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Coronavirus Response Shows How A National Crisis Can Again Transform Politics

A closed business in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., is a sign of the enormous impact of the coronavirus pandemic on public health and the economy. An unprecedented crisis, met with an unprecedented government response, has the ability to transform the country's politics.
Paul Sancya
A closed business in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., is a sign of the enormous impact of the coronavirus pandemic on public health and the economy. An unprecedented crisis, met with an unprecedented government response, has the ability to transform the country's politics.

Just like the coronavirus pandemic could permanently change daily life in America, from hand washing habits to telework, it also has the potential to transform the country's politics in profound ways.

"This crisis is a time machine to the future," says Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of the think tank New America and a former director of policy planning at the State Department during the Obama administration. "I think we'll look back and see that this was like the Great Depression or a war, and that created political space to make big policy change that seemed just too hard even two months ago."

After every big national crisis in America, the federal government has emerged with a new, greater role.

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who as President Obama's chief of staff during the Great Recession famously said "never allow a good crisis go to waste," points out that after the Civil War came land grant colleges and the national railway system; after the Great Depression came rural electrification and Social Security; and at the height of the Cold War President Eisenhower proposed a national highway system — all big federal investments that changed the fabric of life across the country.

The current pandemic and expected recession could result in a new, expanded role for the federal government again.

Big policy changes could also rearrange traditional political divisions, now that Republicans in the Senate have voted unanimously for policies they've opposed in the past, like paid sick leave, a guaranteed minimum income, student debt relief protections for renters and support for gig economy workers. Of course, this massive package of federal help for ordinary people is only temporary, but Democrats are hoping that not all of it is.

"Suddenly, in a crisis like this, people realize across the political spectrum that unless we can provide a floor, the whole economy can crash," said Slaughter, noting the potential for permanent changes to the political debate. "That paid sick leave is not about coddling workers. It's about making sure that sick workers don't come to work and infect others. People are equally realizing, if workers have no money to spend, the economy can't function."

Democrats have advocated many of these policies for decades. But now that Congress has approved the largest federal intervention in the economy since the creation of Medicare, they see a new opportunity to push for big investments in modern digital infrastructure like 5G, a better public health system, universal health insurance that doesn't disappear when you lose your job, and a stronger social safety net.

Former Clinton White House aide Bill Galston summed up the Democrats' argument this way: "The COVID-19 pandemic has been a brutal x-ray of the weaknesses of our social safety net in dealing with national emergencies. We shouldn't be caught flat-footed by the next emergency any more than we should be caught flat-footed with a nearly empty national health emergency reserve, which was never restocked when it should have been."

But Democrats aren't the only ones who see a political opportunity in the pandemic. The nationalist, populist wing of the Republican Party that's been warning about the dangers of globalization also appears to have gotten a boost.

"One of the core arguments of the Trump 2016 campaign is that in our supply chains and our manufacturing economy, we'd become too dependent on a globalized world, especially China," said conservative J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy. "It turns out that if you want to have an economy that can weather a crisis, you actually have to be able to make some core things yourself, whether it's wireless technology, whether it's pharmaceutical products, whether it's ventilators and hospital masks."

And that's exactly the argument that you're hearing from White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, President Trump's pandemic equipment czar.

"If there's any vindication of the president's 'Buy American, secure borders and a strong manufacturing base' philosophy, strategy and belief, it is this crisis," Navarro said during a White House press briefing earlier this month.

On trade, the pandemic gives a clear advantage to the anti-globalists in the GOP led by Trump, but on domestic policies and the role of the federal government, while Democrats know what they want, Republicans aren't so sure, according to Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington.

"I think the debate within the Republican Party over what it stands for has been heating up, and the pandemic is going to kick it into overdrive," Olsen said. "You've got the people who are holding onto the neo-libertarian version of the past. But you've seen more and more calls for reform, which is moving more in the direction of engaging the Democrats on their core issue, which is, how do we help people rather than saying the government can't help people?"

He added, "I think you'll see that debate ramp up once we return to more normal politics after the lockdowns are over. Then, I think the battle in the Republican Party is going to be fierce."

There are already lots of splits.

Freshman Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., for instance, wants to beef up the social safety net, advocating a European-style unemployment backstop, where the federal government would pay companies 80% of wages to prevent layoffs during the crisis.

Other Republicans, however, support nothing more than the current temporary emergency measures. And in addition to Tea Party-style protests against the stay-at-home orders, there's also conservative pushback to the exponential increases in federal spending — even the temporary ones.

Republicans shouldn't expect to get any guidance from the president on resolving these internal disputes, according to Olsen. "If Donald Trump does what he usually does, he will gyrate between positions that each side can support," he said. "And if the party does what it usually does, in the short term it will be locked in stasis, trying to figure out which iceberg Trump is going to land on and try to be there."

But in the meantime, until Republicans agree on what they stand for, it may be hard for the president and his party to continue to argue that popular programs, like Obamacare, should be eliminated lock, stock and barrel.

"I think the appetite for small-government, everyone-is-on-their-own approach to the welfare state, frankly, was always pretty small and it's gonna be even smaller, I think, over the next couple of years," said Vance, particularly given the massive numbers of people applying for unemployment benefits, which hit 22 million last week, canceling out nearly all of the job gains since the Great Recession.

How this debate resolves itself depends on how long the pandemic recession lasts and how popular the government rescue programs turn out to be. As Olsen points out, "If the giant government rescue plan works, it will legitimize government intervention in the economy in a way we haven't seen in decades."

Until then, the pandemic has given both parties an opportunity to appeal to the vast number of Americans who will need help from the federal government for some time to come.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.