The inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris was an astonishingly emotional moment. I know I wasn’t alone in suddenly, unexpectedly finding myself tearing up. For a little while it felt as if we were living in a dream — a dream about the nation we should be, a land of decency, honesty, justice and unity in diversity. (E pluribus unum, to coin a phrase.)
But now the work begins, and it won’t be easy. Biden spoke movingly about unity, but let’s face it: He won’t sway many people in the other party.
Some, perhaps most, of the opposition he’ll face will come from people who are deeply corrupt. And even among Republicans acting in good faith he’ll have to contend with deep-seated cluelessness, the result of the intellectual bubble the right has lived in for many years.
Let’s start with the face of corruption: Ted Cruz. OK, there are other prominent Republicans just as bad or worse — hello, Josh Hawley. But Cruz epitomizes the bad faith Biden will have to contend with.
Cruz is, or used to be, a smart man — ask him and he’ll tell you (although in my experience people secure in their intellectual bona fides don’t boast about their academic credentials). But he has spent many years pursuing power by trying to appeal to the worst instincts of the Republican base. Most notably, he has been among the leading voices pushing the false narrative of a stolen election and bears significant responsibility for the sacking of the Capitol.
He and his allies failed to overturn the democratic process. But he didn’t wait, even briefly, before demagoguing the policies of the new president. Just hours after the inauguration he sneered that Biden, by rejoining the Paris climate agreement, indicated that “he’s more interested in the views of the citizens of Paris than in the jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh.”
The stupidity, it burns. It’s called the Paris agreement because that’s where it was signed, not because it represents Parisian interests. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked, “Do you also believe the Geneva Convention was about the views of the citizens of Geneva?”
But again, Cruz isn’t stupid, he just imagines that voters are. What he’s really doing is offering us an early taste of the unprincipled opposition Biden can expect from the anti-democracy wing of the GOP, which appears to be most of the party.
Still, there are some Republicans with principles. Unfortunately, they’ll be a problem, too.
Mitt Romney deserves a lot of credit for standing up to the authoritarians who dominate his party. He was the only Republican senator who voted to convict Donald Trump after the late-2019 impeachment; he congratulated Biden and Harris almost as soon as the election was called, in stark contrast even to Mitch McConnell, who waited more than a month.
But that doesn’t mean that he’ll be helpful. After the inauguration, Romney expressed opposition to a new economic relief package, declaring: “We just passed a $900 billion-plus package. Let’s give that some time to be able to influence the economy.”
Now, Romney has earned the presumption that, unlike other Republicans opposing relief, he’s honestly trying to do the right thing. But that’s an utterly clueless remark, indicating that he doesn’t understand what Biden’s proposed package is all about.
While coronavirus relief legislation is often called “stimulus,” that’s not what Biden is trying to do. The economy in 2021 isn’t like the economy in 2009, depressed because there isn’t enough demand; we haven’t fully recovered because we’re still on partial lockdown, with some activities curtailed by the risk of infection.
The goal of policy in this situation isn’t to pump up spending, getting people to eat out and travel. It is, instead, to help people, businesses and local governments get through the difficult period until widespread vaccination lets us go back to business as usual.
And we know, as certainly as we know anything in economics, that the economy will be depressed at least into the summer and probably beyond. The last package didn’t provide remotely enough aid to get us through those months. Asking whether that package boosted the economy therefore completely misses the point; it’s obvious that America needs another round of disaster relief.
So how is it that Romney, who definitely isn’t a stupid man, doesn’t understand the most basic aspects of pandemic economics? My guess, as I already suggested, is that in the years since he was governor of Massachusetts he has shut himself into the conservative intellectual bubble, and he no longer listens to sensible economic analysis, or knows what it sounds like.
What hope is there, then, for bipartisanship? Much of Biden’s opposition, as the poet Amanda Gorman declaimed, “would shatter our nation, rather than share it.” And even patriots on the right are befuddled by ideology.
So the new administration will have to be aggressive, using whatever legislative strategies it must to get big things done. By all means, let Biden try to unify the nation; but first, he has to save it.
Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.