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How Democrats Should Navigate Pandemic Politics

To: Interested Parties

From: Dan Pfeiffer, Pod Save America

Re: Navigating the Politics of a Pandemic


It may seem callous to think about politics in the midst of a pandemic that has millions of Americans secluded at home and wondering if they’ll see their next paychecks. But President Trump’s fumbling and flawed response to coronavirus is a reminder that elections have consequences that can be devastating and deadly. This is not just any election year—it’s perhaps the most important election in American history, and Democrats cannot ignore the politics of the moment. 

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Democrats put politics aside to line up behind a Republican president. Republicans responded by using the attack as a cudgel to bully the nation into war and bludgeon Democratic candidates for being soft on terrorism. Democrats must do all we can to ensure that the next time our country faces a national emergency, there is a Democrat presiding over a government staffed by experts, instead of an administration run by Fox News Green Room rejects who are sourcing ideas from Facebook.  

In other words, we cannot make the same mistakes again.

1. Hold Trump Accountable for his failures: President Trump’s response to coronavirus pandemic has been a moral, political, and economic disaster. On a daily basis, Trump makes George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina seem positively Churchillian. The fact that the United States is so far behind the curve on testing and other response measures is a direct result of Trump’s unique blend of malevolence, incompetence, and narcissism. It should be devastating to his chances for reelection. The question is how to prosecute the case. The Democratic critique of Trump on Twitter and cable news has been largely stylistic. These critiques are legitimate and well deserved. Trump has refused to abide by proper social-distancing practices, downplayed the seriousness of the disease, and repeatedly passed along incorrect information that has endangered lives. His tone has been dismissive and self-congratulatory, and his tweets have, as always, been evidence of his unfitness for office.

His Oval Office address was without a doubt the worst presidential address in American history. It was Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner, and a “Heckuva job, Brownie” moment all in one. However, a focus on the specific, substantive failures of the Trump administration is likely to be more impactful in the long run than attacking his comportment. 

Previous polling from Crooked Media and Change Research indicates that the most effective arguments against Trump are based on specific, factual information previously unknown to the public and delivered without hyperbole. Therefore, Democrats should focus on specifics instead of optics:

  • Trump shut down the White House’s pandemic response unit bequeathed to him by President Obama
  • Trump resisted efforts to expand and expedite testing
  • Trump ignored specific warnings about the dangers of the virus
  • Trump’s failed for weeks to order FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other government agencies to build up health-care and other necessary infrastructure
  • Trump continues to delay invoking the Defense Production Act to marshal U.S. industries to ramp up production of ventilators, personal protective equipment, and other necessary items that are in dangerous short supply
  • Trump cut CDC funding
  • Trump waited for months to declare a national emergency and wasted critical time unleashing the federal government’s resources 

2. Don’t Count on the Media to Carry the Message: The media’s coverage of Trump’s response has been objectively brutal. Trump’s sloppy, dishonest press conferences and other public statements are typically followed by morose panel discussions of his errors. It is enjoyable to watch and feels like karmic retribution for all the uncritical free media he’s been given since 2016. But ultimately, it’s all empty calories. The voters who will decide this election are not watching cable news or mainlining the mean tweets about Trump. Reporters have done some incredibly important journalism during this crisis, but holding Trump politically accountable for his misdeeds is not their job. Even if it were, they simply don’t have the reach to do it successfully. If Democrats want voters to know that Trump is the one who screwed this up, they have to tell them in paid advertising and other native digital content. This video that went viral online earlier this week is a good example

Unfortunately, informing the public will be a challenge. Even under the best of conditions, Democrats don’t have a lot of money to spare for these sorts of advertising campaigns and I have to imagine that an economic downturn will make it harder to fundraise. One bit of good news, the Democratic group Pacronym announced this week that it will launch a multi-million dollar digital advertising effort targeting Trump. Hopefully others will participate.

3. Use Congress to Highlight Different Visions: Congressional Democrats are in an odd position. In order to help the economy and workers affected by the pandemic, Democrats are about to give the Trump administration authority to mail $1,000 checks—presumably signed by Trump—to nearly every voter in the country. It’s hard (read: impossible) to imagine Republican leaders giving a Democratic president the power to deliver similar relief to the public seven months before re-election. But that’s the difference between Democrats and Republicans. We are unwilling to hurt the most vulnerable Americans in order to score political points, they are perfectly willing. So, how can Democrats do the right thing without giving Trump a political lifeline that helps him secure re-election?

First, we have to recognize that we have a lot of leverage. Trump understands only two metrics: the stock market and his poll numbers, and by both of those metrics, he is in big trouble. In raw political terms, Trump and McConnell need to fix the economy much more urgently than Democrats do. The lesson of the Obama years is that the party in power takes the blame for Washington gridlock. Obama repeatedly bore the brunt of the slow recovery even when it was the direct result of Republican obstruction. Trump and McConnell know this, but do the Democrats? As a party, we owe it to the country, our voters, and ourselves to be constructive and reasonable, but we have a political and moral imperative to drive a harder and better bargain—and to make sure people know we drove it.

Second, we must offer an alternative. Democrats should put forward a large-scale economic package that is much more progressive and populist than what Trump wants. For example, Sens. Michael Bennett (D-CO), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and others have introduced a proposal to send people $4,500 checks. Democrats should also back a paid-leave provision that’s much bigger than the one the White House watered down in the initial House bill, along with a broad Emergency Unemployment Insurance provision.

Third, we must use the legislative debate to show that Trump is ultimately a plutocrat in populist clothing. Bailouts are about as popular as the coronavirus itself. The final  legislative package will include hundreds of millions of dollars in bailouts for industries. Unlike the Wall Street bailouts, the airline, hotel, and other industries bear no responsibility for this situation and may need to be rescued for the sake of the economy and their workers. But Democrats can be the ones fighting to make sure these packages benefit workers and not just executives and shareholders. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) called for a ban on using funds for stock buybacks. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) put forward several proposals including a ban on using funds from the rescue package to pay for executive bonuses. 

Finally, we must demand Congress require states to implement vote-by-mail. There is a very real possibility that pandemic conditions will persist through Election Day in November. We cannot force Americans to choose between exercising their civic duties and protecting public health. Sens. Amy Kloubachar (D-MN) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) have introduced a bill to mandate national vote by mail that should be included in the next rescue package. Any piece of legislation must include measures to protect voting rights.  Marc Elias, the Democratic election attorney, laid out four such proposals:

  • Postage-free or prepaid ballots
  • Ballots postmarked by Election Day must count
  • Signature-matching laws that protect voters
  • Empower community organizations to help collect and deliver sealed ballots

Vote by mail leads to higher turnout, which often benefits Democrats. Republicans will reflexively oppose the idea because they see higher turnout as a threat to their power, but I would encourage them to ask themselves which party will suffer more if people over 70, those most at risk from coronavirus, are afraid to vote?

4. Get in the Conversation: Trump is flooding the media zone in an attempt to shape the conversation. Obviously, the more often Trump opens his mouth, the more likely he is to say something mind-bendingly stupid that will tank markets and haunt him throughout the campaign. For instance: Trump gave himself a perfect 10 out of 10 for his response to the pandemic just as millions of Californians were being confined to their homes indefinitely and the Dow Jones entered a bear market. However, Trump’s omnipresence in the media can look like action. Most voters are not paying close attention to the daily news cycles—they are walking past TVs or scrolling through their social media feeds and seeing Trump everywhere. It is impossible for congressional Democrats to compete with the presidential bully pulpit with press conferences and appearances on CNN. But now we have a presumptive Democratic nominee. Joe Biden would get significant media attention by responding to Trump and laying out what he would do in a similar situation. Biden’s coronavirus speech last week was excellent, but only a start. He should meet with the sorts of pandemic experts that would staff a Biden administration. He should do video conferences with doctors and nurses on the front lines. He should work with the celebrities, athletes, and influencers that have endorsed him to encourage people to stay home and abide by CDC guidelines. And he should lay out what Democrats want to see in an economic package, along with a critique of Trump’s approach.

5. High-Profile Oversight: Hearings get more attention than cable hits. Congressional Democrats should thus use their investigative powers to discover how Trump and his minions made the pandemic worse. It’s unlikely that regular hearings from the oversight committee will drive the national conversation, but a special committee created to investigate the coronavirus response would. I feel dirty even using this example, but the special Benghazi committee former House Speaker John Boehner established received substantially more attention than all the previous hearings, reports, and findings from other committees. Unlike that farce of a committee, which was created to drive a political outcome and appease a rabid base, this committee would serve the real public purpose of trying to get to the bottom of something that has altered American life in unimaginable ways. Members would follow the evidence where it took them and offer guidance on how to prepare for the next pandemic, but they would also hold hearings and issue a report this autumn. Trump and the Republicans will scream bloody murder about “politicizing” the crisis, but Democrats have the moral and political high ground. Nationally televised hearings with witnesses and evidence will have much greater impact than Trump’s tweets. The American people need to know the truth about the incompetence, calculation, and narcissism that exacerbated a national crisis before they vote (by mail) in November.

American politics have never been more polarized and Trump is a uniquely polarizing figure. If he single-handedly invented a vaccine and administered it to every American, he wouldn’t receive the 90 percent approval that Bush saw after 9/11 and if he continues to screw it up, his approval probably won’t drop below 30 percent like Bush’s did after Katrina. This election will be won on the margins in four to six states, and how Democrats argue their casein the middle of the crisis will go a long way toward determining who presides over the next crisis.

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