Come with me to a fantasy land where President Trump and his aides and allies have a sensible view of the political challenge he now confronts. Between the pandemic and a horrific economic crisis, they realize that Trump cannot be reelected without heroic measures. So not only do they stand up the kind of monumental testing and tracing effort that enabled countries such as South Korea to contain the coronavirus, they also throw everything they can at the economy.

Monthly checks to every family, payroll support to every business, hundreds of billions to prop up state governments crushed by the crisis, a massive new infrastructure plan — whatever it is, they’ll spend it. With interest rates bottomed out and a worldwide flight of capital to secure investments, the United States can borrow money basically for free.

And as every conservative knows, if you’re worried about deficits, you want a thriving economy. Getting that economy back on its feet as quickly and strongly as possible will not only bring down the deficit over the long term, it’s also the only thing that will avoid a political disaster in November. So spend, spend, spend.

In our fantasy land, that’s what every Republican would want to do right now. But it’s not. And the fact that Republicans don’t want to do this raises the possibility that at least some of them are starting to view Trump as a lost cause.

So some White House advisers are getting worried about the deficit again and are contemplating cuts for the near future:

While no one in the administration is advocating immediate cuts, the unease among senior Trump advisers about federal spending comes as the White House halts talks with Congress on additional emergency measures to rescue a U.S. economy facing its worst crisis in generations.
Some White House officials have gone as far as exploring policies such as automatic spending cuts as the economy improves, or prepaying Social Security benefits to workers before they become eligible, although these measures are unlikely to advance given the political stakes, said these officials and advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of internal deliberations.

Despite the urgent need for more action, Republicans are in no hurry to pass another rescue package, leaving it to House Democrats to figure out what the economy needs. What you get from the Republican side is mostly resignation. The government has done what it can, they say, and now we just need to remove the stay-at-home orders and let the economy heal itself.

You can explain Trump’s own lack of interest in more spending by the fact that he has no idea what’s good for him and seems to think that if he puts on a show about how great the economy is doing, he can make it a reality. But other Republicans are not so deluded.

And now with each passing day, the idea that the economy is going to come roaring back in a few months looks less and less plausible. Not only are we nowhere near gaining control of the virus — the only thing that will allow us to “reopen” — but the damage that has already been done will persist for years.

We won’t be able to turn the economy back on like a light switch. There are untold numbers of businesses that can hang on for a few weeks or months after their customers disappeared, but many have already closed their doors or will soon. There are ripple effects across the economy, in sectors such as real estate and energy. We don’t know how long it will be until people feel comfortable flying and going to movies and eating out — but if you think it’ll all happen in the next couple of months, you’re almost certainly fooling yourself.

This is something that Republicans, like everyone else, are coming to understand. So some of them may be looking ahead to when Trump is no longer president.

That means, perhaps above all, resuming the deficit fear-mongering that was such an effective tool to hamstring Barack Obama’s presidency. It also means adjusting their policy and spending agenda to the defensive. They aren’t bothering to talk much about new tax cuts or anything else they’d like to pass. Instead, the focus is shifting to cutbacks and constraints. “Automatic spending cuts as the economy improves” is something a Republican would want only if there’s a Democrat in the White House. It shows that that’s precisely what at least some of them are anticipating.

Meanwhile, Republicans are encouraging and amplifying the still-small movement to defy stay-at-home orders, with all the same deranged rhetoric about “tyranny” that we heard in 2009 when conservatives rose up in rage at Obama. Any work they do now will make it easier to ramp up the new version of the tea party if Joe Biden wins.

And as for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he’s nothing if not practical. If you think Trump’s chances of reelection are dwindling, why would you try to save the economy now? Imagine if you passed measures that made the recovery easier but Trump lost anyway. Then Biden wouldn’t have such a hard time, and Republicans getting a huge backlash win in 2022 would be less likely. Better to keep everyone miserable for a couple more years. McConnell can just confirm as many hard-right judges as possible between now and January, and consider his work done.

It’s not that there’s no sincere sentiment underneath the Republican reticence to do too much to save the economy. Republicans are genuinely fearful that people will be too thankful if government helps them too much and that the crisis will make the passage of stronger safety-net programs more likely in the future.

But if you thought Trump could still win, your best move would be to give the economy the biggest short-term boost possible with massive government spending, then worry about cutting it back later. Doing nothing now, even if you’re planning to promote cuts in a year or two, suggests only that you think the Trump presidency is all but a lost cause.

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