The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Decades of conservative governance has worsened the coronavirus crisis

From tax cuts to slashing government, conservatives ideas have left the Trump administration ill-equipped to handle the pandemic

House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich addresses Republican congressional candidates on Capitol Hill in September 1994 during a rally where they pledged a “Contract with America.” (John Duricka/AP)

We are in the midst of a disaster 40 years in the making.

Donald Trump and his administration have floundered in their response to the novel coronavirus. The administration’s preferred tools stemming from a conservative ideology that promotes business interests over the common good — corporate bailouts, payroll and capital gains tax cuts and monetary policy — are ill-equipped to manage the unfolding catastrophe. Trump has doubled down on this approach, stating he doesn’t want to “let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” meaning current lockdown conditions should be eased quickly to allow workers and consumers to move freely and get the economy going again, a move that could fuel the pandemic’s fatalities.

Any administration would be tested by a predicament of this scale. But it is conservatives’ decades-long war on the safety net and the government’s administrative capacity that made our society particularly vulnerable to the pandemic’s impact on our economic life. This has seriously hampered the federal government’s response to the coronavirus and shown how dangerously ill-suited this ideology is to the crisis.

After World War II, the American economy expanded and robust New Deal and Great Society programs provided a basic safety net that lifted Americans out of poverty and protected them against economic precarity. But by the late 1970s, Americans had grown weary of big government. Racial realignment, deindustrialization and suburbanization helped fracture the liberal coalition that had governed American politics since the New Deal. Backlash against the Great Society reforms of the 1960s helped fuel a nascent conservative movement that finally gained power when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980.

Since then, Republicans relentlessly attacked the safety net, and even Democratic administrations have done little to rebuild it. Reagan famously noted in his inaugural address that “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” His administration enacted dramatic cuts to safety net programs in 1981 that have compounded over time, as dozens of stand-alone categorical programs were terminated or converted into block grants that were not indexed for inflation. Federal support for initiatives like the Preventive Health and Health Services Block Grant, the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant and Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, has declined over time, leaving many Americans with far less support.

Reagan’s presidency also ushered in an era of tax-cut conservatism. The 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act slashed income tax rates across the board, with a major cut in the top tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent. This was the beginning of decades of tax cuts, which not only diminished revenue but also undermined the basic premise of the common good. Groups like Americans for Tax Reform, the Club for Growth and libertarian economists became potent forces in the conservative movement.

Reagan’s cuts didn’t stop with taxes and the welfare state. He also scaled back the government’s administrative capabilities. As Walter Williams, a public administration scholar who briefly worked for Lyndon Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity, writes, “Ronald Reagan launched an eight-year war on policy information and analysis.” Between 1980 and 1988, the analytic offices for eight federal agencies suffered a 43 percent decline in staff. In the 1990s, Congress enacted cuts to institutions like the Office of Technology Assessment, the congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office, which then limited the government’s ability to devise long-term solutions and instead incentivized policymakers to seek quick fixes when problems arise.

When Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took back the House of Representatives in 1994 after 40 years of Democratic control, they sought further cuts to the safety net. In response to the growing power of conservatism, the Democratic Party shifted to the center in the 1990s. Gingrich worked with Bill Clinton to pass welfare reform in 1996, imposing new work requirements on welfare recipients. The reform gave states flexibility to use welfare funds for uses other than case assistance, such as tax cuts and filling state budget gaps, which has made the program less capable of addressing deep poverty.

In the early 2000s, George W. Bush sought several cuts to the safety net, like privatizing Social Security and a slew of new block grant proposals, including an attempt to block grant Medicaid. Many of these reforms failed. Seniors mobilized to protect Social Security, and Bush squandered much of his political capital during that debate. But he did accomplish one of conservatism’s other goals — cutting taxes.

President Trump has proved more successful than any Republican president since Reagan at dismantling the safety net and the government’s fiscal and analytical capacity. In the past two years, his administration allowed states to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients. In Arkansas, more than 18,000 people lost coverage, though the courts have blocked further implementation. His administration has also tightened work requirements for food stamp recipients and proposed dozens of administrative rules designed to limit access to social programs.

These safety net cuts have been accompanied by tax cuts. The 2017 tax cut has generated massive budget deficits, which may limit the government’s ability to respond in the type of predicament we face now — though the recently passed $2 trillion aid bill indicates Congress is not worried about deficits during the pandemic.

Trump’s dismissal of longtime civil servants and expertise, building on the cuts implemented during the Reagan administration, now appears especially catastrophic. A recent report detailed that in the waning days of the Obama administration, Obama’s team met with incoming Trump administration officials and conducted a simulated exercise eerily similar to the covid-19 outbreak. However, given the rapid turnover in the executive branch under Trump, many of the officials who might have gleaned valuable information are no longer in the government. And many Obama aides said they felt like the “Trump aides showed up to simply check off a box more than to learn.”

Trump disbanded the U.S. pandemic response team in 2018, arguing it could be quickly rebuilt if necessary: “some of the people we’ve cut they haven’t been used for many, many years and if we ever need them we can get them very quickly and rather than spending the money.” He initially downplayed the severity of the novel coronavirus. But during an emergency, speed is critical. The administration’s inability to quickly develop tests, coordinate a response and promote necessary social distancing measures significantly reduced the ability to contain and manage the disease’s spread.

The conservative media ecosystem spread misinformation when the crisis initially broke out, which hindered the country’s ability to respond cohesively. Conservative media’s anti-elite tone long precedes Trump, and institutions like talk radio and Fox News have become central tenets of modern conservatism. Hosts on Fox News initially argued that the coronavirus was a conspiracy, which may explain why Republicans were less likely to express concern. The prominent role played by conservative media may also explain the high marks Trump has received in polls measuring Republicans’ approval of his covid-19 response.

An emergency of covid-19’s scale requires scientific expertise, extensive coordination, creative problem solving, institutional memory and information-gathering capabilities. But the 40-year war on the administrative state and expert knowledge has left the government with none of the tools needed to respond effectively.

A robust safety net would also mitigate the long-term term consequences of the outbreak. But work requirements force individuals to choose between working while sick or forgoing critical social benefit programs. Generous sick time, paid family leave and universal benefits would help to slow the disease’s spread and help individuals recover economically and socially once the crisis ends. Any plan to get the economy running again will depend on radically ramping up testing capacity plus a revived social safety net that enables healthy people to work and the ill to rest and recover.

Moments like these can serve as focusing events that open new reform windows. The covid-19 crisis lays bare the effects of diminished state capacity and a weakened safety net. The conservative regime that has dominated the American political imagination since the 1980s seems incapable of managing a crisis of this scale. It is unclear now whether this will lay the groundwork for a new period of progressive reforms. But it is clear that something new needs to emerge in response.