The Radical Normal

The Fight Over Unemployment Benefits Underscores the Right’s Extremism

Under George W. Bush, the GOP never balked at extending unemployment benefits, but that was then. Their newfound intransigence on this issue proves afresh that the party has been hijacked by extremists.

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So this is showdown week in Congress for extension of unemployment benefits. Frankly, it looks bleak. No, it’s not that the public is against it. In fact far from it—58 percent support the extension in a new poll. But as I’ve written a kajillion times these last few years, it unfortunately doesn’t much matter what the people think. Republicans in Congress care only about the views of the more radical half of their party. And in that same poll, Republicans opposed the extension 54-42.

As long as that remains the case (and there’s no reason it’s likely to change), “UI,” as they call it on the Hill, seems a heavy lift. Republicans are insisting on cuts from elsewhere in the federal budget to pay for the benefits’ $6.4 billion cost. And Democrats are talking with them. But there’s no progress yet. In fact, it seems today that even the six Republicans who voted in the Senate last week to allow debate to proceed would not vote to extend the benefits just yet.

But let’s take a step back here, because introducing a little bit of historical context shows just how extreme the Republicans’ position is, and it shows us how, over time, what used to be crazy-radical becomes normal with the people.

When George W. Bush was president, noted Labor Secretary Thomas Perez on Jim Lehrer’s PBS show last week, unemployment benefits were extended five times, “no strings attached any of those times.” So as long as it was a Republican president under whom their constituents were out of work, they were happy to vote to extend the benefits. The last extension under Bush, in late 2008, passed 368-28 in the House of Representatives. Remember, this was with no “pay-fors,” in the argot. This vote took place a month before Election Day, which may have partly motivated 142 Republicans to vote for it with only the real hard-shellers going against it.

Now let’s move forward to 2010. We have a new president from a different party. The economy is struggling. The Republicans of course haven’t exactly been supportive of Barack Obama’s agenda, but on this one, they’re ready to agree. All but one. Jim Bunning, then a GOP senator from Kentucky, insisted that he wasn’t against extending such benefits, but he was against increasing the deficit by a few billion bucks.

But even then, the Senate GOP leadership wasn’t with Bunning. I remember that time well. Bunning had a few defenders among his colleagues, but basically, his position was seen as extreme by Democrats and even many or possibly most Republicans. Bunning finally got the message after a couple of weeks of antics—which included him whining that his noble filibuster against helping the nation’s jobless was preventing him from watching an important Kentucky Wildcats basketball game—and relented.

But what was considered extreme and nutty then is standard operating procedure today. A key development here was Rand Paul saying a couple of weeks ago that benefits beyond 26 weeks just make people lazy. That unleashed the right-wing id. In addition to that, of course, there’s the standing GOP House opposition to anything with Obama’s name on it. And this is how radical becomes normal.

Friday, I was at a meeting with a group of House Democratic lawmakers. They offered a few ideas about how they might get Republicans to agree. John Garamendi of California talked about a few billion being spent on a program in Afghanistan that he thought the GOP might play ball on. There were a few other notions, but none of them, I noticed, bruited with much confidence that they’d actually get anywhere.

Several echoed Connecticut’s Rosa DeLauro in saying that they just have to win the battle in the court of public opinion. “These are Americans’ stories,” DeLauro said. “When people hear them, they’re moved.” There’s no doubt that that’s true. But it was true of gun safety, and it was true of immigration reform, and numerous other things.

I don’t know if the Democrats can win this on the floor. Maybe the horrible jobs report from December helps a little, maybe not. But since public opinion is already on their side, they can at least take this issue and make it hurt Republicans in states with high unemployment or Republicans who are singing a different tune than they did in 2010, a list that starts with Mitch McConnell, who agreed to the 2010 extension and is now going around saying that if Democrats want UI benefits extended, they’d have to agree to a one-year delay in the individual mandate under Obamacare.

And if Democrats win, great. But it looks like they’ll only win by agreeing to the pay-for demand, which means that there’ll be new demands next time. There’s no end to how far right these people will go.