Do Fox News viewers even know about the American Rescue Act, the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill that passed the Senate? They might not. The network, like most right-wing media, has largely ignored the Covid-19 relief legislation, instead fixating on silly culture-war controversies involving Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss. In the days leading up to the Senate vote, the network was far more concerned with the availability of Dr. Seuss’s Scrambled Eggs Super than it was with any aspect of the bill itself.
Republican politicians have largely followed suit, though they have, from time to time, trotted out the usual talking points: The bill is too big, it’s too “partisan,” it’s a Trojan horse for unrelated liberal priorities, people will hate it once they find out what’s in it. But these criticisms are unusually half-hearted, especially when compared to the relish with which Republicans have been tossing out one-liners about children’s toys and books. (“Mr. Potato Head was America’s first transgender doll and even he got canceled,” said Matt Gaetz at CPAC.)
The lack of criticism from the GOP has meant that the American Rescue Act is one of the most popular pieces of legislation in decades. “The American Rescue Plan is a bolder, more progressive, economic package than anything a Democratic president has proposed since L.B.J,” wrote Ezra Klein in The New York Times. “But it is not, for now, a polarizing package.”
This is not only a reflection of the lack of attention being paid to the bill on right-wing and conservative media. It also shows what happens when the press is starved of conflict. The GOP has essentially forfeited contesting the bill in the court of public opinion. As a result, the press has devoted more energy to covering the contents of the bill itself—particularly its landmark child tax credit expansion, its pension relief for millions of workers, and its expansion of Obamacare—than to bad-faith concern-trolling about the deficit.
The media relies on the two parties to set its priorities and dictate its coverage. In the past, the GOP has excelled at working the refs to produce panics about government spending and the debt that will be left to our children. The press has been a willing and active partner in this fraud, conveniently ignoring the Republican Party’s deficit hypocrisy whenever it slashes taxes while bolstering a misleading narrative: Democrats spend like drunken sailors, while the GOP is the party of “fiscal responsibility.”
But after four years of Donald Trump, which were highlighted by an obsession with cultural concerns, a multitrillion-dollar corporate tax cut, and two direct cash payments from the government, the right is barely even trying to make these arguments. “Traditional conservative principles, whether it’s commitment to a strong national defense or support for limited government, do not animate Republican voters,” Daniel Cox, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told CNN.
Eleven years ago, the debate over Obama’s much smaller stimulus package was very different. The Republican Party made the case that lowering the deficit was more important than stimulating the economy, even though we were in the middle of a historic recession. The GOP’s credibility on this issue was not much stronger then than it is now—it had, at that point, spent George W. Bush’s two terms in office cutting taxes for the rich and spending trillions of dollars on futile wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. But the scent of partisan conflict overwhelmed these facts; the Obama-era press took the GOP at its word, pushing a narrative in which one party wanted to spend, while the other was serious about budget constraints.
To its credit, the mainstream press has largely rolled its eyes at the culture-war issues animating conservative media of late. These are not serious issues, and they do not deserve to be treated seriously, let alone given wall-to-wall coverage. Some invested in pushing the culture war have argued that voters will care more in November 2022 about Dr. Seuss than they will about the money Biden and the Democrats put in their pocket, as Erick Erickson argued on Twitter. But it may very well be that the obsession with cultural issues is emerging from a place of weakness rather than strength. The American Rescue Act is projected to make a lot of people’s lives much, much better. As a result, conservative media has decided to ignore it altogether.
The lack of serious Republican opposition has short-circuited the mainstream media’s preferred mode of covering substantive issues, which is to boil them down to conflicting talking points. Absent partisan critiques, more press attention has focused on the actual substance of the bill: the $1,400 checks, the child tax credit, Obamacare fixes, the funding for vaccine distribution and testing. In another age, much of this attention would have been eaten up with arguments about “our children and grandchildren footing the bill,” despite convincing evidence that borrowing costs remain stubbornly low.
Without Republicans delivering any significant criticism beyond the “partisan” nature of the bill, the media’s sense of where the center is has shifted. Joe Manchin’s tour of the Sunday shows is a case in point. Manchin toured the shows by presenting himself as a representative not of the Democratic Party but of the “commonsense middle.” Manchin’s appearances were also something of a victory lap, acknowledging the fact that the West Virginia Democrat is seemingly the most powerful senator in the country. “You are on four Sunday shows today,” an amused Chris Wallace observed to Manchin on Fox News Sunday, “are you enjoying your position of power maybe a little too much?”
Manchin stammered a denial, despite the fact that he was obviously enjoying his newfound position of power—why else would you spend your Sunday in such a manner? But Manchin was also touring a media landscape that has vastly changed over the past five years. Republicans have not only retreated from meaningful policymaking but from engaging policy at all. They are more than happy to spend all of their time in a safe space of their own making, where Mr. Potato Head’s genitals are the most pressing issue of the moment. The political press is only just starting to wake up to this reality, and it’s a boon for us all.