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Democrats Used To Run From Big Government Label; They're Now Embracing It

Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state are betting that the era of big government is back.
J. Scott Applewhite
Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state are betting that the era of big government is back.

After years of avoiding words such as redistribution and labels such as socialist, the core of the Democratic Party is embracing big government.

The coronavirus pandemic, a changing party makeup and a softening approach to debt and deficit have combined to give Democrats the space to embrace expensive policies and federal government expansion that would have been unheard of a few years ago. President Biden is leading the charge, and many Democrats, not just progressives, are eagerly jumping on board.

In less than 100 days, Biden and congressional Democrats have passed the second-largest stimulus bill in U.S. history and launched an infrastructure plan that would spend trillions to remake the economy over the next decade. Polls show significant public support, even as Republicans in Congress have uniformly opposed the president's plans.

It's a dynamic Biden is facing without apology.

"I haven't been able to unite the Congress," Biden told reporters at the White House. "But I've been able to unite the country, based on the polling data."

Democrats are betting that a majority of voters, including many Republicans, actually want the federal government to step in and help heal the social and economic wounds caused by the pandemic.

Republicans argue that voters may like checks and support today, but the policies Biden is advocating, particularly changes to oil and gas production and an expanded focus on climate change, are far too progressive for average Americans.

Republicans called Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package a Trojan horse for left-wing policies as they voted against it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has repeatedly referred to Biden's plans, particularly on infrastructure, as a liberal wish list.

"Joe Biden may have won the nomination," McConnell told reporters in his home state of Kentucky. "But I think Bernie Sanders won the war over what the Democratic Party is these days."

So far, the majority of Democratic leaders are ignoring that message.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has explicitly embraced the term big government. He said the crisis caused by the coronavirus made clear that people want help and they want it to be more than just a one-time check from the federal government.

"We need big, bold change, and the federal government has to be a big part of it," Schumer told reporters last month in the Capitol. "I believe the American people want it and are ready for it."

It is a dramatic shift for a party that spent millions of dollars during the 2018 and 2020 campaigns carefully avoiding talk of big structural change and warding off the word "socialist."

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of Democratic leadership and chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said Democrats are simply addressing persistent problems that the coronavirus exacerbated.

"You just look at so many women in the workforce today who have quietly stressed every single day about how they were going to get their kids to school and get to their job, and were they being paid enough? And did they have health care? And oh, gosh, is the child care provider going to show up? Or is there a place for my kid, you just stress through it," Murray said in an interview. "And now they realize that on their own, they can't deal with that; we need a country that helps us together solve these problems."

Democrats are responding to those questions with long-standing policy ideas that couldn't previously get traction. Murray said people are ready for the policies now — and they like them.

"They're not saying, 'Leave us alone. Don't worry. We'll take care of this,' " she said. "I think some of the bigger impacts are just people seeing some of the stress taken off their individual life that has just kept them under for so long."

The shift in approach has been driven by more than the immediate needs of a public health crisis. Much has changed for Democrats in recent years, including the central philosophy of the people elected from the party.

Traditionally big spending, such as $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 relief and the idea of more than $2 trillion for infrastructure, would set off alarm bells about the deficit. That's what happened in 2009 when then-President Barack Obama passed a fraction of the spending Democrats are discussing now.

Phil Schiliro, a Democratic strategist and Obama's legislative director in 2009, said a number of Democrats in Congress truly viewed themselves as deficit hawks. The party as a whole worked to avoid being branded as big spenders.

Schiliro said Democrats have also shifted away from worrying about the deficit as they watched Republicans do the same.

"The first thing the Republican majority did with Donald Trump was pass the $2 trillion tax cuts, and the deficits exploded again," Schiliro said. "I think most Democrats have figured out this isn't on the level, that there's a double standard: one rule for Democratic presidents, and a different rule for Republican presidents."

With deficits on the back burner old Democratic ideas about big government had room to grow. Plus, many of the deficit-driven Democrats retired or lost reelection in the last decade.

"In the beginning of 2009, there were 58 Democrats, 14 of them, at least 14 came from Republican states," he said. "So putting aside any pressures from Republicans, there had to be a real effort to find common ground among Democrats."

Now, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is one of the only Democrats representing a state that former President Donald Trump won in 2020. And Manchin has made it clear he doesn't like partisan tactics, such as using budget reconciliation or ending the filibuster to pass all of this spending with a simple majority of Democrats in the Senate.

But there's still support for Biden's plans among many other moderate Democrats. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., represents a district Trump won twice. She said people there aren't complaining about spending or socialism or Senate tactics.

"They want us to figure out how we're going to get the job done. I don't hear anybody bring up to me reconciliation," Bustos said in an interview. "I'm not getting asked about the filibuster. I'm being asked to get the job done."

The main risk for Democrats, Bustos said, is that voters need the party to follow through on the promise of jobs and growth, with or without bipartisanship or GOP buy-in.

"I hope that we'll be able to come together," she said. "But if the other side of the aisle is not willing to do that, we're still going to get the job done."

Another risk is that the more progressive wing of the party is already warning that Biden's plans are too small. In an interview with NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said this of Biden's infrastructure plan: "It's disappointing. The size of it is disappointing. It's not enough."

Ocasio-Cortez wants something closer to $10 trillion, meaning Democrats may still have to revisit their past woes of finding agreement among themselves.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.

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