On Monday night—before he won huge Super Tuesday victories across the country, but after key Democrats had injected his campaign with new vitality—Joe Biden previewed the magnanimous general election campaign he seems intent on running in spite of it all.
“We refuse to accept the notion that there be a constant war,” he said, “that Republicans are our enemies—they’re our opposition.”
Biden phrased this in explicit contrast with other candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination who—whether you think Biden captures the dispute fairly or not—disagree with his view that Republicans can be reasoned with, and that it’s wise to enter office treating them as good-faith governing partners.
As Biden spoke, Donald Trump convened a rally in North Carolina, a key theme of which was making fun of Joe Biden for being senile. Hours earlier, on the first work day after Biden won the South Carolina primary in a landslide, Republican senators rediscovered Burisma and Hunter Biden and made evident their intent to turn the Senate into a subpoena-armed SuperPAC that aims to destroy Biden and his family.
Of course, if the fog of age has caught up with Biden it has fully enveloped Trump, who entered his dotage having never attempted to be a consistent or truthful person. If Hunter Biden’s profiteering schemes created the appearance of impropriety, Trump is a poster child for the real thing. But a key tenet of modern Republican politics is that standards and norms and ethics apply only to liberals, so they will happily create a general-election alternate factual universe where the choice is between a corrupt, demented politician and Donald Trump.
Suspicion that Biden truly believes what he says about Republicans has hovered over his campaign all along. It’s one of the reasons I believe he fares so poorly with younger voters, who rightly see the GOP as the central impediment to saving the planet from climate change and making America a more just society. And in a normal race, Biden would have a limited number of ways to assure those voters that he won’t let his nostalgia for bipartisanship hobble his presidency and doom their future.
But the world is full of surprises. In 2008, the financial crisis abruptly formed a backdrop that allowed Barack Obama to demonstrate coolness under pressure, in contrast to the tried-and-tested John McCain who panicked and blew up the federal response. In 2020, the federal response to coronavirus pandemic could form a similar backdrop.
Biden’s rhetoric about Republicans is a perfect match for freshman House Democrats, who dread confrontation with Trump and prefer to center their politics around the number of bipartisan bills they’ve passed along to die in Mitch McConnell’s Senate. The coronavirus fiasco is a microcosm of this asymmetric dynamic. Trump has allowed the virus to circulate widely in the United States rather than allow public-health professionals free rein to contain it in a way that might have contributed to a stock market panic and harmed his re-election odds. He has begun casting about for ways to blame the pandemic on Democrats and their supposed “open borders” policies, while simultaneously insisting that they leave politics out of their response.
Republicans, in other words, want Democrats to save them from themselves while sharing if not shouldering all of the blame for a crisis they had no role in creating. The similarities to 2008 and 2009 are striking, which means the question facing Democrats—and possibly Biden in particular—is whether they’ve learned anything from that experience. Back then, Democrats, as responsible governing partners, helped the George W. Bush administration bail out financial institutions and pass multiple rounds of fiscal stimulus, only for Republicans to return the favor once Barack Obama became president by opposing all further stimulus and saddling him with countercyclical austerity demands. (Naturally, when Obama gave way to Trump, Republicans lost all interest in austerity and have propped up Trump’s presidency with a deluge of deficit spending and debt-financed tax cuts.)
The supply and demand shocks of global pandemic have Democrats pondering an election-year stimulus for a Republican president once again. If Democrats were like Republican nihilists they would simply allow the economy to enter recession, or hold any recovery efforts hostage to unrelated policy objectives. But these options—ignore politics altogether for the good of the country or engage in maximal cynicism—represent two ends of a spectrum, not the entire universe of possible responses.
An opposition party that governs responsibly in a crisis invariably helps the incumbent party hold on to power, but the need for action gives the opposition leverage, too. Democrats, with Biden’s support, could use it to insure that the infuriating history of Republican hostage-taking in the Obama years doesn’t repeat itself.
If the global spread of coronavirus leaves the American economy in need of stimulus, Democrats should be willing to provide it, but not in an environment where Trump has claimed tyrannical immunity from congressional checks, and not in a legislative framework that will leave the government no tools to combat recessions when Democrats win back the presidency. Any such deal would require Republican buy-in by definition—all laws must pass the Republican-controlled Senate—but between Democratic control of the House and the Senate’s filibuster rules, Democrats will have the power they need to set real conditions on any stimulus Trump requests.
The fact that Trump has in fact requested a one-year payroll-tax cut tells us everything we need to know about how he and Republicans hope to game the crisis: The economy gets stimulus through the election; if he wins, they can return to Congress and seek an extension; if Democrats win, they can block its renewal. The bedrock condition for any such stimulus should make a payroll tax cut automatic whenever the country is in or entering recession, taking a key means of GOP economic sabotage off the table. Another condition should require the Trump administration to submit to regular oversight—of its coronavirus response most immediately, but ideally along other avenues of congressional inquiry it has stonewalled, too.
Democrats in Congress are loath to engage in hardball like this, but the person with the most interest in stiffening their spines should be the Democratic nominee for president. The passage of any stimulus will make it harder for him to win the election; an oversight regime that threatens to expose Trump’s ubiquitous corruption and incompetence would rebalance the scales, and the codification of economic stimulus would leave him that much less vulnerable to Republican sabotage in 2021 and beyond. And if Biden becomes the nominee, making these demands would help assure Democratic voters that beneath the rhetoric he learned from his experience as vice president, sees Republicans for who they are, and will govern accordingly.