Earlier this month, while touring a factory in Arizona, President Donald Trump reiterated his desire to reopen the American economy as soon as possible. While being ominously serenaded by the refrain from “Live and Let Die,” Trump drew a comparison between ordinary citizens and soldiers fighting in a war. “Our country wants to open. And you see what’s going on. They have to open,” he declared. “I’m viewing our great citizens of this country, to a certain extent and to a large extent, as warriors.”
Few who heard these remarks can have missed the real implication of either Trump’s words or his chosen metaphor, which indicated his willingness to reopen the US economy in full understanding of the catastrophic death toll that would almost certainly ensue. Plenty were no doubt also hesitant about his prescription. If polls like the one recently conducted by the Pew Research Center are to be believed, an overwhelming majority of Americans are concerned that the economy will be reopened too quickly. Even a majority of self-identified Republicans still believes quarantine measures are necessary, though they are far less likely than Democrats to think the worst of the crisis still lies ahead.
Nonetheless, Trump’s remarks tell us something about where the partisan battle lines this summer will probably be drawn: between a Republican leadership bent on fully reopening the economy with little concern about the human cost, and a Democratic leadership intent on maintaining many of the existing quarantine and social-distancing measures. Whatever outcome this tug-of-war ultimately produces, the catastrophic impact of the crisis on ordinary Americans is already incalculable: amid spiking unemployment, millions are losing not only their jobs and incomes but their health insurance as well.
Given this, the relative caution expressed by Democratic leaders has yet to be matched with measures even remotely adequate to the scope of the economic turmoil. Last Friday, the Democratic-led House passed the HEROES Act, which includes, among other things, a second round of $1,200 checks to individuals with a cap at $6,000 per household similar to those sent out during the first phase of the crisis. (As Andrew Perez points out in his forensic examination of the legislation, the bill also contains an appalling number of measures clearly designed to benefit Washington lobby groups and trade associations — a bit rich for something its authors deigned to brand the “HEROES Act.”)
It’s a telltale sign that senior Democrats have either failed to think through the implications of maintaining widespread economic closures or are alarmingly sanguine about what their impact on ordinary Americans will actually be. Among the millions who have already taken advantage of existing federal cash relief, most appear to be spending it on basics like food and household bills — expenses that are unlikely to be covered by occasional injections of $1,200 that may take weeks or even months to arrive.
Democratic leaders should immediately get behind the Senate bill unveiled earlier this month and sponsored by Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Ed Markey that would send $2,000 a month to every American with only a very few exceptions. As a recent Politico report explains:
The legislation would send a monthly $2,000 check to people who make less than $120,000. It would expand to $4,000 to married couples who file taxes jointly and also provide $2,000 for each child up to three . . . The payments would be retroactive to March and last until three months after the Health and Human Services Department has declared the public health emergency over. The legislation would also bar debt collectors from taking the payments, and would deliver them regardless of whether people have a Social Security number or filed taxes last year.
In the absence of assistance on this scale — and soon — the continuation of quarantine measures amid growing hardship will only tilt public opinion toward a dangerous resumption of regular economic activity. If Democrats are really going to resist the president’s nihilistic drive to turn the coronavirus into a military enemy and ordinary Americans into citizen soldiers fighting a heavy casualty engagement, they must champion real relief and get behind a $2,000-per-month cash payout before it’s too late.