didn’t exactly jump to embrace it when HuffPost asked her about it last month.

“A lot of people are gonna be helped significantly,” she said. “The one challenge, which I want to make sure that we in Congress don’t forget, is this still leaves a lot of open-ended questions about college affordability.”

Still, some Democrats see an opportunity to promote the plan to Black and young voters but said the party needs to do more messaging.

“What we are finding in focus groups as we talk about student loans is that there are parts of the policy that are more appealing, especially to voters of color, than just a $10,000 forgiveness,” Terrence Woodbury, a Democratic pollster and CEO of HIT Strategies, told reporters during an NAACP press briefing earlier this month. “The way it disproportionately impacts Pell Grant recipients, that it reduces interest rates, that it lowers [income-based repayment rates] from 10% to 5%. There are parts of the policy that gives them a greater opportunity to message here that doesn’t happen just by passing the policy.”

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