Almost four years have passed since Congress approved and Donald Trump signed a huge relief bill designed to limit the financial hardship created by the Covid-19 pandemic. The CARES Act did its job. Although around 25 million Americans temporarily lost their jobs — with the job losses mainly caused by fear of infection rather than officially mandated shutdowns — there was far less monetary pain than you might have expected given the magnitude of the public health crisis.
In fact, according to a Federal Reserve survey, the percentage of Americans “doing at least OK financially” was actually higher in July 2020 than it had been before the pandemic, presumably because for many people, government aid, including one-time checks and greatly enhanced unemployment benefits, more than made up for lost jobs and business.
Furthermore, fears that generous aid during the pandemic would undermine America’s work ethic — that adults would leave the labor force and never come back — proved totally wrong. A new paper from the San Francisco Fed is titled “Why Is Prime-Age Labor Force Participation So High?” It notes that Americans between 25 and 54 are more likely to be in the work force now than they were at any time since the early 2000s.
So the CARES Act was a huge policy success. But given recent political developments, I’ve found myself thinking: What would have happened if Democrats in 2020 had behaved like Republicans in 2024?
Imagine an alternative history in which Joe Biden, who was already by then the strong favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination, had urged Democrats in Congress not to pass a relief bill — the same way Trump has bullied Republicans into voting against a border security bill — because he believed that reducing Americans’ misery might help Trump get re-elected.
Imagine a history in which Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House at the time, had behaved like Mike Johnson, the current Republican speaker, and prevented a bill attempting to address an urgent national priority from coming to the floor.
It seems clear that the CARES Act did, in fact, help Republicans politically. It’s true that they lost the White House in 2020, but by a less decisive margin than many expected, and that while Democrats did gain control of the Senate, they did so by the smallest possible margin. Republicans surely would have done much worse if Trump had been presiding over a full-scale Covid-induced depression.
And the G.O.P. is still, to this day, benefiting from that 2020 Covid relief package. Republicans constantly boast about how good the economy was under Trump, which is peculiar given that Trump was the first president since Herbert Hoover to leave the White House with fewer Americans employed than when he moved in. The trick here is that they pretend 2020 never happened — a sleight of hand that only works because federal aid allowed so many Americans to emerge from the pandemic slump in good financial shape.
Now, my imaginary history didn’t happen and couldn’t have happened. For one thing, Pelosi isn’t that kind of politician. She’s partisan, of course, but has never as far as I know engaged in political extortion by holding the well-being of the nation hostage. For example, in 2019, she shepherded a bipartisan agreement to suspend the debt ceiling, averting a potential financial crisis, with a deal that Trump himself conceded contained “no poison pills.”
Even if Pelosi herself had wanted to engage in economic sabotage, her colleagues almost certainly would have refused to go along.
But Trump’s Republicans (and recent events have confirmed that Trump really does own the G.O.P.) are everything the Democrats of 2020 weren’t. They’ve rejected a border security and foreign aid bill that they themselves demanded and then negotiated, one that was far harsher than Democrats would have wanted. And they aren’t even trying to hide their naked cynicism. They want to block a border deal, even one that gives them almost everything they want, because any deal might limit their ability to attack President Biden over the issue.
Oh, and a significant fraction of Republicans, Trump included, would prefer to block aid to Ukraine because, by all appearances, Vladimir Putin is their kind of guy, and they’re content to see him steamroll his democratic neighbor.
Biden is clearly planning to make Republican sabotage a major issue in the 2024 campaign — akin to the way Harry Truman ran against the “do-nothing Congress” in 1948 — with the extra edge that this time Republicans are more or less openly trying to damage American interests for political gain. Whether this strategy will work remains to be seen.
But even if it does work, and Biden wins — even if Democrats were to regain full control of Congress — I’m worried about the future. One of America’s two major political parties is now dedicated to achieving power at all costs, and will try to make the nation ungovernable when a Democrat sits in the White House. How long can our democracy survive under these conditions?