The Corner

Politics & Policy

The COVID-Relief Bill and the Democratic Party’s Decadence

President Biden signs the American Rescue Plan at the White House in Washington, D.C., March 11, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

We hear a lot these days about how the Republican Party has no ideas, is obsessed with the past, etc. But today, with President Biden’s signing of the $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package Democrats favored, it is the Democratic Party that embodies these tendencies. Specifically, it embodies the decadence that Ross Douthat, invoking Jacques Barzun, made the subject of his most recent book. Here’s Barzun:

All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off.’ It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.

Forget, for a moment, the many horrible policies unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic actually contained in the bill, and just think about how familiar this all is. In 2009, early in his administration, President Obama, too, signed a gigantic spending bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Its connection to the actual financial crisis we were dealing with at the time was also dubious. It passed with only three Republican votes (in the Senate); this time, the American Rescue Plan Act passed with no Senate Republican votes. To be fair, Harry Reid was Senate majority leader then; Chuck Schumer, then merely vice chair of the Senate Democratic caucus, has taken the reins since, after a long McConnell interlude. The Obama stimulus was shepherded through the House by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who performed the same function this time. It was signed into law by Joe Biden, who was Barack Obama’s vice president in 2009, and who is now surrounded by Obama administration alums, at least one of whom was motivated by twelve-year-old grudges in his actions here.

We shouldn’t really be surprised. Washington is all Biden really knows. Before serving for eight years as vice president, a time he basically ran in 2020 on promising to restore, he spent decades in the Senate doing little of consequence. This includes even some things he has since repudiated to account for the leftward lurch of his party, one of the only other novelties associated with this just-passed bill. He otherwise proceeds in rote fashion, from a kind of muscle memory accumulated from his decades in and around power.

Aside from its heightened liberal flavor, the only thing truly novel about the COVID-relief bill is its size, more than twice that of the Obama stimulus. So next time someone tells you that the Democratic Party is the party of the future, keep in mind that the apparent extent of its innovations is to spend more money. A reminder might be necessary a decade or so from now, when Democrats may pass a $4 trillion spending bill under similar circumstances, based on this pattern.


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