Democrats' grotesque coronavirus failure

They're letting Trump off the hook — and leaving sick and struggling Americans hanging

The novel coronavirus pandemic is starting to seriously burden hospitals across the United States, and in the coming days they will almost surely start to be overwhelmed. It's a safe bet that tens of thousands of people are going to die over the next few months, if not well over a million. Meanwhile, the economy is sliding into a severe recession, and panicked lawmakers in both parties are debating strategies to contain the fallout.

What is to be done? A crisis like this is inherently political, because any response requires government action. Yet the Democratic Party leadership is largely missing in action. They are neither pointing out to the public how badly President Trump has botched the response, nor are they leveraging their control of the House of Representatives to make the response as good as possible. It is a criminal failure of leadership.

As I have written several times already, it is almost impossible to exaggerate how badly Trump has botched the epidemic response. Practically every aspect has been bungled horribly, but perhaps the key failure is the lack of virus testing. The Trump administration refused to accept tests from other countries, instead insisting on developing its own — which didn't work. Weeks passed while the Centers for Disease Control, run by a right-wing ideologue, scrambled to fix it. (It is quite clear that Trump himself resisted mass testing so the numbers of diagnoses would not make him look bad.)

A University of Washington laboratory developed its own test, but could not deploy it at scale thanks to bureaucratic red tape and lack of communication between the CDC and the FDA. Now testing production is finally starting to ramp up, but laboratories are already running short of necessary reagents and equipment, because the Trump administration did not secure supply stockpiles months ago when it was clear they would be needed. (Other supplies are critically low for the same reason — a ventilator manufacturer recently reported they could have scaled up production by 500 percent, but still have not done so because the government has not placed any orders.)

The lack of testing has hamstrung the response at all levels. Nobody knows where the virus is and so containment and sanitation measures cannot be targeted. Hospitals have been forced to cut staff because they can't screen their own employees — some 200 nurses in Connecticut have been furloughed because they were exposed to the coronavirus and there are no tests to see if they have actually contracted it.

Democrats should be hammering Trump for this every moment of the day. On any available platform, they should be asking "Where are the tests?" over and over and over. The House should be passing bills ordering the mass manufacture and purchasing of ventilators. Instead there is no coordinated messaging. Democratic backbenchers are hammering the president in various ways, but the House leadership is basically silent.

It is vitally important to make clear who is responsible for this disaster, because the November election is pretty clearly going to turn entirely on the coronavirus question. Failing to demonstrate Trump is to blame risks his being able to portray the epidemic as a natural disaster nobody could have foreseen, taking credit for any response that does happen. Indeed, so far some polls have his approval rating on the outbreak above water (though it is of course still early). If that happens, Trump could remain in office where he will continue to bungle the long-term response to the outbreak, as well as everything else.

That brings me to the economic response. So far, the House has passed a small response bill, and negotiated a second response package with the White House, including a provision for sick leave that won't cover up to 80 percent of American workers. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi affirmatively defended the loopholes, saying she didn't want to subsidize corporations. Then during a press conference Monday, Trump swung wildly to the left, saying in response to a question on sick leave that, "We want it for everybody."

But bizarrely, during negotiations with White House staff Monday night, Pelosi agreed to weaken the bill even more. The paid leave provision now applies "only to workers caring for a child whose school or day care had been shut," the Wall Street Journal reports. Either Trump did not understand the question he had been asked and was just running his mouth, he has no idea what his staff is doing, or he was brazenly lying — or some combination of all three.

Meanwhile on the question of broader economic stimulus, several Republicans are now outflanking Pelosi to the left. On Monday, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) rejected the Pelosi bill as insufficient, while Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) proposed an immediate payment of $1,000 to every adult. On Tuesday, the White House released a massive $850 billion stimulus plan (which may get even bigger), including "$500 billion in a payroll tax cut, a $50 billion bailout for airlines struggling from plummeting demand, and $250 billion for small business loans," Reuters reports.

The White House plan is badly targeted, mainly because it has nothing for unemployment insurance and the poorest Americans pay little or no payroll tax, but it is still far more aggressive than anything the House leadership has proposed. Moreover, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin also indicated his support for direct cash payments to adults. Even moderate Democratic House backbenchers like Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) are whipping up massive cash payment schemes.

Now, Senate Democrats also released their own much better and even more aggressive plan on Tuesday, but given Mitch McConnell's control of that chamber, they have little leverage.

Only Pelosi can leverage Democrats' control of one chamber of the legislature to influence the process. As Michael Grunwald argues, she should very obviously just write a plan that is both fair and big enough to address the crisis, and tell Republicans to take it or leave it. That would mean at a minimum a massive expansion of unemployment benefits, a sickness allowance, and paid family leave. Any bailouts of businesses should have heavy strings attached to halt dividends, share buybacks, and excessive executive compensation, so the rich don't just gobble up the money. Bailouts should also mean the government collects new stock issues in return, so if and when the market bounces back, the state rather than rich investors collects the benefit.

The crisis would almost certainly force the GOP to agree — just in the past couple of days Republicans have swung so far to the left that they are treading on Andrew Yang's territory. The president will be held responsible for whatever happens, so House Democrats have the whip hand in any negotiation. They can't just let the economy collapse (as Republicans probably would do if the roles were reversed), but they can ensure the response is actually appropriate to the situation — and then claim credit for the result.

But if I had to guess, I reckon Pelosi will basically agree to whatever Republicans propose. Indeed, she may well push Republicans to the right — former Obama adviser Jason Furman proposed the cash payment idea in a recent meeting with Democrats, but Pelosi shot him down. Democrats have long thought that exploiting political leverage in a crisis to make the response as good as possible is somehow "irresponsible." That means the Republicans will lead, and quite possibly get credit for doing what they could. If Trump wins with such a campaign, it will be Nancy Pelosi's fault.

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