The Memo: Democrats grapple with virus response
The coronavirus crisis is testing Democrats as well as President Trump.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the odds-on favorite to become the Democratic nominee, has taken a relatively low profile. Democratic leaders in Congress are evaluating how to respond legislatively to the crisis. And the party at large is trying to steer a steady course between valid criticisms of the president’s response and overly hot rhetoric that would strike the wrong tone at a moment of national and global anxiety.
Liberal voices on social media have been much more vehement in their criticism of Trump, on matters substantial and stylistic — from the shortage of tests to the president’s combative press briefings.
But it would be politically dangerous for Democrats to assume this crisis spells the end of Trump, even though it is well on the way to ending the strong economy that was expected to be his strongest card for a second term.
An ABC News/IPSOS poll released on Friday indicated that 55 percent of Americans approved of Trump’s management of the crisis, versus 43 percent who disapproved. Those numbers were roughly inverted since a poll a week before from the same organizations.
Democratic strategists who spoke with The Hill universally warned against the dangers of appearing too nakedly political right now. There was also a widespread sense that any effort to game out the political consequences now for November’s elections is pointless. The situation is unprecedented and even the immediate future unknowable.
That being so, it is vital for the party and its most high-profile representatives to take a nuanced approach, sources said.
“We are in a place now where it does not behoove anybody, politically, to be seen as an irritant or an impediment to progress. This is a real-life crisis, this is not a political crisis,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “Democrats have no desire to be seen as purely political actors in this moment.”
Biden, who is virtually assured of becoming the Democratic standard-bearer after scoring emphatic victories in three primaries on Tuesday — in Arizona, Florida and Illinois — has made few high-profile public appearances in recent days.
Traditional campaigning has been paused by the public health crisis and rallies are out of the question. Biden did deliver remarks via video from his Delaware home on Tuesday evening but he has otherwise largely restricted his comments to social media and email news releases.
On Friday, Biden branded the lack of coronavirus testing “a national disgrace” on Twitter. He also called for an increased minimum wage and stronger workplace protections “for every grocery and retail worker working around the clock during this crisis.”
Tweets, even from a candidate on the brink of claiming the nomination, do not really break through in the current febrile environment. But some Democrats argued that Biden’s modulated approach was a necessary one.
Joe Trippi, the campaign manager for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s (D) 2004 presidential campaign, noted that Biden had put out proposals earlier in the week as to how he would seek to deal with the crisis.
Beyond that, Trippi said, “I don’t think ‘I would do it better!’ right now is the right way. It’s [better] to ask the right questions or make really good suggestions and hope the president adopts them. That is more of the right tone.”
Another Democratic strategist, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, also suggested that a more muscular approach from Biden would be risky.
“The danger for Biden is that I don’t think people have the stomach for partisan politics that they did even two weeks ago. I just don’t believe that is the case.”
The same strategist made a similar point about the partisan battles on Capitol Hill, where each party is advancing different priorities as a stimulus package is negotiated.
“I would hope they would stop trying to work things out through press releases and leaks to the media,” the strategist said. “This isn’t your normal legislative battle. This is about making sure the country does not lose its collective mind.”
Senate Democrats are pushing back against an initial plan backed by GOP negotiators under which checks as large as $1,200 would be dispatched to many Americans.
Democrats argue that one-off payments would not be enough to help many citizens weather the economic shocks from the crisis, and that a better approach would be strengthening unemployment insurance.
“There are many, many who have lost their jobs and one check when they may be out of their jobs for three, four, five months isn’t going to be enough. Unemployment insurance gives money the whole period of time the crisis exists at your present salary level and covers just about everyone,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Friday.
Some Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) hold similar views, which raises the chances of the Democrats prevailing on that topic. Any proposal must also gain the consent of the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spearheads the Democratic majority.
Previous crises have seen Democrats adopt stances that were ultimately seen as too accommodationist to a Republican president — most conspicuously when many Democratic senators acquiesced on then-President George W. Bush’s power to wage war in Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But for now, most Democrats seem to agree that the harshest jabs at Trump are better left until the height of the crisis is past.
“Once there is a stabilization, I would see a very targeted push-back on Trump’s response,” said Payne. “But at the moment, Democrats want to be seen as part of the solution.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
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