Reopening economy emerges as new political battleground

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As Washington policymakers scramble to contain the fallout from the coronavirus crisis, the question of how quickly to reopen the economy has emerged as the latest political battleground dividing the two parties.

Behind President Trump, Republicans are increasingly eager to get businesses reopened and customers into their doors, warning that a prolonged economic shutdown — even in the name of protecting public health — will do more harm to the nation’s long-term viability than the coronavirus itself.

“It is time for Texans to go back to work,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told a local news station on Wednesday. “Because the consequences of this economic shutdown are serious and dire.”

Democrats are sounding a different alarm. While they, too, want to get the economy back up and running as quickly as possible, they warn that scaling back public safeguards too soon would cause more infections, kill more people, spark deeper societal fears and undermine the economic rebound that any reopening was intended to promote.

“The economic depression is directly correlated with the rise in transmission of the coronavirus,” Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), a physician, told Fox News this week. “So, for us to focus on the public health and safety aspects is the right way to help get our economy back in order.”

The ultimate decision about when and how to reopen the country’s economy is largely in the hands of state and local officials, and governors in both parties have suggested they fear opening their state economies and relaxing social distancing policies too early could backfire.

At the same time, the issue also represents a minefield for political leaders in Washington, who are waging the debate on a national stage against the backdrop of high-stakes elections looming less than seven months away.

Both sides are claiming the high ground: the Republicans by appealing to the economic fears of workers and businesses concerned that the American dream is slipping away; the Democrats by allying themselves with the public health experts — including those on Trump’s own coronavirus team — warning that a hasty lifting of social distancing guidelines would have deadly consequences.

And both sides come armed with their own statistics. Fueling the GOP’s urgency, unemployment has skyrocketed in recent weeks and retail sales fell by historic numbers in March. Fanning the Democrats’ argument, the United States now has more cases and deaths than any country on the globe.

The balance they’re seeking is a delicate one — more nuanced than just a simple case of economic versus public health, since the two are intrinsically entwined. And perhaps no one is walking a finer line than the president, who believes his best chance at reelection is a booming economy but is also wary that reopening the country prematurely could backfire if it spikes the number of coronavirus cases, spooks markets and drives the economy further downward.

“President Trump is pushing hard on the gas to get this done quickly sensing it would benefit him and help strengthen his position,” Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, said Wednesday. “But the science is so strong on this and the consequences so severe, Democrats will not cross over on this until it is absolutely safe.”

Indeed, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) warned this week that Democrats, while supporting trillions of dollars in economic relief for businesses and workers ravaged by the pandemic, fully intend to heed the direction of the public health experts when it comes to reopening society.

“All of us want to resume the precious and beautiful lives that America’s unique freedoms provide,” Pelosi wrote Tuesday to Democrats. “We will overcome this moment, but success requires one fundamental from which all actions will follow: we need the truth.”

In a shot at the president, Pelosi urged the public to “ignore lies and start to listen to scientists … in order to protect ourselves and our loved ones.” And some Republicans are also stressing the importance of conducting a much broader testing campaign before taking steps to reopen even the most rural parts of the country.

“Without more tests with quick results, it will be difficult to contain this disease and give Americans confidence to go back to work and back to school,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said Wednesday.

Republicans like Cruz, however, are warning that the economic devastation of a prolonged shutdown carries its own health risks if family businesses begin to fail, lifetime savings accounts evaporate and despair sets in.

“That’s going to lead to mental health issues, that’s going to lead to depression, it’s going to lead to substance abuse, it’s going to lead to increased suicide,” he told KCBD News. “All of those are very real public health threats as well.”

Some Republicans have taken their argument a long step further, saying the economy is more important than public health and Congress and other policymakers must stand ready to reopen society even if it means an increase in coronavirus deaths.  

“It is always the American government’s position to say, in the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of life of American lives, we have to always choose the latter,” Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-Ind.) said Tuesday on Indianapolis’s WIBC radio station.

Facing a backlash, Hollingsworth, 36, a wealthy former businessman, sought to clarify his remarks a day later. But he did not back away from the central premise.

“I stood up and said on a radio show, [that] we are going to have to make tough decisions going forward,” Hollingsworth told the IndyStar Wednesday. “And we owe a plan that acknowledges the reality that the risk of coronavirus will never be equal to zero and there are costs associated with this shutdown of our economy — real costs that Hoosiers and Americans are bearing.”

Trump, for his part, is still pressing to have much of the nation’s economy reopened by May 1 — “even sooner” in some states, he said from the White House this week.

Yet his own team of health experts has suggested the timeline could run longer, threatening to foil Trump’s near-term plan to kick-start the economy a full six months ahead of the election. And some political observers are predicting that the president — who’s already casting blame on Democratic governors and President Obama for the current health crisis — will almost certainly continue in that vein if the economy fails to rebound quickly.

“Given that Trump’s preference is to dive into the political division rather than to look for points of unity — expect this to greatly intensify,” said Zelizer, of Princeton.

“You will hear more of Trump blaming Democrats for the economy as the best political alternative to the economy actually restarting,” he added. “But in the end, the buck stops with him.”

Tags Coronavirus Donald Trump Lamar Alexander Nancy Pelosi Raul Ruiz Ted Cruz Trey Hollingsworth

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