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Essential Politics: A divided GOP rallies around school reopenings. Will it slow Biden down?

Kevin Faulconer speaks at a news conference in front of a school
Republican Kevin Faulconer announces his run for governor of California in San Pedro earlier this month.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

This is the Feb. 19, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Closed school buildings have attracted a lot of Republican political hopes recently.

In California, Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego seeking a promotion to the governor’s office, posed in front of several school buildings as he launched his campaign, including a news conference in San Francisco this week at which he declared “it’s time for schools to be reopened, not renamed.”

Across the country, his counterpart Kirk Cox, the main establishment-backed Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, has made reopening schools his chief theme.

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House Republican leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) jumped into the issue with a tweet after Democrats introduced immigration legislation backed by President Biden.

“Democrats have a plan to open America’s borders but not America’s schools,” he wrote.

That’s a very unified message for a party that’s been much divided of late. Republicans have found an issue on which they believe Biden and his fellow Democrats are vulnerable, and after weeks of being on the defensive, they’re seizing it.

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There’s reason for skepticism about whether the theme will pay off to the degree the GOP hopes. But if large numbers of schools remain closed in September, it’s a good bet that Democrats will pay a price in races for governor in Virginia, New Jersey and California, assuming the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom qualifies for the ballot.

GOP vs. teachers unions

As with most significant political issues, the fight over reopening schools has a substantive side and a political one.

On the merits, there’s little question that distance learning has hurt kids, especially ones from low-income families who already face big inequities in school. There’s also strong evidence, as Biden said in his CNN town hall on Tuesday, that schools, especially in early grades, are at low risk for COVID-19 transmission.

Those two facts provide a strong argument for getting students back in classrooms as quickly as possible. But low risk isn’t no risk. Weighing how much risk is acceptable — and to whom — is where the politics come in.

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Many teachers worry about potential exposure, and teachers unions, reflecting those concerns, have resisted efforts in some cities and states to get students back into classrooms that the unions say aren’t yet safe.

In California, that’s one element in a standoff that has kept the vast majority of the state’s students out of classrooms. The issue appears to be coming to a head in the Legislature where lawmakers could vote as early as Monday on a $6.6-billion plan to start reopening campuses in April.

Critics, who include Republican elected officials, accuse the unions of dragging their feet and allowing exaggerated fears of contagion to outweigh the educational needs of children.

“It’s the teachers unions that want to keep the schools closed,” Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), who heads the House Republicans’ campaign operation, said in an interview on NBC. He accused Democrats of “standing with their special-interest donors instead of the students.”

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Union officials adamantly deny that.

“No one wants to return to in-person education more than educators,” said Karen White, deputy executive director of the National Education Assn., the nation’s largest teachers union. But, she adds, if schools aren’t “enforcing basic mitigation” measures, including masking, distancing and improved ventilation, “those aren’t going to be safe schools.”

The best solution, she says, is for local districts to bring teachers in on the decision making about how to reopen and for states to give educators priority for vaccination. About half the states give them priority now, at least in part. Newsom has resisted doing so statewide, saying that with vaccines still scarce, guaranteeing a priority for teachers would push many elderly Californians too far back in line.

In both Washington and Sacramento, the fight has put Democratic chief executives in a tight spot, advocating for reopening schools, but not wanting to get crosswise with the unions, which have long been a major Democratic ally. Newsom, for example, will need help from teachers unions to hold on to his job if the recall qualifies, as most political observers think it will.

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The issue “is a godsend for California Republicans,” said GOP strategist Rob Stutzman. Rather than being forced to talk about former President Trump, candidates like Faulconer “are able to talk about opening schools and the fundamental services that government is supposed to provide.”

In Washington, a poll this week by Morning Consult found Biden getting 60% approval nationwide for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but on handling schools his approval dropped to 48%, with 32% disapproving.

The question is how lasting that political dynamic will be.

This isn’t the first time Republicans have waded into a fight with teachers unions hoping for a political payoff. In the 1990s and 2000s, the party invested heavily in promoting voucher programs that would have allowed parents to use tax money to pay for private schools. Then, as now, party strategists believed the issue would widen their appeal with voters and deal a blow to a big Democratic interest group.

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The strategy never really worked. In California, advocates of vouchers lost two heavily financed ballot campaigns. Suburban voters turned out to mostly like their public schools as is, while urban parents, who had reason to be angry about conditions in their schools, didn’t trust Republicans.

The same dynamic may apply in this case.

In the Morning Consult poll, a majority of voters, 55%-34%, said states should “wait to reopen schools until teachers have received the vaccine.” That sentiment was especially strong among Black and Latino voters and those living in cities. The poll also found that 54% of voters said they trusted local teachers unions to decide on school reopenings, the same share who said they trusted local school boards.

“Voters really trust educators,” White said.

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Time, however, could erode that trust. A lot depends on how much longer campuses remain closed.

Having millions of children stuck at home has contributed heavily to the massive disruption the pandemic has caused. To date, most parents have put up with it as a painful necessity. As the nation moves into a second spring of closed classrooms, however, patience has begun to wear thin.

So far, Biden doesn’t entirely own those closures; he can point to them as part of what he inherited from his predecessor. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain crystallized that point in a message Thursday on Twitter:

“Schools closed under President Trump, and they will reopen under President Biden,” he wrote.

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On this issue, as on nearly everything else for Biden, success will depend on whether he can get COVID under control before the public’s attribution of blame shifts.

Generations in contrast

Rep. Joe Neguse, the Democrats’ youngest impeachment manager, has emerged as next-generation star, Eli Stokols wrote. The Colorado congressman, 36, won rave reviews for his presentations during Trump’s impeachment trial and has quickly become a symbol of the Democrats’ new, more diverse younger cohort of leaders.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, perhaps unfairly, has become a symbol of the unwillingness of the older generation to leave center stage.

As Mark Barabak wrote, the senator, 87, has persevered through personal and communal tragedies to compile a remarkable public career. But that perseverance may have caused her to hang on to office too long. She’s had to pass up the committee chairmanship to which her seniority in the Senate normally would have entitled her, and for the first time since she won her seat, a plurality of the state’s voters now have a negative view of her.

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Biden moves on immigration, clashes on student loans

Congressional Democrats this week unveiled a broad immigration reform bill that includes a path to citizenship for 11 million current undocumented residents. But, as Molly O’Toole wrote, the bill is just the first step in a long process.

White House officials described the bill as embodying Biden’s “vision” of what a reformed immigration system would look like — one that would significantly expand opportunities for legal immigration and devote considerable resources to combatting corruption and violence in Central America that Biden sees as the root cause of many illegal border crossings.

The key issue for Democrats will be whether any Senate Republicans will sign on to that vision. If not, Democrats will have to choose whether to try to push through a comprehensive bill on a party-line vote or go for passage of narrower bills that would deal with individual immigration issues, such as the status of so-called Dreamers.

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More immediately, the administration this week ordered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to focus arrests and removals on security threats. The new directive says that arrests and detentions of people who fall outside clearly defined categories of security or public safety risks will require approval of a supervisor. The new rules could face resistance from front-line ICE officers, but if they’re strictly enforced, they will result in a big decline in the number of immigrants detained.

Those immigration moves pleased many progressive Democrats. At the same time, though, Biden and progressives clashed over the minimum wage and student loans, Jennifer Haberkorn reported.

Biden continued to signal that he doesn’t expect the current $15-an-hour minimum wage proposal to survive as part of his COVID relief bill. And in his CNN town hall, he repeated his opposition to an across-the-board effort to forgive up to $50,000 in student loans.

As those issues unfolded, the administration is claiming progress in the vaccination drive, Chris Megerian wrote. The daily rate of shots has roughly doubled since Biden took office.

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Megerian also looked at the administration’s efforts to reenter the global debate over access to COVID-19 vaccines for the world’s poorest countries.

The effort to combat the pandemic is also helping Biden make the case for his broader economic agenda, columnist Doyle McManus wrote.

Foreign policy moves in the Mideast

The administration has taken its first steps to reopen negotiations with Iran over reviving the nuclear deal that the Obama administration negotiated and Trump tried to scuttle. As Tracy Wilkinson wrote, Biden has agreed to a round of talks hosted by the European Union.

That move came shortly after Biden ended his four-week snub of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, making a phone call in which the two leaders discussed Iran, as well as other issues.

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Netanyahu had allied himself closely to Trump, who eagerly backed hardline Israeli policies. Biden plans to steer the relationship back toward a more even-handed approach between Israel and the Palestinians Arabs, Wilkinson wrote.

Trump resurfaces, unchastened

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) put out a notable statement this week explaining his vote to convict Trump in his second Senate trial.

“There is one untruth that divides the nation today like none other: it is that the election was stolen,” Romney wrote.

“That lie brought our nation to a dark and dangerous place. Invented and disseminated by the President, it poisoned our politics and our public discourse.”

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As Megerian wrote, Trump hasn’t stopped the lie. Indeed, in his first appearances back on conservative media since the Senate vote, he reveled in it.

“It was a stolen, fixed, rigged election,” he told Newsmax.

“The tabulation wasn’t exactly good,” he said to One America News Network.

And Trump’s conduct continues to divide the GOP.

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California Republican convention delegates are seeking to censure Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) for voting to impeach Trump, Seema Mehta wrote. For Valadao, whose district Biden carried in 2020, a censure vote might be a plus.

The Harris beat

Vice President Kamala Harris is returning home to Los Angeles for first time since the inauguration — a weekend trip to pack up belongings and take care of personal business, Noah Bierman reported.

Harris has the unfortunate distinction of being the most targeted American politician on the internet, according to new research that Bierman reported. Female political figures are more likely to be targets than men, people of color get more harassment than white politicians and Democrats receive more than Republicans. Harris hits the trifecta.

A great weekend read

The federal bureaucracy isn’t exactly known as a haven for good writing. But, as Evan Halper wrote, the government has a small but determined corps of word cops who aim to keep language clear and simple. Check it out.

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