Coronavirus Will Likely Change The Nature Of U.S. Political Debate

Apr 21, 2020
Originally published on April 21, 2020 8:20 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

This pandemic could permanently change the way we live. There will almost certainly be more handwashing and more telework in the future. But could it also cause lasting political and policy changes? National political correspondent Mara Liasson has some answers.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: There are a lot of people who think the pandemic could reshape politics in profound ways.

ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER: This crisis is a time machine to the future.

LIASSON: Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of the New America think tank, was the former director of policy planning at the Obama State Department.

SLAUGHTER: 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.

LIASSON: Big policy changes that could 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 for gig economy workers. Of course, this massive package of federal help for ordinary people is only temporary, but Slaughter says it has the potential to permanently change the political debate.

SLAUGHTER: Suddenly, in a crisis like this, people realize across the political spectrum that unless we can provide a floor, the whole economy can crash - 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.

LIASSON: 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.

As he endorsed Joe Biden last week, former President Barack Obama was making this argument.

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BARACK OBAMA: The vast inequalities created by the new economy are easier to see now, but they existed long before this pandemic hit. Health professionals, teachers and delivery drivers, grocery clerks, cleaners - the people who truly make our economy run, they've always been essential. And for years, too many of the people who do the essential work of this country have been underpaid, financially stressed and given too little support.

LIASSON: 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 has also gotten a boost, says conservative J.D. Vance, the author of "Hillbilly Elegy."

JD VANCE: One of the core arguments of the Trump 2016 campaign is that in our supply chains in our manufacturing economy, we had become too dependent on a globalized world, especially China. 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 for yourself, whether it's wireless technology, whether it's pharmaceutical products, whether it's ventilators and hospital masks.

LIASSON: And that's exactly the argument that you're hearing from Peter Navarro, President Trump's pandemic equipment czar.

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PETER NAVARRO: 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.

LIASSON: On trade, the pandemic gives a clear advantage to the antiglobalists in the GOP led by President Trump. But on domestic policies and the role of the federal government, while Democrats know what they want, Republicans aren't so sure, says Henry Olsen, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

HENRY OLSEN: 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. That you've got the people who are holding on to the neolibertarian version of the past but the - 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?

LIASSON: There are already lots of splits. Conservative freshman Senator Josh Hawley, for instance, wants to beef up the social safety net. He's advocating a European-style unemployment backstop, where the federal government would pay companies 80% of wages to prevent layoffs. But other Republicans 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 temporarily.

But despite those Republican tensions, J.D. Vance says, it will be hard for the president and his party to continue to argue that popular programs like Obamacare should be eliminated lock, stock and barrel.

VANCE: I think the appetite for small government, everyone-is-on-their-own approach to the welfare state - frankly, it was always pretty small, and it's going to be even smaller, I think, over the next couple of years.

LIASSON: Especially, says Vance, when there are at least 22 million people who've applied for unemployment benefits. How this debate resolves itself depends on how long the pandemic recession lasts and how popular the government rescue programs turn out to be. But 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.

Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.