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Why lawmakers who voted against President Biden’s popular policies take credit for them before midterms

In their year and a half in power, Democrats have put in place policies that are widely popular. The infrastructure projects provided for under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act are so popular, in fact, that Republicans who voted against the law are nonetheless taking credit for them.

Voters have long called for Medicare to be able to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies (83% in favor), now made possible by the Inflation Reduction Act, which also caps certain drug expenses, including the cost of insulin. Between 80 and 90% of Americans want basic gun control laws—the Democrats just passed the first one in decades—and a majority want funding for action against climate change (65%) and relief for educational debt (55%).

Support for supplying Ukraine against Russia stands at 73%, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken in early October. Support for Ukraine was a bipartisan commitment that changed only after Trump had the 2016 Republican platform, which had expressed support for Ukraine, watered down.

What has not been popular in the past year and a half, in fact, what has been quite unpopular, is the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. About 62% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while only 8% believe it should be illegal in all cases, and 28% believe it should be illegal in most cases.

Since June, when the Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs decision, the news has reported multiple cases of raped children unable to obtain abortions in their home states, girls and women unable to obtain medications to treat long-term illnesses because those drugs can also induce abortion, women diagnosed with cancer who cannot get treatment, women whose fetuses have conditions incompatible with life and who cannot terminate the pregnancy, and women whose health is at risk as they are unable to obtain the healthcare they need as they are miscarrying — all of this just as abortion rights advocates warned would happen if the court overturned Roe v. Wade. Since the Dobbs decision, Democrats have outperformed expectations in four special House elections and one state referendum.

The popularity of the Democrats’ agenda and the unpopularity of their own appear to have pushed the Republicans to go for broke, courting their base by demanding the utter destruction of Democrats’ policies and the reinstatement of their own.

Since the 1980s, Republican leaders have embraced the idea that cutting taxes and concentrating wealth at the top of the economy will spark economic growth, although “supply side” economics has never produced as promised. They insist the programs Biden and the Democrats back are “socialism,” and their base agrees. Their base also hates abortion rights.

To sidestep the gulf between their base and the majority of voters, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) declined to announce any sort of an agenda before the midterm elections, telling donors that party leaders would just attack the Democrats.

There have been signs, though, of what the Republicans will do if they regain control of one or both of the houses of Congress, and top of the list was cutting the programs at the heart of our social welfare system: Social Security and Medicare. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) called for sunsetting all laws every five years and repassing them; Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) called for making Social Security and Medicare part of the discretionary budget, meaning their funding would have to be reapproved every year.

Republicans have also said they would pass a law to make the 2017 Trump tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations permanent, a move economists say would increase inflation. “The trick is to put the president in a position of either getting defeated in 2024 or signing your stuff into law,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich told Jeff Stein of the Washington Post. “Republicans will make it a priority to continue the Trump tax cuts, because it puts the Democrats in a position of being for tax increases and against economic growth.”

Recently, though, Republicans have been much clearer, warning that they will refuse to raise the debt ceiling in order to force Biden to agree to their demands to “reform” Social Security and Medicare by raising the age of eligibility and means testing. Democrats have said they would stabilize the programs with higher taxes on the wealthy.

This is a huge deal. While Trump has urged MAGA Republicans in the past to use the threat of the debt ceiling to get concessions, responsible Republicans have refused to play chicken with the global financial markets and with our own financial future, for defaulting even for a matter of hours will wash away our financial might. Raising the debt ceiling is not a future blank check, it enables the U.S. to meet bills it has already incurred, and refusing to do so will throw the U.S. into a catastrophic default. Congress has raised the debt ceiling repeatedly in the past forty years, but Republicans have apparently come around to Trump’s position that playing to their base is worth taking the U.S. hostage.

Republicans are also signaling a change in U.S. support for Ukraine. Although current Republican leaders have supported aid to Ukraine, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) suggested on October 18 that if the Republicans regain the majority thanks to more MAGA candidates, they will oppose giving more aid to Ukraine in the war with Russia. Putin has just launched the largest wave of airstrikes against Ukraine since the early days of the war, hitting civilian areas with the plan to cut off gas and electricity before the winter.

And, of course, after the Supreme Court justified striking down Roe v. Wade by saying abortion should be a state decision, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced a bill to ban abortion nationally. On October 18, Biden pledged to push a law protecting abortion rights if voters return the few more lawmakers Democrats need to accomplish that.

Republicans have sold their unpopular program in part by maintaining a narrative vision of the world that tells MAGA supporters what they want to hear. Since the beginning of Trump’s term, a key part of that narrative has been that the FBI investigation of the ties between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russian operatives was a witch hunt. In April 2019, Trump’s attorney general William Barr tapped U.S. attorney John Durham to discredit that investigation.

Journalist and professor Bill Grueskin collected the headlines from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page for the past year. They read: “Durham Cracks the Russia Case,” “Durham Delivers on Russiagate,” “John Durham Shows How the FBI Lets Its Informants Mislead It,” and so on.

But that’s not how it panned out. Durham ultimately indicted three men. One pleaded guilty to altering an email in a different case; he got probation. Durham accused another of lying to the FBI; a jury acquitted him. Durham indicted a third, Igor Danchenko, for lying to the FBI; and a jury acquitted him as well. Durham used the trial to rail against the FBI, but his inability to win a conviction after more than three years of work undermines the MAGA narrative that Durham was going to find the goods to pin a witch hunt on bad FBI agents and acquit Trump once and for all.

A new audiobook from veteran journalist Bob Woodward tore down another MAGA story on October 18 when it revealed an audiotape of Trump calling the letters he wrote to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “top secret” in January 2021. Clearly, he knew they were classified, despite his claims now that he didn’t take anything special. Further, he let Woodward see and transcribe the classified documents.

Will the puncturing of these narratives matter? At some level, no; they are about mythmaking and social identity. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) celebrated her visit to the Wilder Monument at the Chickamauga (she misspelled it) battlefield in Georgia. She identified the monument as honoring Confederate soldiers and boasted that she “will always defend our nation’s history.” But, in fact, the Wilder Brigade, also known as the Lightning Brigade, was not Confederate; it was from the United States.

The point, though, was likely not accuracy: it was to “own” the “Libs” by celebrating the Confederacy.

Will reinforcing that identity for the Republican base be enough for the party to win the midterms? It is anyone’s guess. But early voting in Georgia smashed the state’s previous record for first-day votes cast in a midterm election. In 2018 the first day of voting brought in 71,000 voters. Today that number hit more than 130,000.

Еrіn Scоtt and Аdаm Schυltz / The White House

Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics

About The Author

Heather Cox Richardson

Dr. Heather Cox Richardson is a political historian who uses facts and history to make observations about contemporary American politics. Her new book, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, is thought-provoking study of the centuries-spanning battle between oligarchy and equality in America.