President Donald Trump signed the latest coronavirus-relief legislation as he was managing the fallout of Bleachgate. The president insisted at the signing of the $484 billion package that his comments the previous day—he had mused at an April 23 press conference, “I see the disinfectant that knocks [the virus] out in a minute, one minute,” and asked, “Is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning?”—had been sarcastic.
After Trump made those comments, the manufacturer of Lysol issued a statement that nobody should be using disinfectant internally. Authorities in Maryland warned against ingesting cleaning products, noting that the state’s emergency hotline had already received “several calls” about the possible use of disinfectant to treat COVID-19. New York City’s poison-control center announced that it had recorded an unusually high number of calls about incidents with bleach and other cleaning products in the day after the initial press conference. Presumably Nancy Pelosi had not anticipated this backdrop to the bill’s signing when she pushed it through the House.
The incident highlights a dilemma with which congressional Democrats are grappling as their ongoing confrontation with the Trump presidency crashes into the era of the coronavirus: How does one work with this deranged president in order to respond to the virus and the economic catastrophe it is unleashing, while also holding him accountable for his fantastic mismanagement of the crisis, and drawing sharp contrasts to him for the election coming up in six months?
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.
A further complication is that a strategy of engagement and cooperation will not elevate Democratic priorities to an equal footing with Republican ones—leaving some progressives unsatisfied. By and large, House Democrats have lined up behind Pelosi, including members on the left flank of her caucus. The most prominent exception is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who voted against the recent legislation as insufficient to the scale of the economic need, arguing, “We cannot bow to the logic that a crumb is better than nothing.” Outside Congress, a number of progressive political organizations opposed the bill on similar grounds.
And these critics have a point. Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer gained significant policy influence as a result of their engagement with the process. The bill the president signed last week is notably improved from the one the administration requested. It is bigger in scope, has additional money for small businesses without access to traditional banking, and it has money for coronavirus testing as well. But as Jordan Weissmann notes in Slate, the fact that Democrats needed to bargain for obvious necessities such as increased testing is a sign of the absurdity of this political moment and the irresponsibility of the Republican Party. And Democrats have been unable, so far at least, to win urgently needed support for state and local governments, and significant money to push states to implement remote-voting options in time for the November election. Also, as several freshman Democratic lawmakers have complained, House leadership has been unable to implement procedures to conduct business remotely—a failure that compromises the chamber’s ability to respond quickly to the pandemic and conduct oversight.
In the background is a certain awareness that if roles were reversed, it is not at all clear that Republicans would allow their interests similarly to conflict. Back in 2009, with the economy in free fall, Republicans were not nearly as interested in Keynesian economics as they appear to be today. They refused to play ball with the newly inaugurated Barack Obama on his stimulus bill, leaving Democrats solely responsible for those hard political choices. To be fair, a significant element of anti-spending ideology was at play then too—one that has mysteriously vanished in the years since. And House Republicans had likewise opposed Bush-administration emergency spending, before allowing a key bill to pass. But a lot of what was at work was sheer cynicism and political hardball. And it worked. This was the birth of the Tea Party, and Republicans rode that wave to take back the House in 2010.
Pelosi may reasonably resent the asymmetry, but the path of pure hardball is not available to her. Whereas conservative ideologues can oppose big spending as a response to crisis with a straight face, liberals cannot. And though Republicans could build a potent electoral movement out of blanket opposition to all the works of a new Democratic president—even in a time of crisis—Pelosi would be doing neither presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden nor her caucus any favors by adopting Mitch McConnell–style obstructionism as they run campaigns based on sane and responsible government.
And so she lives with the dilemma. The confrontation goes on—always. The House is still litigating to get former White House Counsel Don McGahn’s testimony, a case that will be argued this week.
But the party that impeached Trump now also passes bill after bill reflecting deep cooperation and negotiation with him. And the president signs these bills with his own inimitable flourishes.