When he stood before Congress in 1996 and declared “the era of big government is over,” President Bill Clinton gave voice to a doctrine that permeated Democratic politics for more than two decades. Government, while necessary, shouldn’t be celebrated if the party wanted to win elections.
The coronavirus is changing that.
Democrats are enthusiastically embracing the idea of a robust role for government in American life, abandoning concerns they might alienate the relatively narrow slice of independent voters. Instead, they argue, the pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show voters how government can play a positive role in responding to a global health crisis and economic slowdown.
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has gone from backing a balanced budget a quarter-century ago to supporting trillions of dollars in emergency spending. He and other Democrats have proposed a new public health corps and a national infrastructure plan reminiscent of New Deal programs. Biden has also urged President Donald Trump to use war powers to direct how banks disperse federal small-business loans.
Democratic calls for further government intervention will likely intensify Friday when April unemployment numbers are released that could rival those reported during the Great Depression.
“The American people need their government,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said recently. “They need their government to act strongly, boldly and wisely.”
Biden, limited to virtual campaign events because of the coronavirus threat, has hammered Trump repeatedly for deflecting pandemic responsibilities to the states and private sector. In one notable attack, Biden paraphrased a letter from President Abraham Lincoln to a laggard Union general during the Civil War: “If you don’t want to use the army, may I borrow it?”
The dynamics set up key contrasts for voters going into the November election.
Many Republicans, notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, are starting to resist Democratic calls for additional aid. The GOP is especially split on how much help to give struggling state and city governments.
Trump, meanwhile, remains difficult to frame in clean ideological lines: He signed the $2 trillion-plus coronavirus aid bill and supports an infrastructure program in theory. But he’s threatened to veto anything that helps the U.S. Postal Service, continues to shift the onus to the states and has made clear that he will cast Biden and all Democrats as “socialists,” regardless of anyone’s actual record or proposals.
Of course, Democrats still have their own philosophical tussle.
Biden, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi draw fire for not going as far left as the progressives would prefer. Even before the coronavirus struck, Biden noted his policy slate was further left than any modern Democratic nominee, including Hillary Clinton in 2016 and President Barack Obama, who plucked Biden from the Senate to serve as vice president. Pelosi, D-Calif., had panned Republicans before because they “do not believe in government.”
Yet Biden and Pelosi have held their ground against progressives’ demands for single-payer health insurance, complete student-debt forgiveness and the most sweeping climate policies. Democratic congressional leadership also hasn’t endorsed calls for $2,000 monthly checks for all Americans for the duration of any pandemic recession.
“We don’t want any more government than we need,” Pelosi said amid congressional negotiations. “But we know that governance has evolved.”
Biden’s tack is clear in recent online conversations with party luminaries. Appearing split-screen with former presidential rival Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, Biden hailed the scale of the Depression-era New Deal as a road map. Talking with Hillary Clinton, Biden recalled how they’d have detailed public policy discussions when she was secretary of state and he was vice president.
Obama himself summed up the new Democratic ethos that the distinction is about more than budget numbers. “This crisis has reminded us that government matters, that good government matters,” he said in his endorsement video of Biden.
The question is how voters interpret that, and the electorate has proved fickle and inconsistent.
Polling generally found much broader support for the aid that Trump signed into law last March than for the recovery spending Obama signed into law following the 2008 financial collapse. The difference, however, comes mostly in Republicans joining Democrats in thinking the latest package — signed by a Republican president and adopted by a Republican-run Senate — was the right course. By comparison, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency in 2009, a majority of Republican voters found that spending to be a bad idea.
That conservative angst fueled the tea party wave that handed the House to Republicans for the rest of Obama’s presidency and then the Senate for his final two years. But those same voters have embraced Trump even as GOP tax cuts and spending pushed the projected federal deficit toward $1 trillion — and that was before pandemic spending.
Both parties are working to shape the debate on the ground ahead of November.
Former Rep. Steve Israel, who once led House Democrats’ campaign arm, said the “key” phrase of the fall campaign will be “competent government.” And Democratic incumbents already are working to define GOP opposition to massive aid to states and cities as effectively ensuring layoffs of police officers, firefighters, teachers and public health workers.
“This isn’t an abstract debate,” said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin.
House GOP campaign chairman Tom Emmer, R-Minn., counters that Democrats are returning to form and then some. Nodding at a tenuous bipartisan consensus, Emmer said voters want help navigating “a storm they have no responsibility for.” But Democrats’ agenda, he insisted, “is something other than big government. It’s socialism.”
During a recent virtual event with Biden, Hillary Clinton looked to Republican governors as unlikely evidence that her party is right, alluding to executives “of both parties” garnering higher job approval ratings in recent weeks than Trump.
“We’ve gone through a period where I think some people may have forgotten that it really does matter who your mayor is, who your governor and, yes, who your president is,” Clinton said, praising governors for making “tough decisions” and playing active roles.
“That kind of leadership,” she said, “may be back in vogue.”