It’s no secret that as we get closer to Election Day, prospects for President Trump and his party are not looking very good. He’s trailing Joe Biden in the polls by an average of about nine points nationally (a figure that’s more or less holding steady), and Biden also leads in most battleground states. Trump’s job approval rating shows no signs of suddenly ascending into the territory traditionally associated with presidential reelections. But as bad as things are for the president, they are likely to get even worse, now that coronavirus infections and deaths, which looked to be abating not that long ago, are skyrocketing — particularly in the Republican-governed states that took the president’s advice to reopen normal business operations in May or June. As states begin to reimpose public-health restrictions, the economy is sure to suffer. Yes, the June Jobs Report was reasonably positive, but most experts think next month’s numbers will show a significant turn for the worse. The idea, which Trump trumpeted in June, that we were experiencing “the greatest comeback in American history” and a “rocket ship” recovery, now seems grossly premature.
As Trump’s reelection indicators droop, so, too, do the odds that Republicans will be able to hang on to the Senate or make gains in the House. And the time for a change in the objective conditions that could turn perceptions around is getting short.
So what can Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Kevin McCarthy do in the extremely short window of opportunity they have before they are stuck sliding to defeat? Well, they could simultaneously speed up state and local coronavirus responses while boosting the economy by throwing huge sums of money at these conjoined problems, much as House Democrats proposed back in May with their passage of the Heroes Act. That $3 trillion measure included $875 billion that would go a long way toward countering state and local fiscal problems that are both hampering coronavirus responses and feeding public-employee layoffs and public-program cutbacks. It also included $100 billion in relief for renters and $75 billon for those struggling to make mortgage payments — plus extension of the $600 supplemental unemployment insurance payments that have been so critical to people temporarily or permanently losing jobs. It would also allow another series of direct $1,200 checks for lower- and middle-income households (with more for those with kids).
Now, no one expects even a panic-stricken GOP to rubber-stamp Democratic legislative proposals. But administration and congressional Republican negotiators could have simply countered with their own very expensive, economy-reviving proposals (e.g., Trump’s pet idea of a payroll tax cut, plus a liability shield for their business constituencies), and begun the process of adorning a Christmas tree with everyone’s favorite ornaments. That’s sort of how the original $2.2 trillion CARES Act came together back in March. It was a big barbecue where all sorts of offerings reached the buffet table.
Instead, with key CARES Act relief measures like an eviction moratorium on federally assisted rental housing and an Unemployment Insurance supplement about to run out, Republicans are dawdling through a two-week recess, and mostly complaining about Heroes Act provisions they don’t like, which means most of them. They seem determined to impose an arbitrary $1 trillion cap on further stimulus, which is a bit like a drowning person demanding a smaller life raft. They are also categorically rejecting both an extension in the UI bump, and of any general fiscal assistance to states and localities.
Why are Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue so loath to let Democrats help them help themselves at a time of maximum political peril? Here are a few factors:
1. They Really Can’t Stop Being Partisan
Donald Trump has never stopped pursuing a reelection strategy of revving up his base with culture-war rhetoric and demonizing the opposition at every turn. Central to the latter approach is the proposition that, like Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are puppets of the radical left of Black Lives Matter and antifa. These people cannot be partners in any governing endeavor, however vital it actually is to the self-preservation of a Republican Senate and White House. With the Trump campaign, the party committees, and the super-PACs all grinding away at negative messaging about Democrats, the time for any kind of bipartisanship is over, beyond the minimum things necessary to show concern for a suffering nation.
Besides, the almighty GOP base isn’t necessarily suffering so much (46 percent of Pennsylvania Republicans in a new Monmouth poll say they are currently finding it easier to pay their household bills than they did four years ago), and has been conditioned to dislike any federal assistance that isn’t exclusively for themselves. That isn’t a good foundation for a very large relief and stimulus package.
2. It’s Too Late for Trump to Run on His Record
The idea of trying to turn conditions in the country around between now and November enough to reelect the president and Republican senators probably strikes some GOP strategists as a fool’s errand. No matter what they do, the “Keep America Great” slogan is in tatters thanks to the coronavirus and its economic impact, and even if the situation improves, Republicans aren’t going to win in November unless the election is turned from a “referendum” on Trump into a “choice” election between polar-opposite parties, coalitions, and agendas. Again, cooperating with Democrats on ameliorative efforts doesn’t fit into that strategy.
3. They’ve Had Enough Heresy for This Year, Thank You
Now if you asked a conservative true believer why his representatives in Washington are battling stimulus efforts that might save the party in November, you’d hear a lot about “principles,” debts and deficits, “limited government,” and maybe even the need for a good, vicious recession now and then to remind the proles of the blessings they take for granted, while keeping them from contaminating credit markets or acquiring too much clout at the bargaining table.
But as we have learned repeatedly, Republican politicians tend to check their fiscal responsibility and limited government principles at the door when they are actually in power. There wasn’t much fear of cheap credit and inflation and runaway Big Government when George W. Bush was president, and there’s been even less since Donald Trump took office. The almost nonexistent Republican opposition to the CARES Act was a good sign that when it’s convenient or necessary, all that ideology can bend.
That’s not to say, however, that ideology doesn’t matter at all, particularly to a Republican rank-and-file that has been taught for decades that domestic federal spending, expanded government operations, and public borrowing are not just bad, but enslaving and incorrigible. Republican members of Congress who avidly voted for the CARES Act because they had to likely felt shame at their weakness. And so that vote became not a sign that “anything goes” in 2020, but a sort of last-stop-before-detox belt of rotgut that could not be repeated. You definitely get that sense from conservatives in Congress who as soon as CARES passed began swearing off additional stimulus like sinners begging God for one more chance at redemption.
4. They’ve Drunk Their Own Kool-Aid
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Trump saving himself by embracing emergency public-health and economic measures is simply that this man who never, ever acknowledges mistakes would have to admit to a lot of them and abandon the endless self-congratulating over his handling of COVID-19 from the get-go. Going big on a new stimulus package would mean confessing he had been wrong in minimizing the coronavirus initially, wrong in letting states do what they wanted, and most emphatically wrong in encouraging his followers to demand the dismantling of business and public gathering restrictions on grounds that the pandemic was all but over.
Does that sound like Donald Trump to you?
As Jonathan Bernstein noted recently, it’s always easier for Trump to stay in denial and demand the same of his base:
Trump is himself ambivalent about further stimulus measures, just as he’s been ambivalent about acting aggressively to stem the pandemic. He seems to think that taking dramatic action to solve a problem is bad politics compared to pretending the problem doesn’t exist.
Beyond his pathological inability to admit mistakes, it may just be too late in the Trump presidency to turn around his relentless claims that he saved a country sinking into “carnage” and must do so again as the radical left threatens to dismantle the wonderful America he has built. Whatever his strategists tell him about the perils of a “referendum,” Trump wants the electorate to confirm his self-esteem, so that impulse may rule out desperate measures that reflect poorly on what he has done and failed to do.
At this late date in the 2020 cycle, Trump and his party are more likely to contest a defeat based on dubious claims of voter fraud than to take the measures necessary to regain the public support that has been slipping away since Trump was first inaugurated. So it would be a shock if they muster the courage or political imagination to aggressively fight the coronavirus, bail out struggling state and local governments, or drop money from helicopters to keep the economy alive. It’s far easier to remain in self-delusion and seek to delude those who can theoretically control 270 electoral votes and the prospects of 51 senators.