Now Is the Worst Possible Time for Democrats to Be Gormless

Though, admittedly, it comes naturally to them.

I have no idea if either the mythical Obama or the actual Obama would have been able to halt the spread of COVID-19. Nor would I expect Obama–or a President Clinton or Sanders–to understand the intricacies of primer design and RT-PCR (“Why did you pick those primers? Anyone could see they would form a hairpin loop!”[/snark]). It goes without saying that Trump certainly wouldn’t (“My primers are amazing. Nobody does PCR like I do. Nobody.”).

But presidential leadership does matter in many ways–a president might not be able to make things better, but, as we’ve seen, a president certainly can make things worse. First, Il Trumpe didn’t take the virus seriously. At all. This isn’t really surprising, since this is what narcissists do when faced with bad news. They will desperately latch on to any scintilla of positive news (“the virus will decline in the summer”), and ignore reality, because, as we’ve noted before, the most important thing for a narcissist is to maintain his deluded world view.

Second, Trump managed to convince a very large majority of Republicans that COVID-19 wasn’t a big deal. People in politics crow about ‘unity’ all the time, but this is a case where having a partisan divide slows the response–and time is everything.

Third, because there was no internal pressure and not enough external pressure to take this seriously, the planning was started far too late. For example, had someone said in early January, “Will we have the capability to test 100,000 people by mid-February, and many more tests by the time we reach March”, the design choices and regulatory decisions would have been very different. You don’t have to believe in a magical ‘West Wing’ scene for this sort of direction to matter. I find it mind boggling that the executive branch routinely defies Congress and the law, yet, when speed was of the essence, FDA regulators were able to prevent approval of desperately needed testing. That’s definitely failing state territory.

Fourth, the Trump administration has failed in a consistent public communications strategy (in part, because Trump refuses to hear bad news) and has failed to provide assistance of all kinds to the states.

Finally, it’s increasingly clear that Trump was, first and foremost, concerned with his own political fortunes, as opposed to the welfare of the American people.

Trump’s ineptitude and malfeasance will mean a lot of people will get sick or die needlessly. This is where a political system needs a competent opposition party. Unfortunately, we have the Democrats (boldface mine):

No, the easy way to tell Pelosi negotiated a bad deal for Democrats is that she negotiated a deal at all—rather than dictating the terms and telling President Donald Trump to take them or leave them.

The lesson of the last congressional response to an economic emergency, President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill, is that when a president desperately needs legislation to address a crisis, anyone with the power to stop him can decide what’s in it.

When Obama took office, in the midst of the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression, Democrats controlled the House and Senate as well. But they needed 60 votes to break a Republican filibuster in the Senate, and there were only 57 Democratic senators, which meant Obama had to recruit three Republicans to vote for a stimulus bill.

In just his second week in office, his blunt-spoken chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, had to pose a blunt-spoken question to Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania: Whaddya want?

Specter’s ask was simple, and by Washington horse-trading standards, noble. He wanted $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health. Then he would vote for the Obama stimulus.

“Are you f—ing kidding me?” Emanuel exploded.

Emanuel assumed $10 billion-with-a-b was just Specter’s initial bid, a shock-tactic negotiating ploy. But Specter gruffly said no, that was his final offer, take it or leave it.

“What the f— does a vote cost around here?” Emanuel screamed.

In Specter’s case, it cost precisely $10 billion. He understood that Obama needed his vote to fix the economy, so he held all the leverage. But today’s congressional Democrats don’t seem to understand that at all.

Right now, after initially downplaying the threat of coronavirus, then bungling the response to the pandemic, then watching the swift demise of the bull market he had hailed as proof of his leadership, Trump absolutely needs congressional action to limit the public health disaster and mitigate the economic damage on his watch.

House Democrats can pass whatever bill they want, and if Republicans aren’t willing to go along with it, another lesson of American crisis politics is that it’s Trump who will suffer the consequences.

Some Democrats have fretted that they might suffer politically if they don’t help Trump clean up the mess, but the opposite happened in 2009. The Republican minority in the House unanimously refused to support Obama’s stimulus, even though the crisis had exploded on his Republican predecessor’s watch, and the very next year those same Republicans took back the majority in the House. In fact, the only Republican in Congress who paid a political price was Specter, who had to switch to the Democratic Party after a GOP backlash over his vote for Obama’s stimulus, and ended up losing his seat anyway.

In 2020, Democrats are not acting like a party with that kind of leverage.

And House Democrats need to use their oversight powers to focus attention on just how badly things have gone off the rails (boldface mine):

Democrats who hope not only to see a co-partisan in the White House next year, but to actually see them succeed in office, must use their powers to ease the way. Through oversight, lawmakers can take stock of just how severely public health agencies’ capacities have been depleted. How many civil servants have left? What is the practical effect of that exodus? How can it best be reversed? Undertaking this work now will ensure that a more public interest-minded executive is better positioned to respond to unfolding public health crises, whether coronavirus or something else.

To refuse to conduct oversight in this moment, is to abdicate the responsibilities voters entrusted to these lawmakers. The job of Congress does not end when a piece of legislation is signed into law. Lawmakers are also tasked with the equally important job of seeing that those laws are duly carried out; in short, that the government functions as intended.

Some will likely demur for fear that they will be seen as “playing politics” in a time of crisis. But lawmakers cannot be afraid to do their jobs because they might also benefit from it. Good governance is not something to be ashamed of.

Time and time again, Democrats have failed to exploit Trump’s contempt for regular people. They have passed up nearly every opportunity to highlight the ways, big and small, that he is making life worse for everyone but a small, wealthy elite.

Over a year after they took the House, it’s hard not to wonder: what has the average person gained from the Democratic House, other than a bulwark against further attacks on their health care? Now, amidst crisis, House Democrats have an opportunity (perhaps their final one) to prove their worth. Will they seize it?

There have been multiple political failures, and the necessary response on that front is political. But Democrats are likely, once again, to assume people will puzzle it out themselves. I doubt we’re going to see much change in attitudes among Republicans. But, right now, every Democrat should be furious about the bungled response, yet professional Democrats haven’t done anything to make that clear.

After the loss of life and health, the greatest disaster would be letting Trump get away with it.

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