Within the GOP, there is a belief that the pandemic and resulting turmoil make Biden and Democratic incumbents especially vulnerable among those demographics. Republicans see room to capitalize on the grim public health and economic situation the White House inherited from Donald Trump by trying to put Democrats on the defensive for being too removed from the pain or too slow-moving to address it.
GOP lawmakers, while offering no commitment to meaningfully engage on policy proposals, have responded to continued school closures by striking hard at Biden and Democrats, with more Republicans each week accusing the administration of scaling back their ambitious goals on everything from testing to school reopenings.
“The science says that the schools should open, but instead of listening to the science, the Biden administration is caving in to Democrat special interest groups,” RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel told POLITICO. “As a result, the education of our children is suffering and hundreds of thousands of working moms are being forced out of the workforce.”
Republicans believe they’ve been aided in their attacks by mixed messaging from the administration on how and when schools should open. GOP officials have circulated several rounds of talking points on schools, with Senate, House and party leaders blasting out criticism on the issue in emails to constituents and the media on a near-daily basis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday released long-awaited guidance on the matter, which offered step-by-step advice to reopen classrooms that health officials said was “grounded in science and the best available evidence.”
Republicans have attacked Biden’s school reopening goals as underwhelming, given that the White House has already dialed back expectations for the first 100 days. They are preparing to “hammer away” at the schools issue, including charging that Democrats have dragged their feet on reopenings to appease powerful school unions, according to an RNC official.
Even as more schools resume robust in-person schedules, the stress imposed on families by months of distance learning won’t soon fade.
“Their proposal buys into the myth from Big Labor that schools should stay shut a lot longer,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week of Biden’s “rescue” package.
White House aides and close allies acknowledge that getting kids back into classrooms is a thorny political challenge thanks to its visceral toll on families. But they insist they’re following the advice of scientists and health experts to keep children safe. They have framed their approach as part of a comprehensive, emergency effort to address several interrelated problems with necessary funding.
In interviews, they made the case that the president’s $1.9 trillion rescue package — which includes direct payments, funds for pandemic relief and money to safely reopen schools and fund local government — will be welcomed by voters because it will work.
“President Biden isn’t going to rest until students are back in school five days a week, and if Republicans agree, they should match their words with action and support the president’s Rescue Plan, which will get schools the resources they desperately need to reopen safely,” said Michael Gwin, a White House spokesperson.
But parents aren’t only impacted by the tens of millions of children who have gone nearly a year without an in-person education. Millions of unemployed Americans — many with children living under their roof — have been forced to stay home as businesses close and suffer. Women are leaving their jobs in alarming numbers. The childcare industry, which unlike public schools relies extensively on tuition and direct payments from parents, faces an existential crisis as families continue to shoulder much of the load.
And child poverty, which existed for generations, is being amplified by the virus across a vast array of demographic groups.
“For so long, the public looked at Washington and said, ‘We’re on our own. These folks don’t care a lick about us and what’s going on’” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the chair of the House Appropriations Committee. She has spent years working on paid family and medical leave policies.
“They now believe that the federal government and Joe Biden want to do something, and they’re waiting for that. So, there is pressure on the administration,” DeLauro acknowledged. “But it’s pressure that they are aware of and they are talking about it.”
Democrats point to their push to expand the child tax credit, which officials say would cut child poverty in half, and a new call for a child allowance, as the types of policies that could particularly help their standing among disheartened parents. From there, they note a host of other proposals ranging from boosting paid leave to helping offset childcare expenses to an expansion of healthcare benefits.
“The work of parenting, the work of raising children, has now been visible in a way it has not been in professional circles in a long time,” said Katie Connolly, a Democratic pollster. “People feel more comfortable in a government that invests in what is a good, which is raising our children.”
Connolly said the pandemic and resulting policies present an opportunity for Biden and Democrats to solidify their standing with suburban women and parents across the board, continuing to attract voters who migrated to the party in droves during the Trump years.
Other Democrats, meanwhile, argued that Republicans have little standing to push a new message on schools and family assistance given their unwillingness so far to support Biden’s relief bill and their failure to help ensure there was a national vaccine distribution plan under the Trump administration.
“They have no message to parents. It is all shallow,” said John Anzalone, a top Biden adviser and campaign pollster. Families, Anzalone added, won’t feel like their needs are being met unless they see movement from the government. “They want action.”
Republicans had previously supported five bills totaling some $4 trillion in pandemic-era spending. However, they are once again hinting at taking a well-worn path that worries some Democrats.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, McConnell and his party thrived in down-ballot elections after moving to stymie or altogether block the White House’s agenda at all turns. The GOP could do the same to Biden and face little blowback from voters if his plans stall or if the bills that do pass fail to reverse the dire situation parents are facing.
“They think that good politics is saying ‘no,’” a Democrat close to the Biden administration said of the GOP, stressing the importance of coming bills to generate longer-term growth. “And they bank on the fact that most Americans have a hard time attributing the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’” votes.”
School closures have come to serve as a rare point of unity for a Republican Party that’s been roiled by Trump’s impeachment and outrage over explosive comments from members like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). But Republicans say that spending concerns are real among their constituencies too, particularly as some schools still haven’t opened to in-person learning after their districts spent millions of dollars on safety upgrades.
“One of the issues we’re seeing and thinking a lot about are the folks who don’t have kids and how they perceive the current educational environment,” said Paul Bentz, an Arizona-based Republican pollster, who described retirees frustrated by taxes they paid going to shuttered schools.
Bentz said in his survey research, when likely voters who don’t have kids at home are asked about Covid-19 and classrooms, “there is almost unilateral belief that kids need to get back into the classroom [so that they] aren’t learning from behind a screen.”
Democrats like Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, who ran in one of the highest-profile races in the country last year, could face the wrath of voters when he’s up again in two years if Biden doesn’t act more aggressively to reopen schools, Bentz said.
Trump’s presence or absence on the political scene will have an impact on Biden’s parent trap, too. Kelly and other Democrats across the country likely avoided more penetrating attacks from the GOP on the school closures last fall because so much attention was paid to the former president’s overall handling of the pandemic.
Republicans focused on House races said they were surprised to find in extensive polling last cycle that voters were about evenly split on whom they held responsible for school closures, according to operatives involved in the effort. The findings, they believed, were a direct result of Trump’s lack of credibility on the pandemic and the school issues specifically.
Trump had frequently called for schools to be reopened without conditioning his remarks on safety measures. Candidates across the country were also dealing with surges of the virus that overwhelmed local hospitals.
“The president’s messaging was so toxic to your average suburban voter that we didn’t feel like we were getting anywhere with it,” said one GOP strategist who worked on the races in 2020. “What we needed and wanted was somebody who was saying ‘the risks are low. Let’s reopen schools safely with proper precautions.’ Trump wasn’t capable of saying anything that nuanced.”
“But,” the person added, “if you asked people, ‘do you think we should safely reopen schools?’ the numbers were better.’”