The Case for a COVID Deal with Trump

While there are risks, there are reasons Dems should do a deal with Trump

After winning the 2008 election, Barack Obama declared that he wanted to imitate Abraham Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” approach of governing. The initial cabinet included his chief opponent in the primary, his Republican predecessor’s Secretary of Defense, and a Republican member of Congress. Ultimately, Obama’s approach was about more than personnel, it was about perspective. He was constantly seeking out contrary opinions to test his positions. When a decision seemed too easy or obvious; where the consensus among his advisors was too clear, Obama would always ask “what’s the counter-argument?”

In my many years of working for President Obama, I often found myself arguing positions counter to my own opinion at his request to pressure test a decision on the table.

The consensus among the majority of Democratic political strategists is that Congressional Democrats cutting a last minute COVID relief deal with Trump would be huge political mistake. The logic behind that position seems — on the surface at least — to be pretty ironclad. Trump is on a trajectory to lose the election. Joe Biden has eroded Trump’s polling advantage on the economy to near parity. Why in the world would Democrats give Trump a win on COVID and the economy just before the election? As Barack Obama would say what’s the counter-argument?

It’s the Right Thing to Do

The best argument for making a deal is that it will provide needed help to people that desperately need it. A normal functioning government would have approved the House-passed HEROES act months ago. Alas, we have a dysfunctional President and a Republican Senate that celebrates cruelty. Only days after declaring an end to any and all negotiations, President Trump is now desperate for a deal and has made a counter-offer. Per the Washington Post:

The new offer proposes $300 billion for cities and states, up from $250 billion in the earlier proposal; it maintains a $400 weekly enhanced unemployment insurance benefit from the previous version, but for a somewhat longer duration, according to a person familiar with the contents who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss them.The White House’s offer on stimulus checks includes $1,000 per child, instead of the $500 per child provided in the original Cares Act approved in March, according to two people with knowledge of the plan.

While this offer is substantial, it is woefully insufficient to meet the scale of the economic devastation. Speaker Pelosi, wisely rejected this deal and pushed for more help for more people. Democrats should not take a bad deal and shouldn’t swallow any poison pills like liability protection for corporations. We have the leverage. However, if there is a deal on the table that helps the unemployed whose benefits are running out, the people waiting in long lines at food banks, and the families staring down the barrel of eviction, we need to take it. As Jeff Stein of the Washington Post pointed out, rejecting a COVID-relief deal would mean rejecting:

  • $400/week to more than 20 million unemployed

  • $4,400 to tens of millions of families, many suffering pay cuts

  • $300B to struggling local governments

I understand the stakes at play in this election and the political risks of giving Trump a win, but taking political risks to help people in desperate need is what separates Democrats from Republicans.

The opportunity to do something right now — as slim as it may be — may not be there after Election Day. Trump and the Republicans have a desperate political incentive to act. That incentive will not be there once all the votes have been cast. There is no chance they are going to do something to help President-elect Biden. Best case scenario for action will be in January after Biden and a Democratic Senate are sworn in (knock on wood). Rejecting any chance at a deal now means asking these struggling families to hold on for another couple of months before they get any help.

Short Term Politics

Just because the politics of pursuing a COVID-deal are precarious doesn’t mean they can’t benefit Joe Biden and the Democrats. A deal would give Trump a talking point down the stretch and will undoubtedly be painted as some sort of turning point by a political media desperate for a closer race. I am skeptical it will break through to persuadable voters amidst the firehose of news. I am also skeptical that our erratically behaving President will have the discipline to communicate this news to the American people with any sort of consistency.

Joe Biden is running as a leader that can unite the country, has the experience to get things done, and will put people over politics. These negotiations are a golden opportunity to buttress this message by coming out in support of any deal to which Pelosi agrees. Biden could say something like:

I have heard people say that cutting a deal for economic relief may help Donald Trump politically. It very well may, but I don’t care. If Speaker Pelosi is able to come to a deal that will give struggling American families the help they desperately need, I will support that deal. Even with a deal, there will much more work to do. I have a plan to build back better and the experience to get it done. I have done it before and will do it again, but American families shouldn’t be forced to wait for help. If we can do something right now, we should do it. The politics be damned.

The other half of the political equation is how a deal impacts Democratic chances to take control of the Senate. As of right now, it seems like Senate Republicans will reject a deal. According to a report in Politico:

At least two GOP senators warned White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that spending as much as $2 trillion on a big bill could backfire at the ballot box. The administration has floated a large spending deal to Pelosi but is trying to get her to back down on some spending levels, but senators said even the White House wants to spend too much, according to multiple sources briefed on the call.

Likely rejection by Senate Republicans is an argument for, not against, cutting a deal. If Mitch McConnell and his half dozen or so vulnerable Republicans want to ignore or vote down a relief package, let them do it. And then Democrats can hammer the living daylights out them in ads and on the campaign trail. If they accept the deal and work with Democrats to pass it, Senate Republicans will quickly follow up this rare munificent action with the rushed confirmation of a Supreme Court Justice that promises to kick millions off their health insurance in the middle of a pandemic. Democrats challenging incumbent Republicans will have no shortage of political ammunition in the last few weeks.

Put it on Trump’s Tab

The medium term political argument for cutting a deal now is that it will make Joe Biden’s Presidency easier. If he wins, Biden will come to office under such dire circumstances that he will yearn for the glory days of the Great Recession. Getting the economy back on track will be his top priority, which will mean a massive stimulus bill. Just like in 2009, Democrats will have to pass such a bill all on their own with no help from Republicans. If Mitch McConnell is still skulking around the Senate, he will once again force Democrats to own the economy and then hope to turn American suffering into success in the midterms. The huge price tag of the economic recovery bill shepherded by Biden will hang over his first term. If Donald Trump is willing to put $2 trillion of that cost on his tab, Democrats should let him. Spending this money now will give a President Biden and a Democratic Senate a better economy when they take power and more runway to pursue their agenda in 2021 and beyond.

Despite the political risks, a COVID-relief deal is unlikely to be a game changer on the campaign trail. The political impact will be on the margins, but I believe Democrats can ensure that those marginal impacts inure to their benefit. Aggressively pursuing a good deal is the right thing to do in the short, medium and long term — for the country and the Party.