The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans are realizing the crisis is pulling them toward disaster

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) listens as President Trump speaks to the media after attending the weekly Senate Republican luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

“The worst is behind us,” declared Herbert Hoover in 1930. Two years later, Franklin Roosevelt won the presidency by an 18-point margin, capturing 42 states.

Now, nearly 90 years later, at least some Republicans are starting to worry that President Trump could meet a fate similar to Hoover’s, and drag them down with him.

The latest weekly employment figures, released Thursday, show the magnitude of this economic catastrophe: Another 2.4 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the total to 38.6 million over nine weeks. Analysts are now predicting that the unemployment rate will soon top 30 percent. The highest it reached during the Great Depression was 25.6 percent.

And what’s on the minds of the Republican leadership? They’re worried that we’re coddling the unemployed:

At issue is the enhanced unemployment aid Congress approved in late March, which includes an extra $600 in weekly payments to out-of-work Americans. On Tuesday, President Trump articulated his reluctance to extend those benefits during a closed-door lunch with Senate Republicans, many of whom share his concern that the expanded federal payments deter people from returning to work. The enhanced benefits expire in July.

In fairness, in some contexts it is indeed possible for unemployment benefits to be so generous that they deter people from seeking new jobs. At some point that extra $600 a week (which is given on top of what people would normally receive from unemployment insurance, a figure that varies from state to state) should be wound down.

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But the problem right now is that there aren’t any jobs. It’s not like millions of businesses can’t operate because no one’s answering their help wanted ads. That extra money is keeping people afloat, and is quickly recirculated into the economy, multiplying its beneficial impact.

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So this is the position of the president and the Republican leadership in Congress: What we really have to worry about now is that Americans are being lazy, and what we need to get them out there reviving the economy is some good old-fashioned deprivation.

Yet at the same time, there are cracks showing in the GOP’s resistance to further economic rescue. With the election only 5½ months away, some in the party are questioning whether having Democrats demand that the government take action to help struggling Americans while Republicans say no is a brilliant strategy.

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CNN reports that the number of Republicans coming around to some kind of further rescue package is growing:

Publicly and privately, Republicans are signaling that they believe the Senate will have to move beginning in June on another recovery package, calls that many believe will intensify next month after senators hear concerns about the deteriorating economy in their states during next week's Memorial Day recess.
And some are quietly urging President Donald Trump to get more involved.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he’s pushing Trump to get behind a plan to pump more money into infrastructure projects -- even though that idea has gotten an icy reception from McConnell so far.

There are a few other Republicans in the Senate expressing an interest in an infrastructure bill — which of course they had three years to do and never did, so much so that “Infrastructure Week” became a running joke — while others are looking at some more aid to states, and some want to shore up the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides loans to businesses.

What all these ideas have in common, however, is that they don’t provide direct assistance to people, either in the form of extended unemployment benefits or another round of cash payments. And this shows how Republicans are struggling to reconcile their conservative ideology with the economic and political demands of this unprecedented crisis.

Unlike Democrats, who are comfortable with the kind of aggressive government action required to alleviate this depression, Republicans naturally recoil from the kinds of steps that may be required to prevent them from being wiped out in November.

So here’s the situation. In one corner you have Trump, who is opposing further rescue packages not because of firm ideological convictions but because he’s gripped by magical thinking. He’s possessed of the hope that just as there is a miracle cure for the coronavirus, with enough cheerleading (and a heavy dose of blame-shifting), the economy will come roaring back in a few months.

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In another corner you have Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who remains adamantly opposed to any further rescue bills. His opposition is a little hard to explain, though he may have concluded that Trump will lose, so Republicans might as well hold the economy down so President Biden can suffer the consequences.

Then you have these other Republicans, many of whom are up for reelection, beginning to come around to the idea that doing something — even if it’s not in line with their small-government principles — is far better than doing nothing, if the latter means defeat in November.

We don’t know yet whether they can persuade Trump and McConnell that inaction means disaster. But with each passing day, our economic hole grows deeper and the likelihood of us crawling our way out by the end of the year grows smaller.

At some point Republicans may all come to understand the position it has put them in. But by then it may be too late.

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