WASHINGTON – Tim Phillips had some straight talk for fellow “freedom fighters” who gathered in an Iowa restaurant in April.
Their side lost the first few months of the “big, big battle” going on in Washington as Congress passed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package, said Phillips, head of the fiscally conservative group Americans for Prosperity. But it’s still possible to stop the more than $4 trillion in additional spending that President Joe Biden has proposed.
“In the next few months, Washington, D.C., is going to be making some decisions that could literally dramatically transform our country,” Phillips said as he urged the gathering of more than 160 people to “do more than you’ve ever done before.”
That meeting, held in the district of Rep. Cindy Axne, a moderate Democrat who is among the top targets for Republicans in the midterm elections, was the first of more than 100 events around the country that AFP has in the works for a major campaign that kicks into gear next week.
In details provided first to USA TODAY, the group’s “End Washington Waste: Stop the Spending Spree” campaign also includes several million dollars in advertising to pair with the planned rallies, town halls, phone banks and door-to-door canvassing.
"This spending spree we're seeing out of Washington, D.C., is both unprecedented and unsustainable," Phillips told USA TODAY.
Even with the influx of cash and mobilization of a nationwide network, it remains to be seen whether conservatives can generate the kind of grassroots activism that roiled lawmakers’ districts when Democrats debated how to overhaul the health care system in 2009. Democrats eventually passed the Affordable Care Act, with no support from Republicans, but lost the House in the 2010 midterm elections.
The lawmakers being pressured include more moderate Democrats and those representing politically competitive seats in Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, New Jersey and Oregon. The initial target list also includes a moderate Republican, Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick, who sometimes crosses party lines to vote with Democrats.
Echoes of the ACA?
Former President Barack Obama, in his memoir, described the “Tea Party summer” of 2009 when he was greeted by angry protesters as he traveled the country to discuss his health care plan. He wrote that the Tea Party represented a genuine populist surge, even if he thought some of the anger was misdirected and that it was “carefully nurtured” by groups like Americans for Prosperity.
Vanessa Williamson, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied the Tea Party, said Americans for Prosperity was one of the groups that, recognizing the opportunity presented by Tea Party enthusiasm, stepped in to organize that conservative energy.
“And they benefited hugely from it,” she said, “and massively expanded their reach on the ground.”
But, Williamson added, some of the tea partiers’ opposition to Obama was about him, personally, as the first Black president, who some conservatives falsely claimed was not born in the United States. Biden doesn’t inspire the same motivation, she said.
In addition, former President Donald Trump moved the GOP to the left on spending, lessening the appeal of the traditional fiscal conservative view that equates small government with economic freedom, said Lara Putnam, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies citizen activism.
“Donald Trump’s sweet spot as a persuasive politician was not about a small, noninterventionist government,” she said.
Rather than going after major entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare that Republicans have argued for years are gobbling up the budget, Trump signed spending bills with significant increases even as he cut taxes.
Democrats mobilize, too
Progressive groups are also mobilizing, both to support Biden’s proposals generally and to specifically fight back against groups like Americans for Prosperity.
In Wisconsin, for example, a local pizza restaurant owner recently touted Biden's proposed subsidized child care assistance in a call with reporters organized by the Main Street Alliance, a progressive small-business group.
Building Back Together, a progressive organization run by Biden allies, began airing TV ads Wednesday in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and Nevada to promote Biden’s “blue-collar blueprint to build America.”
Democrats argue that polls show the elements of the plans – including improved infrastructure, free community college, more help for families and higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations to pay for it – are popular.
But even if that’s the case, politics are “not an aggregation of survey results,” Williamson said.
“Our politics are the result of organized interests operating in the party system,” she said.
An easier sell?
Democrats are betting that some of the anger about Washington that contributed to Trump’s election grew out of frustration that long-standing problems aren’t being addressed.
“Trust in government has eroded because the government hasn’t really delivered for the people,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain said at an April event with Georgetown University. Klain argued that the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccination program is a key to restoring that trust, which will be further enhanced when people see the difference Biden’s plans can make in their lives.
Former Sen. Joe Donnelly is trying to make that case at events in Indiana where, as a House member in 2009, hundreds of people crowded the town hall meetings he held to talk about health care.
At a recent gathering in a park in Logansport, Indiana, Donnelly touted the “real meat and potatoes” that are in Biden’s plans.
Biden's American Families Plan in charts: What's in the plan with subsidized child care and free pre-K
Pitching improved roads, bridges and a better internet is easier, he said, than it was fighting the scare tactics against the Affordable Care Act. Those arguments about death panels and losing one’s doctor were so personal that they were especially hard to combat.
“Now the discussion is about, how do we revive America’s economy? How do we bring jobs back?” Donnelly said. “It’s harder to scare people about broadband than it is about their health.”
AFP not worried about polls
The case Americans for Prosperity is making against Biden’s plans centers on both size and scope.
There’s too much wasteful spending that will lead to “higher taxes, fewer jobs and a rigged economy,” the group argues.
Officials say they’re not trying to block all action, but want any bill to be more targeted and to not raise taxes.
Although Americans for Prosperity says they’re offering alternative solutions, Phillips said that given the massive amount of money the government has already spent through the coronavirus rescue package, it’s difficult to envision a package “with even more money” that the group could get behind.
As for the polls showing support for Biden’s plans, Phillips said there’s “always a lag time, with a new administration and a new Congress, between extreme policies and public dissatisfaction and concern.”
“It’s kind of the term `whistling past the graveyard,'” he said with a chuckle. “I would be wary of someone saying all this stuff is polling super great…within the first 120 days of a new administration.”
On the day the group was mobilizing in Axne’s district, a local paper published her case for Biden’s infrastructure bill.
“I’m focused on securing the investments that will ensure Iowa gets what it needs to be competitive,” she wrote.
She's also, however, joined with a group of other farm-state and centrist Democrats to try to exempt family farms from a proposed tax increase on inherited assets that would help pay for part of the Biden plan focused on child care and education.
Chris Larimer, political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa, said the broad benefits of Biden’s plans may make it harder for opponents to attack than the Affordable Care Act.
But Axne, he said, is in an “incredibly tough” district. Her re-election margin was less than 2 percentage points. And the 2022 midterms are likely to turn on voter mobilization.
The arguments being made now by both sides could affect that turnout.
“And so it's going to be: How is it framed? Is the Biden administration able to talk about it in ways that Democrats in vulnerable districts can really point to specific job gains or tangible benefits for those constituents?” Larimer said. “That’s the challenge for vulnerable Democrats.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Americans for Prosperity try to stop Bidens' infrastructure spending