Flailing Republicans are having a hard time figuring out how to oppose President Joe Biden’s popular proposals. They couldn’t stop the American Rescue Plan, targeted at helping the nation recover from the pandemic. Now Biden is pushing a big infrastructure bill that includes some old-fashioned priorities Abraham Lincoln would have recognized, especially rail, but also some things, like broadband and long-term care, that Lincoln, bless him, might not have imagined. Dwight Eisenhower built out the interstate highway system, but he couldn’t see broadband coming either.
Republicans tried to make the argument that the bill goes beyond its proper scope as an “infrastructure” measure. But polling shows that the pushback hasn’t worked very well. The proposals are popular, some measures more than others, some even with Republicans. So are the proposals in Biden’s American Families Plan, which would expand child tax credits and provide universal 3K and pre-K, free community college, and paid family leave. So the new GOP arguments aren’t looking at the American present or future; they’re looking way back.
Fifty years ago, the US Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill that could have made many of the proposals in Biden’s American Families Plan unnecessary. The 1971 Comprehensive Child Development Act would have made a $2 billion investment in a vast expansion of state-funded preschool and child care programs. Sponsored by the late Senator Walter Mondale, based on months if not years of research and legislative arm-wrestling, it had remarkable bipartisan support.
For a while, it seemed possible that President Richard Nixon would sign it. In a speech to employees at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, he said all the right things: “What happens to the child from a nutritional standpoint, from an educational standpoint, from an environmental standpoint in the years between 1 and 5 may affect that child for the balance of his life regardless of what may happen after that time.” In fact, Nixon’s staff had helped draft the bill.
But Nixon vetoed it anyway. What happened? In part, my long-ago Hardball buddy Pat Buchanan happened. Aware that Nixon was open to signing the bill, he hit him with, for Nixon, an insult too deep to reject: The bill had its origins, Buchanan claimed, in Soviet Russia.
It was ridiculous. Yes, in 1929, a Soviet sociologist claimed that the traditional family “will be sent to a museum of antiquities so that it can rest next to the spinning wheel and the bronze axe, by the horse-drawn carriage, the steam engine, and the wired telephone.” Forty-two years later, Buchanan knew that hadn’t happened. But he had visited Soviet day care centers, and he described his horror: “We went to see the Young Pioneers, where these little kids four, five, and six years old were being instructed in Leninist doctrine, reciting it the way I used to recite Catechism when I was in the first grade,” he said.
Buchanan got to Nixon and greased the veto. “Good public policy requires that we enhance rather than diminish both parental authority and parental involvement with children,” Nixon’s stinging veto message said. “For the Federal government to plunge headlong financially into supporting child development would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.” Congress could not override his veto, and the bill died. A top Mondale aide told NPR in 2016, dejectedly, about the veto: “It totally surprised us.”
Today Biden faces a brigade of Buchanans lamenting his proposals as “social engineering.” Insurrection-supporting Senator Josh Hawley denounced “lefty social engineering paid for by mortgaging the future of my children and my grandchildren.” Senator Marsha Blackburn argued in a Fox Business Network interview that the proposals would “incentivize women to rely on the federal government to organize their lives.” Later that night, she tweeted a link to a 1974 New York Times story about the prevalence of affordable child care in the Soviet Union, adding, “You know who else liked universal day care.”
Hillbilly venture capitalist and amateur philosopher J.D. Vance, who is reportedly considering a run for one of Ohio’s Senate seats, insisted that Biden’s proposal put the “preferences of our ruling-class elites” above those of average Americans. “They want strangers to raise their kids, but middle-class Americans, whatever their station in life, they want more time with their children,” he said. Well, as a wealthy venture capitalist, he would know what elites want. Not so much his potential constituents.
I didn’t want “strangers” to raise my kids; I wanted some help, because I needed to work. When I read things like that, I realize Vance knows fewer parents who struggle with balancing work and child care than I do. We need these programs now more than ever, because during the pandemic, the labor-force participation of women with children has dropped sharply. That’s hurting women, their families, and the economy. If Democrats don’t steamroll these Republican objections, they’re facing a session in which they can’t prove to voters that the Democratic Party can improve their lives. And that would mean we’ll almost certainly wind up with a GOP House and Senate next year.