Dealing With Coronavirus Requires Bold Action. The Democratic Leadership Won’t Take It.

The Democrats have an opportunity to push for desperately needed, sweeping economic change in response to coronavirus. Instead, they’re letting themselves be outflanked by Republicans.

US Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to members of the media as Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX), Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) listen at the US Capitol March 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong / Getty

There’s nothing better to shift our collective perceptions of what’s possible than a major crisis.

During World War II, the severely underregulated economies of the pre–Great Depression era gave way to sweeping state control over industry, full employment, and industrial policy unprecedented in human history. When the global financial sector melted down in 2008, an official Washington typically wedded to deficit fetishism embraced billions in new spending overnight.

Similarly, in a matter of days, the coronavirus pandemic has radically shifted the horizons of what’s possible as the extent of what will be necessary becomes more apparent. Earlier this week, Spain moved to commandeer every private hospital in the country. On Sunday, the Danish government struck a leviathan deal designed to prevent layoffs in the coming months and protect workers affected by the crisis, with the state guaranteeing some 75 percent of wages for workers threatened by job loss. No less a consummately neoliberal figure than French president Emmanuel Macron just announced the suspension of rent, taxes, and utility bills.

In the United States, on the other hand, the story so far consists in a confusing and uneven patchwork of measures and proposals. Though events continue to move quickly, it can safely be said that the official response of the Democratic leadership (and centrist Democrats in general) has fallen dangerously short of what will be necessary given the scope of the crisis — raising the tragicomic prospect that the country’s nominal liberal opposition will find itself outflanked on the left by a right wing GOP led by Donald Trump.

An early sign of complacency came last weekend as Nancy Pelosi trumpeted a plan to guarantee sick leave to American workers during the pandemic. The problem? The legislation came with so many caveats and exemptions that it actually covered only 20 percent of the American workforce — leaving out big companies such as Amazon and McDonald’s entirely. As CNN reported, the outcome was the result of a nonconfrontational position on the Democrats’ part, despite their majority in the House of Representatives. Summing up the absurdity of this posture, commentator Kyle Kulinski accurately observed: “Instead of passing a bill through the House giving all working [people] paid time off and forcing the GOP to vote against it, Dems agreed that 20% of the population can have it and then bragged about it.”

If only to further weaken confidence in their capacity to navigate the crisis, the Democratic-led House actually scaled back paid-leave provisions — significantly rewriting and watering down an existing bill on Monday. According to the Wall Street Journal, the move came “following pressure from businesses worried about financial burdens.” Moreover, under the revised legislation:

For the next 10 weeks paid leave would be limited only to workers caring for a child whose school or day care had been shut. Healthcare providers and emergency responders, as well as workers who had been in quarantine or caring for a family member affected by the virus, wouldn’t be eligible for the additional 10 weeks of leave.

There is, it should be said, no liberal monopoly on either complacency or dogmatism, and there’s every reason to believe both will remain proudly bipartisan traditions throughout the remainder of the crisis. For their part, conservative ideologues Arthur Laffer, Stephen Moore, and Steve Forbes today released a statement calling on the government not to “expand welfare and other income redistribution benefits like paid leave and unemployment benefits that will inhibit growth and discourage work.” The White House, meanwhile, is clearly hoping to leverage the moment to pass another round of tax cuts, having treated the initial phase of the crisis with an attitude that can only be called criminally negligent.

Nonetheless, centrist Democrats are also in the process of bungling the rapidly evolving debate around direct cash transfers — set to become urgent over the next few weeks, amid layoffs and the inevitable slowdown of economic activity, and already being floated by the Trump administration. Though House Democrats like Ilhan Omar and Ro Khanna are touting more ambitious proposals, there has seemed little appetite for direct, no-strings-attached cash transfers among the Democratic leadership thus far. Yesterday, Politico reported that none other than Nancy Pelosi “essentially shot down” the idea at a private caucus meeting last week — potentially positioning the leadership of America’s liberal opposition to the right of former Republican presidential nominee Senator Mitt Romney.

A statement released by Pelosi’s office yesterday that, among other things, makes reference to “expanded refundable tax credits,” suggests the conservative posture currently favored by the Democratic leadership is unlikely to change any time soon.

Failure to change course could prove catastrophic. Now, more than ever, the most vulnerable sections of the US population need an opposition willing to defend their interests decisively and without hesitation. This would necessitate a more confrontational and overtly political posture toward the incumbent administration and its many glaring failures. But it would also require a more adversarial attitude toward big business and other constituencies keen to put their own interests ahead of the general public’s as the situation worsens.

Continued refusal to act more decisively will put ordinary people at risk. But it will also cost the Democrats politically as key races for the House, Senate, and presidency are held across the country later this year. The Republican Party, chaotic and destructive as it tends to be, has historically proven adept at politicizing tumultuous occasions to gain advantage and further its agenda. As in 2009, centrist Democrats are letting a crisis go to waste — and potentially handing Donald Trump a major victory in the process.