Two weeks ago, Donald Trump was running for reelection on a clear message: the strength of “the Trump economy.” Even the president’s harshest critics were forced to acknowledge that unemployment was historically low and the stock market was at record highs.
That’s all changed due to the coronavirus. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has plummeted, entire industries are facing collapse, and the GDP of the United States is set to drop precipitously in the second quarter of 2020. In a poll by the L.A. Times, 18 percent of respondents had either lost their jobs or seen their hours decreased in recent weeks.
Now, with the economy speeding toward a recession, the question Republicans are asking among themselves is what the pandemic means for Trump’s chances of reelection. Can the seemingly Teflon politician endure even this?
In conversations with over half a dozen Republican insiders — a mix of high-powered consultants and seasoned operatives inside and outside the Beltway — there was a sense that Trump could still win in November. However, they agreed that the key metric was whether the economy had begun to recover by the fall.
Even the most pessimistic view of Trump’s prospects, which reflected angst over all the president’s sound bites dismissing the coronavirus, was tempered by the possibility of a major market recovery.
The economic downturn itself could be managed to some extent, said one Republican strategist, arguing that “the recession didn’t come out of nowhere … people can point to what caused it.”
The question vexing GOP insiders now is whether the economy could begin to recover from a now-certain downturn in time to boost Trump’s prospects. The consensus was that an economic recovery had to begin by Labor Day at the absolute latest for the president’s reelection prospects to be helped. Some argued for earlier dates, like the strategist, who said, “Honestly, you need a story to tell at the [Republican National] Convention, and you need to be able to say credibly that we have moved past this and we are on the upswing.”
Although a handful of loud voices on the right had scoffed at warnings about the coronavirus, the GOP operatives Intelligencer chatted with dismissed them as fringe and marginal characters whose statements were unlikely to make any impact. John Brabender, a veteran Republican consultant, noted, “There’s a few people out there that took sort of crazy positions. Those candidates, it’ll come back and haunt them.” (One example on the ballot this year is Tim Eyman. A 2020 gubernatorial candidate in Washington, he tried to hold a 251-person gathering where he would bring a six-pack of Corona beer.) However, Brabender said that these skeptics simply comprised those “who were trying to get Twitter fame by being the most outrageous on an issue.”
In the short term, Republican operatives were wary of doing anything to politicize the pandemic, comparing the political climate to the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Some even expressed a hope that the current crisis would lead to the sense of national unity briefly experienced after the attacks with one harkening back to the image of members of Congress singing “God Bless America” on the steps of the Capitol — a moment that now seems quaint in the age of social distancing. But while unity may not be coming, the outbreak may still bring other significant changes to the shape of the political debate.
On Capitol Hill, congressional Republicans were casting aside decades of conservative orthodoxy to favor massive government interventions into the economy. While Trump has long heralded a shift to more populist attitudes on the right, Republicans quickly abandoned long-standing skepticism of big government, and the response marked a new inflection point as the GOP shifted away from the Hayekian economics of Paul Ryan.
An overwhelming majority of House Republicans voted for a relief bill last week that included paid-sick-leave provisions for some infected workers. The Trump administration is already preparing new legislation, which reportedly will have a $1 trillion-plus price tag — larger than either Obama’s stimulus or TARP — and would send cash payments of up to $2,000 directly to individual Americans.
Even before the administration’s proposal, several Republican senators, including Tom Cotton and Mitt Romney (yes, the man who picked Ryan to be his running mate in 2012), had come out in support of direct payments from the government to Americans.
One Republican strategist cautioned that this may not represent a permanent political shift. “I think its desperation,” said the strategist. “I don’t mean that in a derogatory way … it’s not political. We could be looking at a big fucking recession.” He added, “Desperation has a way of making you become bipartisan real fast.”
Forty Republicans did vote against the legislation in the House, and eight did so in the Senate. They cited limited government concerns about whether provisions like paid sick leave would create unintended consequences for small businesses. As Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin said in a statement, “We all agree those living paycheck to paycheck shouldn’t have to decide between going to work or endangering their co-workers, but we need a solution that doesn’t cause severe and unintended economic damage.” Representative Chip Roy of Texas tweeted that “This bill will cause more harm for more Americans than the good it purports to offer.”
Chris Wilson, a longtime Republican pollster, noted, “The people who voted against it are all in pretty safe districts — districts that are more conservative and probably appreciate their representative taking a stand against increased spending, and money being spent that could probably be better spent by state and local communities, or doesn’t need to be spent at all. That’s the argument I saw.”
In the meantime, political campaigns are shut down. Candidates are not knocking on doors. Elections are postponed, and most Americans are focused on other things besides politics.
A clear path to end the pandemic, let alone a plan for how to win the 2020 election, is still a long way off for Republicans. As Brabender said, “To draw conclusions this quickly, or declare winners or losers, is a fool’s errand. We’re not going to know for quite some time. I do believe there will be winners and losers. I don’t know who they are.”
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