hardline political news and analysis

A Hinge Point in History

An authoritarian world leader hunkering down in a bunker while military chaos swirls on the streets overhead. A peaceful crowd of demonstrators attacked by the military in a famous public space while an aghast world watches in real time. Brutal violence by police against citizens exercising their constitutional rights. Shocking photos that indelibly seared into public consciousness the inequity and brutality of law enforcement. 

These are not images we are supposed to associate with the United States in 2020. Hitler in his bunker during the final days of World War II; the repression of Chinese demonstrators in Tiananmen Square 31 years ago this week; police dogs attacking civil rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965; a disbelieving student kneeling at the lifeless body of a fellow demonstrator at Kent State in 1970. Those are the historic images that should come to mind when such circumstances are mentioned. Not the White House bunker, tear gas, shock grenades, rubber bullets and low-flying helicopters at Lafayette Park and a policeman crushing the life out of a helpless man on the streets of Minneapolis.

The horror of the past week, in addition to the fear and frustration of an incompetent government’s response to the coronavirus, has pushed the country to the edge of genuine chaos. No, I don’t mean the country is falling apart or that violent revolution is around the corner. But something profound is taking place and reaching deep into the public psyche, far beyond the anger, outrage and mayhem in city after city.

We see that profundity in the sitting Secretary of Defense breaking with his own president over the ill-wisdom of invoking military laws and utilizing the armed forces against Americans in their own neighborhoods. In the stunning reprimand of retired military leaders reminding commanders that they took an oath to serve the Constitution and the people, and by implication, not irresponsible usurpers of the public trust. In the decision of police and military personnel wisely taking a knee and walking with demonstrators in a repudiation of violence by irresponsible provocateurs and reckless political leaders.

The common realization, shared by a widening majority of Americans across the partisan spectrum, seems to be that however much one may despise or share Donald Trump’s policy goals, his behavior as president is so dangerous that we cannot allow him to continue in office. And while he remains president until January 20, 2021, rational leaders in the political and even military structure will have to assess which of his erratic and destructive orders can be obeyed and which must be resisted because they take the nation into a dark and perilous tunnel.

Hopefully, but not necessarily, that consensus continues to grow between now and Election Day, still five long months away. Surely this is no time for violence or resignation by Americans, but it is also no time for complacency. One would have to be foolish not to believe Trump will make every effort to obstruct and distort the election; nothing in his history, character or behavior could leader any dispassionate person to any other conclusion. So we must work with state and local officials, and with responsible members of the Congress, to ensure that Trump does not rip away our last vestiges of democratic governance in a narcissistic frenzy to maintain power.

Yes, this sounds ominous and maybe a bit fatalistic. If ever there was a time for such feelings, we have arrived at it. You can’t put it much better than did Mario Savio at Sather Gate all those years ago. “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!” 

It is on each of us to “make it stop.” On the streets, in discussions with friends, at the workplace, and especially at the polls. One certainty is undebatable: it will not stop by itself.

Why Won’t the Republicans Help Hard-Hit States?

The resistance to federal assistance for beleaguered state governments in the latest House coronavirus bill is reminiscent of arguments made by Republicans during the Great Recession. Speaker Pelosi’s HEROES Act would provide nearly $1 trillion to help state, local and tribal governments whose treasuries are being devastated by the combination of increased costs and diminished revenues resulting from battling the virus.

The need for help is readily demonstrable. Massive expenditures for first responders and expanded demands on health care related to the virus, combined with shrinking treasuries from diminished in-coming revenues, most states will soon be faced with the difficult choices of slashing pay for fire and police, teachers and even health personnel. One recent report documented that 1,000 firefighters have been laid off throughout the nation already with another 30,000 jobs at risk. With constitutional requirements for balanced budgets, many states have little alternative but to shrink essential personnel since unlike the federal government, these states cannot incur additional debt even at today’s low rates or print money to cover unanticipated costs.

Conservatives who have long championed the role of state and local governments are perplexingly hostile to aiding them in their hour of crisis, even as they willingly approve trillions of dollars for private businesses. “We’re weighing in heavily, saying, ‘Don’t spend trillions on Nancy’s wish list,’ ” says former Rep. David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth of Speaker Pelosi’s new bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has suggested conditioning further state assistance on reducing pensions for state retirees, although he secured special pension assistance to Kentucky coal miners in last year’s spending bill. The Wall Street Journal insists states cut back on “nonessential spending” although it is unlikely many would define teacher and firefighter salaries in such terms.

There is a familiar ring to such objections. A decade ago, Republican leaders refused to support Democratic efforts to help states affected by the recession. “We are broke,” Republican leader John Boehner asserted when the House passed a meager $25 billion to help states in 2010. “We do not have the money to bail out the states. It’s time for them to get their arms around their problems and not look to Washington to bail them out.” Boehner and other Republicans sought to exploit the crisis as a way to break public employee unions that had negotiated salary and retirement benefits for their members. 

In December 2009, the House had approved the “Jobs for Main Street Act” that would redirect $287 billion in unexpended TARP financial bailout funds to states for education and other public service jobs. Another $48 billion would have gone for job-producing transportation and infrastructure improvements. A few months later, the House approved $23 billion for public sector jobs and $10 billion for teachers. Because of the ability of Senate Republicans to block these emergency funds, only a tiny fraction of the money ever went to the states. 

There is nothing partisan about the massive burdens on state and local governments. The bipartisan National Governors Association has requested hundreds of billions in emergency support from Congress, and many states are warning of teacher and first responder layoffs if support is not quickly forthcoming. Although the Trump White House now is signaling a possible compromise on the issue of aid, the support may well be tied to unacceptable conditions that have political objectives behind them. “I don’t think the Republicans want to be in a position where they bail out states that … have been mismanaged over a long period of time,” Trump recently declared, before selectively citing a number of reliably Democratic states.

Casting the argument as a blue-versus-red state dichotomy overlooks the weak financial position of many Republican-led states that chronically need help. Indeed, of the 15 states that habitually receive more financial support from the federal government than they contribute, 13 have been reliably Republican states in presidential elections. Most of their congressional delegations are also dominated by Republicans (sometimes as a result of gerrymandered House districts). When they require help for agriculture disasters or flooding or fires, or when their conservative legislators load up spending bills with money for farmers and defense installations in those red states, there is nary a word of protest from so-called fiscal conservatives. Memorably, many of these conservatives insisted that so-called blue states agree to compensate the federal government for aid following hurricane disasters but declined to impose similar requirements on their own states.

The discrepancy between the parties over helping impacted states during the economic crisis has less to do with concerns about state financial management than with trying to score political points against heavily populated states with substantial budgets (that invariably send far more to Washington than they receive back). As Tim Kaine, then the chairman of the Democratic National Committee noted during the Great Recession, the debate over helping states was more an “example of the differences in priorities” between the parties than a serious discussion about helping states. Little, it seems, has changed in the current crisis.

The 2020 Version of the “Birther” Lie

       One of the major battles about to be waged over future COVID-19 relief will result from the insistence of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional Democrats that the federal government assist states in their transition from in-person to mail-in voting for the November election. Republicans in Congress have already made clear they will fight this effort mightily, and perhaps with good reason.

       There are two issues in play here: concern that absentee voting will enhance the prospects of Democratic candidates, and as well as a desire by Republicans (led by President Trump) to lay the groundwork for challenging the authenticity of the election’s outcome.

       In a moment of uncommon candor, Trump acknowledged that “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again” if states facilitated vote-by-mail alternatives to waiting in line (often despite lengthy delays and inclement weather) to cast a ballot. His argument seems rooted in the belief that absentee voting inherently benefits Democrats. The data does not back up that assumption, although it might be easier for voters who often do vote Democratic– especially minorities and those of Latino backgrounds – to avoid being intimidated and challenged at the polls

       In five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – ballots are automatically sent to every voter; in other states, voters can request to be placed on automatic absentee lists. In a dozen or so, the process of absentee voting is complicated, sometimes restricted to those stationed overseas, the disabled or those traveling on Election Day. Several of these states, like New York and Massachusetts, are already making plans to revise their absentee rules during the COVID-19 era.

       Absentee voting may slightly help one party or another (although the data are not clear on that point), but it does seem to increase participation, and on that point alone, Republicans are highly suspicious. But while the kinds of rampant fraud cited by Trump and others seems without evidence, a much higher proportion of mail-in ballots do tend to be disqualified because the voters has failed to comply with the rules: a failure to sign the ballot, or to affix a date, or to place the envelope inside a blank envelope before inserting it into the return mail envelope. In some cases, disabled voters or those with English language issues might need support in completing their ballots. That is why many states and local communities need assistance to make their procedures more voter friendly before November so that the number of mailed ballots thrown out – which can be as high as 15% — is reduced.

       The post office will also need special support to process tens of millions of ballots accurately and on an expedited basis. Denigrating the post office, and its heavily minority workforce, have become another favorite Trump obsession. Perhaps special arrangements will need to be made with UPS or FedEx in some areas to ensure the timely and secure receipt of ballots.

       But instead of offering assistance, Republicans and the Trump administration have dug in their heels against the shift to mail-in voting. Such delays are helpful to Republicans because they postpone the implementation of systems to credibly manage election night in November, making it that much more difficult to develop the standardized system needed to ensure accuracy and, importantly, confidence in the credibility of the vote.

       And that is another reason Trump and his Capitol Hill allies are so aggressively denigrating mail-in voting. If, as there is some evidence may occur, Joe Biden defeats Trump in November, and if the Democrats retain the House and potentially even win the Senate (or tie), Trump, Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy and other Republicans will impugn the accuracy of the election, especially wherever the outcome is close. They will launch well-publicized charges that illegal vote-counting tilted the election against Republicans, and they will charge the post office conspired in misplacing and delaying ballots to the detriment of Trump.

       This strategy would be the 2020 equivalent of the charges leveled by conservatives in 2008 and thereafter that Barack Obama was not really born in the United States, a baseless smear that helped launch Trump’s political career. As with the phony “birther” claim, there is no evidence to back up the insinuation, but facts are irrelevant. The charge that the election was rigged, the results phonied up to yield an electoral coup, will be launched Election night and pounded ceaselessly by the Right Wing’s media and online pundits. Sure, Democrats will have the evidence of balloting being conducted fairly and results totaled under proper nonpartisan scrutiny, but the Trump-Republican argument will be difficult to deflate with facts. As Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.”

       So look for the fight over facilitating mail-in voting to continue as Trump and his acolytes seek to delay the inevitable by raising phony allegations. But keep in mind what is really going on: the 2020 version of discrediting the legitimacy of our elected leaders, which tragically has become part of the Republican playbook for elections they cannot win. Only this time, the charges will also be leveled not only against the president-elect, but also against any Democrat who prevails in a close race.

Paying the Pandemic Piper

Congress has now approved combined aid packages that will add nearly $3 trillion to deficits over the coming decade. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has expressed hopes the latest massive federal aid package will be the last one, but he is certain to be proven wrong. And almost no one is focusing on the sticky issue of how the deficits created by the crisis will be reduced let alone eliminated.

Bipartisan support is growing to aid state and local governments whose reserves are being devastated by COVID-related expenses and lost revenues. Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) are calling for $500 billion in the next round of aid, minority leader Chuck Schumer want funding for infrastructure, housing, frontline workers and first responders, and the postal service. As in 2009, when she was successful, Speaker Pelosi is fighting for extended unemployment benefits and more nutritional assistance, and is demanding funding to facilitate mail-in voting later this year.

But Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t see it that way.  Just as Republicans fought efforts to cover the costs of first responders during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, most are going down this path again. McConnell inanely proposed that states just go bankrupt if they can’t afford to pay their teachers, police and fire fighters, treat their sick residents and educate their children. As Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York observed, that’s an interesting recommendation from a senator whose state receives far more in federal spending than its residents send to Washington.

Back in 2009, Republicans who unanimously opposed the 2009 stimulus quickly lined up to seek benefits for their states and districts once the heavy lifting of passing the law was over. Perhaps there should be an amendment in any future relief bill: if your senators and representatives don’t vote for the assistance, your state and district are ineligible for benefits. It would be interesting to see who is prepared to forgo the aid they are so quick to condemn.

But a bigger COVID-related issue also is emerging that will highlight partisan disagreements. When we are through spending trillions of dollars in assistance, who pays the piper to reduce the massive hold blown in the Treasury?

Democrats inserted provisions requiring TARP beneficiaries to repay their loans with interest and taxpayers earned $100 billion in interest. (Some of the car industry loans remain in arrears.) But most of the COVID money going to the private sector this time is likely to be forgiven, which means the deficit numbers will balloon. As a result, the drumbeat will begin for massive spending cuts to dilute the red ink.

Back in 2012, we saw a similar scenario when recession-related deficits fueled subsequent demands for massive cuts. Congress (with the House in Republican hands) punted on making most of the hard decisions like tax increases or entitlement reforms, allowing an automatic process called “sequestration” to do the dirty work. About $4 trillion was slashed from the federal budget, mostly from domestic spending that had played little or no role in causing the deficit.  Democrats wisely insisted that the discretionary reductions come equally from non-defense and defense outlays. Yes, the Bush-era upper income tax cut was allowed to expire as part of that deal, but the wealthiest Americans simultaneously secured a new inflation-adjusted limit on the estate tax that cost hundreds of billions of dollars to benefit a fraction of one percent of Americans.

We certainly can expect to see Republicans demand massive domestic spending cuts to cover the current deficits, while Democrats will call for upper income and corporate tax increases to close the COVID deficits. The question is whether future burdens and sacrifices aimed at cutting the deficit will be imposed on an equitable basis. Republicans since Ronald Reagan have a long and successful history of exploiting the deficit as the rationale  for demanding reductions in federal spending, often in areas that had minimal impact on creating the deficits in the first place.

Already, McConnell is parroting the demand of the Wall Street Journal to condition state assistance on scaling back public pension benefits (although it is worth remembering he secured pension assistance only for Kentuckians in last year’s spending deal). The Journal also insists states cut back on “nonessential spending.” One can only imagine how McConnell will define that term as future aid is debated.

But Democrats appear to be in the weaker negotiating position because they are unlikely to hold out indefinitely for the business and individual relief that will still be needed because of the genuine pain such defiance would inflict. Knowing that, McConnell seems to have the stronger hand when defying the demands of Schumer, Pelosi, governors and local officials. Unless the Democrats are prepared to endure withering condemnation for delaying the aid everyone supports, they may have few options for forcing concessions as the deficit and the bailouts cascade into the summer.  

Planning Ahead for the Election

As if we didn’t have enough worries about Russian hacking, now there is widespread understandable paranoia (is it paranoia is the fear is warranted?) that the 2020 election will be impaired by the disorder sown by COVID19. Already, the primary process has been utterly disrupted with numerous states postponing elections that will resolve the selection of the Democratic nominee for president as well as party choices for Congress and state and local office. Only a hopeless optimist can believe the national conventions will actually take place this summer. Those in charge in each party must be planning for the probability of remote alternatives.

There must be immediate and uniform action to ensure voting by mail for the general election in November, and it must be designed and in place long enough in advance to guarantee its workability and establish its credibility. Compared to developing a COVID19 vaccine, voting by mail is child’s play. Thirty-eight states already have liberal rules for requesting absentee ballots and Washington, Oregon and Colorado use mail-in balloting exclusively. Voting in those states has not only been largely free from irregularities but participation has increased since dispensing with in-person voting. Oregon registered a 10% increase in voting since moving to all mail, according to one study from 2000.

There is every reason to believe a national mail-in voting program would similarly boost participation this fall. Who would prefer to wait for hours on long lines, often in inclement (i.e., freezing) weather, as compared to dropping an envelope at one’s convenience in the mailbox (and washing your hands afterwards, of course)?

Speaker Nancy Pelosi raised the need for such standardization of absentee voting procedures during the development of the recent $2 trillion COVID response bill, but was rebuffed by President Trump. The bill provided just $400 million for election administration but none for expanding mail in capability. Trump attacked Pelosi for wanting to include “things in there about election days…that were crazy.” 

Trump’s objection was not based on the impracticality of mail-in voting. Rather, he admitted that such an innovation would result in “levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Well, that’s a refreshingly honest assessment from the president.

And why is it that in Trump’s head, greater voter participation results in Republicans losing elections? Mail-in voting, as noted, increases turnout by many who might be inclined to skip the discomforts of voting in person: the elderly, people with disabilities, people who live far from the polls, students, the home-bound and others. Pelosi has vowed to try again in the fourth  COVID 19 package now being developed.

Voting (and registration) by mail also complicates voter intimidations such  as announcements that ICE agents will be patrolling polling places that are disseminated to discourage lawful voters who fear they or family members will be mistaken as undocumented. In 2020, a larger turnout of Latino voters in states like Texas, Florida and North Carolina could easily alter the outcomes in the presidential and congressional elections.

One might expect the Republican Party will reconsider its opposition to mail-in voting. There are 16 states that restrict the practice to those demonstrating such excuses as planned travel or a disability. Five — West Virginia, Alabama, Indiana, Delaware and Massachusetts — have already decided to waive their restrictions for 2020, and in New York, similar efforts are already underway. That leaves restrictions in place in Arkansas, Connecticut, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas (where a suit has been filed to allow unrestricted mail-in voting), most of which are tilting towards Republicans this fall. Making it difficult to vote without risking one’s life could be fatal not only to voters but to the Republican Party in some of those states. 

Pelosi and Democratic state party officials want at least $2 billion to help election administrators prepare for mail-in voting, as recommended by the Brennan Center at NYU, the nation’s leading center on voting rights.  The funds would be use to implement free mailing of ballots, reforming signature conformity laws, extending voting periods, expanded voter registration and greater voter outreach.

One of the leading scholars of voting law, Rick Hansen of UC-Irvine, is a strong proponent of facilitating absentee voting. “Requiring states to offer vote-by-mail in November is essential,” he says. Without it, “millions of voters face potential disenfranchisement in the fall.” 

We have seven months to put the system in place. The federal government must not delay taking steps to ensure the integrity of the 2020 election does not suffer the same kind of confusion that the Trump administration displayed in its belated and incompetent COVID19 response. But don’t put it past Trump and Mitch McConnell to try.

Designed to Fail

The corona crisis is not Mitch McConnell’s first trip to the rodeo. McConnell was around for 9/11 and the 2008 fiscal collapse; he was a leader during the 2012 fiscal cliff and the January 2019 lengthy government shutdown. Opinions on his policies and tactics vary, but no one doubts he had a very substantive understanding of how the Senate works and how, with remarkably little provocation, it can grind to a halt. Mitch McConnell can also count to 60, and he knows that the Senate must have 60 votes to consider a bill. How, then, to make sense of two key decisions McConnell has made that seem all but assured to slow the effort to address the urgent needs of employees, families, companies, state and local governments in responding to the medical and economic impacts of the pandemic.

The first inexplicable decision by McConnell was to develop his $2 trillion bill without consulting Senate Democrats. It is one thing for the Senate to strong-arm the House to take a bill on the grounds that no other version (for example, a version favored by the House) can clear the 60-vote threshold.  Happens all the time. But it is quite different to exclude the minority of senators, especially if there are only 53 in the majority, and expect they are simply going to swallow an historic spending and policy bill they have had no role in developing. Once the bill gets to the floor, it only takes a majority to defeat Democratic amendments or pass the bill, so if Schumer’s forces want to register any concerns, the cloture vote is their lone opportunity to do so.  And they did.

The second inexplicable position was to bring that Republican-only bill to the floor – twice! – before reaching an agreement with the minority. McConnell knows perfectly well there are some serious differences of opinion between Senate Democrats and Republicans, and that Nancy Pelosi and the House majority have raised precisely the same objections: a need for conditions on the use of bailout money so companies can’t use taxpayer dollars to buy back stock and inflate executive and shareholder wealth; restrictions against golden parachutes and limits on executive compensation, so taxpayer funds support employees not the front office; greater scrutiny of how decisions are made to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in bailout funds to companies (are foreign-owned cruise lines eligible ahead of small businesses owned by Americans?)

None of these are big surprises for McConnell or any other Republican. The disputes between the parties are virtually the same as during the TARP debate a dozen years ago when George W. Bush, Henry Paulson and other administration negotiators resisted demands by Pelosi, Senate leader Harry Reid, Financial Services chairman Barney Frank and other Democrats for restrictions on executives benefitting from taxpayer dollars designed to sustain financial institutions. At that time, the Bush administration argued such provisions would discourage corporate leaders from participating in the TARP program. At one point, a Democratic negotiator incredulously asked an administration negotiator whether executives would rather let the economy crash than accept restrictions on their pay, and the answer was an unqualified “yes.”

So if McConnell knew these issues would have to be resolved before Schumer could allow the bill to proceed, why wasn’t he talking to the New York senator instead of presenting the “my way or the highway” ultimatum? After all, Pelosi had spent over a week in intensive talks with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin notwithstanding her intense dislike of virtually everything the Trump administration has done over the past three years. But Pelosi is operational, and knows there is little point in asking her members to vote for difficult legislation that is only going to be sidelined by the Senate or rejected by the president.

The answer seems obvious. McConnell wanted the bill to fail in the Senate. To this point, the Trump administration bears total responsibility for the federal response to the COVID19 crisis, and McConnell and the Republicans are justifiably worried about the implications of the poor reviews and the resulting stock market free fall and recession on their prospects in November. Clearly, McConnell had to create a scenario whereby it appeared Democrats were obstructing his efforts to ameliorate the economic impacts.

Putting a bill on the floor that Democrats had to oppose, because of its manifest shortcomings, lay completely within McConnell’s power. The Senate majority leader decides what goes on the floor and when. Typically, he negotiates with the minority leader to ensure unfettered consideration. But in this case, McConnell didn’t want smooth sailing; he wanted obstruction so he could blame Democrats for the delay. McConnell may not especially care how Trump is impacted by the crisis, but he cares very much how his Senate majority is affected, and it is helpful to him to be able to point to the procrastinating minority Democrats to make the case: don’t elect any more of them!

Twelve years ago, during the TARP debate, the phrase that made members grate their teeth was that the manipulative financial services companies were “too big to fail,” and taxpayer had no choice but to bail them out. In the COVID19 crisis, the McConnell strategy is “designed to fail” in order to force Democrats to share blame for a crisis they did not create and are working with the Trump administration to solve.

TARP/COVID: Similarities and Differences

Having been heavily engaged in (and written about: The Abyss) the last great national economic cataclysm, my phone has been ringing pretty regularly the last few days with reporters interested in identifying comparisons between the financial crisis of 2008 and our current situation. There are some important similarities, it is true, but there are also some significant differences that need to be considered in analyzing the nature of the crisis and the appropriate response by government.

In both cases, a major economic downturn occurred with extraordinary rapidity from the standpoint of the markets although in both cases, there were warnings aggressive government intervention was required. In both cases, the warnings were largely ignored by presidential administrations that chose to believe that crises would not deteriorate to the degree they calamitously did. 

In both cases, the situation in the United States occurred during an election cycle, although in 2008, it was much closer to Election Day and the incumbent was not on the ballot. In 2008, both Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Financial Services Committee chairman Barney Frank had reproached the Bush administration for its loosening its regulations on Wall Street long before the crisis hit in September. This time, public health professionals had raised alarm at the lack of preparedness for such a pandemic, given the Trump administrations budget cuts and termination of the White House office charged with preparation for such eventualities

 And in both cases, Congress and an administration with deep political differences moved swiftly to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in assistance to affected industries to prevent an even deeper depression that might have had longstanding, dire consequences on financial, political and even social levels throughout the nation.

 But there are also some important differences. Most obviously, the 2008 collapse was precipitated by human greed and what the commission appointed by Congress concluded was “human action and inaction.” Today’s implosion was fueled by a virus that infected an otherwise booming economy (although the benefits of the boom have been far from equitably shared). The difference is significant because much of the political fallout from the TARP loans had to do with shoveling nearly a trillion dollars to the very corporate entities that precipitated the collapse in the first place. The airlines, restaurants, hotels and others likely to benefit from the coming bail-outs are victims of the virus, which will likely make it easier for legislators to vote for the astronomical assistance packages.

Another significant difference is that in 2008, the negotiations over the TARP package were relentlessly bipartisan. In the House, political leaders like Pelosi and minority leader John Boehner had already developed close working relationships with Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, which helped establish lines of trust that proved invaluable when seeking votes for deeply unpopular legislation. By contrast, although Pelosi has been working closely with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Sen. Mitch McConnell refused to collaborate with Democratic leader Chuck Schumer in crafting his legislation and refused to cancel a brief Senate recess, actions that both delayed and could complicate a swift agreement on legislation.

Still, there are important lessons to be learned from TARP, some of which are playing out in this week in the negotiations between the House, Senate and White House. While few are challenging the need to aid affected businesses, there will likely be less disagreement about the need to ensure that beneficiaries spread around the government aid to employees. Restrictions that were bitterly opposed by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and other Bush negotiators in 2008 – restrictions on golden parachutes and executive compensation, limits on using bailout money for self-aggrandizing stock buybacks – almost certainly will generate less resistance this time. A requirement that large companies repay the government aid, with interest, which Pelosi had to fight to include in TARP, is hardly even being debated this time around. However, it remains to be seen if Republicans will continue to oppose efforts to expand unemployment benefits, foot stamps, state aid for Medicaid and other emergency spending that generally very helpful in promoting spending and recovery.

 Initial plans to send thousands of dollars to individuals earning up to $1 million have already been scaled back as too costly, but also unnecessary. Higher income individuals are more likely to save any government assistance (which does not have the stimulative value intended), and may well remain on salaries that are much less impacted than hourly and tip-dependent workers. It is to the latter groups that individual assistance must be targeted.     

Lastly, the rapid response to the crisis should give pause to those who insist on strict term limits for people serving in Congress. The country is vastly better off having experienced leaders in place who can command respect within their caucuses, corral recalcitrant chairmen, stand up for principle but also know when they need to make tough deals. It also helps to have members in leadership positions who have known each other and have managed crises together as have Pelosi, McConnell and Schumer instead of leaders who have only a few years of experience under their belt.

Historians are loath to draw too many clever parallels between historical cycles, even when it is tempting to do so. But there are valuable lessons to be learned from past experience that should serve us well in future crises. Let’s hope our leaders are paying attention to them.

Can the Senate Rise Above Self-Interest?

        Here’s the bad news: the United States is overwhelmed by the most widespread national crisis since the 2008 financial meltdown and the greatest  international challenge since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Here’s some more bad news: implementing a swift response now depends on the selflessness of Mitch McConnell and the United States Senate.

         Just as she did in 2008, Speaker Nancy Pelosi negotiated with a Republican administration of which she has been justifiably critical, in the midst of a political season, to write urgent legislation. While President Trump was praising his own swift response and blaming the crisis on Barack Obama (who else?), Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin – himself under attack from Trump – hammered out the bill to address the coronavirus crisis and its massive economic impact. 

         The close collaboration between the two – they spoke 13 times on Friday – echoed the harried negotiations between Pelosi and George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, as the Wall Street crisis unfurled. There were urgent phone calls, secret meetings in the Capitol and some tense confrontations as the two officials, with the involvement of Senate majority leader Harry Reid and members of both parties, cobbled together the TARP rescue bill.

         Similarly, Pelosi and Mnuchin cut the deal on Friday and it earned an endorsement from Trump who urged “all Republicans and Democrats to come together and VOTE YES.” Here is where the troubling side of the 2008 parallels raises warning signals.

         House Republican leader John Boehner (R-OH) was an integral part of the TARP negotiations. Some Republicans disliked features of the bill that House Democrats had insisted be included such as mandatory repayment with interest and restrictions on executive compensation for companies accepting taxpayer assistance. But Boehner told his members that while he objected to the “crap sandwich” he had helped negotiate – he used stronger language in private   — Republicans had little alternative to stave off a worldwide economic collapse. But dozens of members refused, the bill failed, the stock market immediately tanked, and the initiative moved across the Capitol to the Senate. 

         With the market already having suffered a massive loss, the coronavirus bill swept through the House early on Saturday morning on a 363-40 vote, with all the dissenters members of the Republican minority. The fate of the bill, and potentially millions of Americans’ health and financial security, now rests with McConnell and the other 99 senators. But if history is any indicator, the next steps might not be as expeditious as the crisis demands.

         McConnell dragged his feet on the coronavirus for a week, initially asserting the Senate would not defer a recess, and then insisting that the Senate take the weekend off. But even now, with the House’s swift action, peril awaits the bill in the Senate.

         There are few more ardent practitioners of the art of earmarking than Mitch McConnell. Just last year, he slipped nearly a billion dollars in spending for Kentucky into a must-pass omnibus spending bill as his price for avoiding a government shutdown. It will be instructive to see whether he or other senators can pass up the opportunity to add some self-serving provisions to the coronavirus measure, just as they added $150 billion in special tax breaks to the TARP bill after the House rejected the original measure.

         Senators are expert at bemoaning the cloture rule that requires 60 votes to allow even the most urgent bills to avoid a filibuster. Senators are practiced at using the urgency of any moment to load up House legislation with expensive goodies for themselves and then defying the House to remove a dime of the largesse. Translated into non-parliamentary language, the Senate message means, as House majority leader Steny Hoyer fumed in 2008: “My way or the highway.”      

         This historic maneuvering between the House and Senate is maddeningly aggravating to the House, which of course passes legislation on a simple majority vote. So long as the filibuster exists, it serves the interests of every senator who plays the cloture card for his or her own benefit. On coronavirus, we are about to see if McConnell and his senators can pass the House bill intact, as endorsed by Trump, and leave the porkbarreling for another day or whether an altered bill is sent back to the House with yet another “take it or leave it” ultimatum from the Senate.

Normalcy Over Nostrums

Four months ago in a DOMEocracy blog, I compared aspects of the 2020 presidential campaign with that of a century ago. Back in 1920, after the tumult of World War and the divisive debate over whether the United States should join the League of Nations, Sen. Warren G. Harding won a landslide victory – the largest in U.S. history since George Washington ran unopposed. 

Harding did not run with a broad agenda for government action or societal change. His was a campaign very distinct from the activism of the prior two decades under Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Instead, the bland but photogenic Harding – one wag remarked that his main qualification was that he “looked like a president” – promised “to steady down, to get squarely on our feet, to make sure of the right path.” What the country was seeking, he alliteratively assured, was  “not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration.”

Over the course of the last four months since I wrote that column, Democrats have slogged through debates, caucuses, primaries and the entrance and exit of a dozen or more candidates. And we have ended up very much with the dichotomy that Harding outlined a century ago, between revolution and restoration. Over the past two weeks, voters have made a decisive decision in favor of calm over cacophony. Following the Super Tuesday II primaries on March 10, the New York Times did not even bother to attribute the term to Harding when it appropriated his singular description of the nation’s longing for an end to the daily tumult. 

“Biden is enticing Democrats with a bloodless bargain: a return to normal — or whatever this nation was on Nov. 7, 2016,” the Times concluded following the former vice president’s trouncing of Bernie Sanders in Michigan, where Sanders had won a narrow but significant victory in 2016. Indeed, few analysts can see any trajectory but one that results in Biden’s nomination, and most Democrats will likely begin to focus on the challenging task of persuading Sanders to unify the party he has never formally joined in the fight against Donald Trump rather than continuing his Quixotic battle that has succeeded in moving the party leftwards on key policy matters.

Some may worry that normalcy would translate into indifference by voters. Unprecedented numbers of voters are choosing to participate in the primaries. In Michigan, for example, turnout was up by 40 percent over 2016 when there was also a hard fought, one on one battle involving Sanders. But this time, many of those who had embraced the Vermont senator shifted allegiance to back Biden. In several other recent primaries where Biden triumphed, including South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, turnout also rose impressively, as well as in California where Sanders prevailed. If anything, revulsion at the thought of four more years of daily Trumpian pandemonium seems to have increased the urgency with which Democrats of varying ideologies, independents and even exhausted Republicans rallied behind Biden. 

However nowhere did the young and restless voters that Sanders had promised to engage actually register increased turnout; indeed, participation by those 18-29 years old has dropped, which could present a problem for Democrats in the fall unless the likely nominee, Biden, his running mate and other Democrats find a way to engage them in the battle to oust Trump. A survey of my own undergraduate students indicates that may be a challenge for any candidate; millions of young people, who have experienced nothing but partisan division and legislative gridlock, may be caught in a political funk that not even the hyperbolic rhetoric of Bernie Sanders can overcome.

Granted, as anyone who has watched the last two weeks of campaigning can testify, the battle for the Democratic nomination can still encounter some unpredictable twists and turns. But it seems conclusive that voters are mainly interested in staunching the vitriol and bedlam emanating from the White House, replacing it with a relative calm that would allow for a rational discussion of serious policies with a reliance on fact, science and consensus instead of whatever unsubstantiated tweet caught the president’s fancy on any particular day. They have determined, decisively it would appear, that they have greater confidence in an experienced and known war horse in the form of Joe Biden than in a saber-rattling class warrior like Sanders. 

Politics, as every practitioner knows, is all about timing. The swiftness of the coronavirus’ impact, and President’s Trump’s irresponsible and inept response, have only served to highlight the urgent need for, as the signs throughout my neighborhood proclaim, “Any Functioning Adult in 2020.”

For the moment, and likely for good, that “functioning adult” is Joe Biden.

Order my new Sherlock Holmes short story, “The Adventure of the Purloined Talisman,”included in vol. XXI of MX Publishing’s series. 

The Biden Bounce

Not since old Joe Kennedy in 1960 has one person had such a singular influence in an American presidential election as Jim Clyburn. In that year, the multi-millionaire former ambassador opened his wallet to help secure the Democratic presidential nomination for his son. Sixty years later, Clyburn opened his mouth to bless the candidacy of Joe Biden with almost incomprehensible impact. 

Now, true, there may be a false syllogism at work here: the dog barked and the moon rose. But I don’t think so. Clyburn spoke with an emotion and clarity that dramatically moved voters in South Carolina, prompting a Biden landslide that paved the way for perhaps the most remarkable day in primary history.

Just a week ago, few analysts believed Biden’s candidacy was likely to remain viable after Super Tuesday. He had performed poorly in the first three contests, he was scraping along financially, and he had shockingly little organizational presence on the ground. With stunning rapidity, Biden crushed the opposition in South Carolina, the first really large state of the primary season; Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar bowed to the inevitability of their candidacies’ demise; and two of them, along with early flame-out Beto O’Rourke, endorsed Biden. Suddenly, the political gods breathed life into the moribund former Veep who, for the first time in three runs at the presidency, over-performed. 

Political science and history graduate students will spend years studying the many twists, turns and personalities of the 2020 Democratic race, whatever the outcome in November, but it’s relatively safe to offer a few early observations. 

First, it is now clear that the appearance of Sanders’ strength was distorted by the multiple candidates who divided his opposition. Sanders consistently showed no ability to win the support of more than one third of the electorate, but that was enough to put him on top in the multi-candidate rankings. Once underperforming candidates began to drop, Sanders did not demonstrate any strength in capturing large portions of their voters. Indeed, polls indicated late deciders (including many  favoring one of the candidates who quit the race after South Carolina), broke significantly for Biden.

Second, it is indisputable that a majority of American voters is not looking for a self-proclaimed democratic socialist espousing the need for a political revolution. (It is hard to believe that observation is even in doubt.) As noted in this blog five months ago, our history strongly suggests voters are looking for, in the inimitable words of Warren G. Harding a century ago, “healing, not nostrums; normalcy, not revolution.” This is not, as I wrote in November, likely to be a “pendulum election,” but rather one where voters are seeking a respite from the turbulence and tantrums of the Trump era so that discussions of policy differences can rationally occur. However appealing Sanders’ aspirational (if unattainable) goals may be, his mechanical exhortations are confrontational and harsh; do Americans really want four more years of us-versus-them bombast, even if they share the speaker’s policy objectives? 

Now all this is not to say Biden is the ideal nominee or the winner in November. There are many potholes between Super Tuesday and Joe Biden on the West Front of the Capitol with his hand up in the frigid January air taking the oath of office. And there is more than a strong likelihood that Biden could pitch himself into one or more of them between now and then. 

He certainly needs to tighten up his debate performance, calm his voice, reassure voters that his decades of service demonstrate that he can be trusted with the reins of government rather than an outdated throwback to the era of Rubik’s cubes, Walkmans and ABBA.  He needs to remind skeptical younger Americans that if they  support key issues like health care, college affordability and climate change, he was the person in the room fighting so they could stay on their parents insurance plans till age 26, helping pass the 2010 student loan law and managing the renewable energy provisions of the 2009 stimulus, by far the largest investment in reducing carbon emissions in U.S. history. What leadership was Sanders providing on those landmark bills?

Super Tuesday was about as super as a Tuesday could be for Joe Biden, but the outcome doesn’t foretell, let alone predict, the future of the primary and general election contests. Still, it recasts the campaign by enabling the significant majority of Democrats to have their voices heard with clarity. It isn’t the end of the race, but as Biden stage whispered to “Barack” at the signing of the health care law in 2010, “It’s a big f****ing deal.”