More than a month ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi successfully negotiated a bipartisan coronavirus response bill. It didn't include universal paid sick leave or direct cash assistance, but Democrats won expanded free COVID-19 testing and unemployment benefits. Pelosi was criticized for trumpeting a relatively meager relief bill as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the country and businesses began to shutter.
"Pelosi has Trump over a barrel," wrote Politico's Michael Grunwald, who extensively covered the economic stimulus negotiations in 2009, arguing that the Republican minorities in the House and Senate at that time did not shy away from exploiting that crisis to win policy concessions from President Obama.
More than a month ago, I argued that the criticism of Democrats was overblown: They hadn't really been outflanked on the left by some of the most conservative voices in Washington, suddenly refashioned as right-wing populists in the era of Trump. But I conceded this much: "Democrats on Capitol Hill, making a plausibly earnest effort to actually lead in a time of crisis, are losing the messaging battle."
Now, three congressional relief packages, 22 million lost jobs and nearly 100,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 later, Democrats have won a one-time, means-tested cash payment to most but not all U.S. citizens, strengthened nutritional assistance, and billions in funding for small business grants and loans, albeit in a limited initial offering that showed signs it would be overwhelmed even before it became publicly available.
So indeed the messaging battle is not going well. Apparently, when you've got them over a barrel — you take a break?
Some House Democrats are now heading back to Washington after returning to their home districts late last month, to shepherd through the passage of another aid package, this one a Senate-negotiated deal to shore up the funding for small businesses meant to keep up payrolls. To that end, this bill was unplanned but hardly unexpected.
Twelve days ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered only $250 billion in additional funding for the newly established Paycheck Protection Program, and nothing else. Democrats pushed back and eventually won more federal funding for disease testing and billions more for hospitals and personal protective equipment for medical workers. While the goal of stimulus funding is to keep all employees financially afloat as the economy rides out the coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, Democrats secured the second tranche of PPP funding exclusively for small businesses, after large companies and national chain restaurants gobbled up much of the first round.
Trump has already promised to sign the package into law once it is approved by the House, which is expected to do so on Thursday. Democrats won a national testing program, which, as Salon's Amanda Marcotte explains, was resisted by the Trump administration for the obvious reason that the president doesn't want an accurate tally, and would rather foist that responsibility on to governors.
So in a way, Pelosi exerted the Democrats' leverage, and it worked. This latest bill doesn't contain any obviously bad concessions. In an election year where Democrats had already planned to run on health care, it makes sense that Pelosi would prioritize a push for national testing. Of course, in a normal administration, even one dominated by "conservatives," both sides would want testing. So even a win hardly seems like a win.
Why do Democrats keep on losing the messaging wars? Because they refuse to do politics.
Sixty-six percent of voters — including 56% of Republicans — support providing two weeks of paid sick leave for all U.S. workers in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. Still, with the Senate in recess, not one senator on the left — not even Bernie Sanders nor Elizabeth Warren — tried a filibuster to fight for increased paid sick leave. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, on the other hand, a pair of consistent libertarians who oppose most new federal spending, made a show on the Senate floor of their supposedly principled opposition to the bill, and stuck to that even in the middle of this pandemic.
Democrats' negotiations, on the other hand, have left workers for companies with more than 500 employees, including the overworked essential employees at corporations like Amazon and Walmart, without paid sick leave. They have left undocumented immigrants and many U.S. citizens who are married to immigrants without access to stimulus funds, and millions of involuntary unemployed people without eviction protection. This bill, like all the rest before it, is so much smaller than it should be. For example, it includes no funding to save the U.S. Postal Service, which Trump has threatened to shut down, nothing to protect elections or voters and nearly no oversight of all this free money.
So while Democrats may have campaigned to take back the House in 2018 on the promise to serve as a check on Trump — only to slow-walk impeachment and pass a whole bunch of symbolic legislation to die on the Grim Reaper's desk, they continue to prefer chipping away at Republican obstruction rather than to face it head-on with policies that are supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans.
This is the problem with evaluating how Democrats wield power in Washington. The way they deploy their so-called leverage almost always means consciously deciding not to help people in the hope of short-term political gain. Furthermore, Republicans know that Democrats will always cave rather than be perceived as doing nothing — and Democrats often have little choice, because Republicans are more than happy to do nothing. Those who want to build will always be at a disadvantage, faced with those who seek to destroy.
Now Mitch McConnell has said he wants to hit the brakes on any future bills aimed at helping people on the front lines of this crisis. Republicans have said again and again that they oppose aid to state and local governments, trashing Democrats' demands for a phase-four stimulus package as a "blue-state bailout." But in the middle of a once-in-a-generation global pandemic, maybe Republicans are only pretending that they resolutely oppose aid for first responders. It's time for Democrats to call their bluff.
From the financial crisis to the debt ceiling, Republicans have long used emergencies like hostage situations to demand deeply unpopular policies. A diverse group of more than 20 activist groups on the left has now demanded that Democratic leadership step aside to make way for bold proposals from the ranks. Democrats should push progressive policies, they argue in a letter to the House Democratic Caucus: The bill from Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., to cancel rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the crisis; the bill from Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., to provide emergency health care coverage during the pandemic; and a temporary Universal Basic Income bill written by Jayapal and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., that would provide $2,000 to every person in the U.S., every month that the shutdown continues.
"If we pass a relief bill next year, we're gonna be paying for morgues, and if we pass a relief bill now, we will be paying for prevention. And that's the difference," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., recently told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.
Pelosi has again promised to play hardball on the next round of negotiations, even before voting on this round. Pointing to a Trump tweet in support of federal funding for states, Pelosi told the Washington Post that "McConnell will do whatever the president wants ... and the president needs this."
But here's the problem with always planning to get more in the next round: You have less leverage each time. Without a message strategy to harness public pressure behind a more progressive agenda, Republicans will continue to feel insulated from their decisions. It would be wise for Democrats to exploit the galling admissions from members of what Salon's Chauncey DeVega describes as the Republican "death cult," such as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's suggestion that America's elderly are expendable when it comes to the economy.
Eventually, Fox News viewers could grow resentful of such callousness. Consider this: Net approval for Trump's coronavirus response among people aged 65 and up has gone from +19 percentage points to -1, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of 11 battleground states. Older voters now disapprove of Trump's handling of the coronavirus response more than any age group other than 18-to-29-year-olds.
No matter how Democrats play their hand, Republicans are already blaming them for sky-high jobless numbers. McConnell will take his ball and go home, while most Americans get no additional support, for at least a couple of more months. Ours is a political system that needs compromise to function. But one political party views such compromise as tantamount to treason. We can debate Democrats' specific policy failures, which may be defensible. But their unwillingness to make Republicans own their choices in the middle of a pandemic — by publicly calling them out and playing politics during an election year — is a clear indication that our political system is not equipped for this moment.