Democratic leaders have to work with Trump for several distinct reasons. It is the right thing to do, for starters. Morally, no alternative exists. The country is in crisis and Trump is the only president Americans have at the moment—even though he might want people to inject themselves with disinfectants, even though he is bullying governors and displaying a self-absorption that is pronounced even for him, even though he is partly responsible for the disaster the country is experiencing.
Besides, from the perspective of congressional Democrats, addressing the crisis while working around the president is impossible. Trump supervises all the agencies they wish to see doing more to combat the virus. He spends the money they appropriate. He is, after all, the executive—the person who does the things Congress may authorize, direct, or pay for.
More broadly, working with the president on this involves doing things Democrats tend to believe in. The Democratic Party is, after all, the party of more generous social welfare. It’s also, generally speaking, the party of Keynesian economics, which is to say spending one’s way out of economic downturns. So the House majority has reason to push forward in working with the White House on aid legislation, in a way that Republicans skeptical of government spending would not.
Political factors also favor cooperation. The public expects its leaders to come together for the good of the country in national emergencies. To fail to do so would look terrible—particularly in an election year, as Democrats try to present themselves as the party of responsible government in contrast to the Republican cult of an erratic personality.
Yet working closely with the president undermines a key—and very righteous—concurrent Democratic objective: holding Trump accountable. It is a strange thing to accuse the president of continuing to grossly mishandle the crisis and to simultaneously put trillions of dollars at his disposal, even as he is urging people to inject Lysol and shine ultraviolet light on their internal organs. It is stranger still to do so after he has removed the inspector general set to keep watch over how coronavirus-aid money is spent. Somehow, Democrats have to make clear on an ongoing basis that although the parties may broadly agree on certain aspects of coronavirus-response policy, that agreement does not reflect any kind of approval of the administration’s conduct.
Because even as Congress pours money into Trump’s hands, this is an election year, and the Democrats have to run against Trump and the congressional and Senate Republicans who enable him.
The incentives this situation creates are in conflict with one another. If Democrats are too successful in their cooperation with Trump—if they help the administration avert the worst economic consequences of the virus—they potentially throw Trump an electoral lifeline. Conversely, if the policy interventions fail, the Democrats become implicated in those failures in ways they would not be if they had not engaged deeply. Democrats have so far acquiesced to the spending of roughly $2.7 trillion. To whatever extent this spending fails to avert disaster, Trump can reasonably point to Congress as having worked with him hand in glove. When the magnitude of the federal deficit this year becomes clear, that will be Congress’s handiwork as much as the president’s.