President Joe Biden and red-state Republicans are star-crossed lovers.
The Biden administration’s coronavirus pandemic rescue plans are like ardent valentines to the very voters who rejected him in November, disproportionately aiding rural red states with investments in broadband, health care, bridge repair, and straight-out stimulus cash. And yet Biden’s overtures to Republicans are unrequited, at least in Congress. Closing in on his first 100 days in office, Biden has remained true to his vow to “fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.” But the objects of his affection are still being coy.
The $2,000 in total stimulus checks that Americans began receiving over the past few months provide a bigger boost for the poorest families, most of whom live in red states. One analysis estimates that Americans in the lowest income quintile (earning less than $21,000) will get an average raise of almost 30 percent from the stimulus checks alone, to say nothing of the child tax credits and direct aid to states that are also part of Biden’s rescue plan.
The three states with the lowest median incomes in the country are West Virginia, Mississippi, and Arkansas. The pandemic relief bill includes cash aid to 890,000 families in West Virginia, as part of an overall $4 billion in direct aid for the state. And yet the entire Republican delegation of West Virginia spurned the bill. Senator Carol Miller claimed that only a small amount of the $1.9 trillion rescue plan would go directly to vaccinations and testing. “I raise bison, and I know bull when I see it,” she tweeted. As if the severe economic dislocations of the past year were not pandemic-related. West Virginia was just one of the Republican-dominated delegations that, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it, “vote no and take the dough.”
Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure bill similarly tilts to the red states. Almost three-quarters of all bridges in America are rural, representing 79 percent of the US bridges that are listed as structurally unsound. In a recent report, Kentucky got a D+ grade for its roads and a C- for bridges, and yet Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has vowed to fight the Biden infrastructure bill “every step of the way.” The infrastructure bill also includes money to repair levees, dams, water pipes (critical in Mississippi), and the electric grid (ditto for Texas), not to mention extending broadband access to vast swaths of rural America currently without this vital service.
Even the Biden administration’s accelerated COVID-19 vaccine rollouts will help red states the most. Of the 10 states with the lowest share of population having received the vaccine as of April, seven voted for Donald Trump in the last election, and the remaining three all voted red in 2016.
Finally, though it is on hold for the moment, Biden’s plan to raise the federal minimum wage also will help red-state residents the most. Seventeen of the 20 states that peg their minimum wage to the federal minimum ($7.25 an hour, a rate that has not increased in 12 years) are the reddest of the red — states Trump won twice. In Iowa, for example, a boost in the minimum wage would benefit nearly a half-million workers. And yet Iowa Senator Joni Ernst opposes Biden’s proposal “as a mother,” saying a hike in wages for childcare workers would increase the cost. “Many families would not be able to afford childcare,” she lamented. Never mind what the childcare workers can afford on $7.25 an hour.
Of course, the views of congressional Republicans do not necessarily match what their constituents believe. Recent polls show a majority of Republican voters support Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package. Lower-income Republicans are even more in favor, likely because they know they stand to benefit most.
All of this raises the question: Why would congressional Republicans continue to scorn Biden’s courtship if it would so clearly help their constituents? Perhaps they know that if Biden succeeds, and targeted government relief helps real people, it will give the lie to the entire Republican orthodoxy: that government is the problem. They have carried a torch for their ideological dreamboat, Ronald Reagan, for so long that they can’t imagine a different, fairer future.
The heart wants what it wants, as the poet wrote. But since theirs appear to be made of stone, maybe these Republicans should try using their heads.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.