Tim Geithner, the former US Treasury secretary, famously said “plan beats no plan” during the 2008 financial crisis. It is a lesson that Republicans appear to have forgotten. If Donald Trump loses in November, his aversion to striking an economic stimulus deal with Democrats amid a raging pandemic will be one of the main reasons. You cannot beat something with nothing.
The irony is that Joe Biden’s own plan contains key elements of what Mr Trump promised in 2016: to modernise US infrastructure and protect the “forgotten American”. The logic of Bidenomics is simple. The cost of borrowing is free. The US is in the midst of a national crisis. Its infrastructure is no longer first world, and unemployment is at a generational high. It seems like a good moment to enter the 21st century with the “largest mobilisation of public investments” since the second world war, as the Biden campaign puts it.
The debates about whether Mr Biden’s proposals are too centrist, as Democratic progressives complain, or are radically socialist, as Mr Trump says, have an air of unreality. His policies are squarely in the American tradition. What Mr Biden proposes is pragmatic — an America-coined word and philosophy that means “whatever it takes”. A better term may be pandemonomics. Neither the left nor the right should underestimate its appeal.
The left should be especially wary of looking a gift horse in the mouth. Some are disappointed that Mr Biden picked Kamala Harris rather than Elizabeth Warren as his running mate. Ms Harris is a moderate whose campaign focused more on America’s racial inequities than its economic ones. Ms Warren has devoted her career, as well as her presidential bid, to reversing the latter. She will stay in the Senate. That is exactly where her supporters should want her.
At best, vice-presidents are helpful understudies: they never write the script. There is a chance Mr Biden could make Ms Warren his Treasury secretary, in which case she could negotiate terms. Should she stay in the Senate, however, she would be in pole position to help dictate them. Mr Biden has omitted the wealth tax from his campaign. He has also ignored Medicare-for-all and employment guarantees. Ms Warren and Bernie Sanders, who will also remain in the Senate, can help to draft the legislation. Vice-presidents never get to do that.
Some have likened America’s 2020 situation to 1932. The scale of the crises facing America today may indeed be comparable to when Franklin D Roosevelt took office in the Depression. A better analogy would be to 1963, when Lyndon Johnson became president after the assassination of John F Kennedy. Much like Barack Obama, JFK moved a nation with his poetry but struggled to write its legislative prose. Mr Biden, like Johnson, is a creature of the Senate. He knows how the sausage is made. It was LBJ who enacted Kennedy’s civil rights agenda.
America’s left should picture a Biden presidency as their chance to pass the big reforms that stalled under Mr Obama, such as parental leave, pre-school learning, green energy and public health insurance. They would be wise to subdue their misgivings until after the election. A Biden administration would be their best opportunity of rewriting America’s social contract in more than half a century. The left’s instincts to go for the perfect over the good could still get in the way.
The right, meanwhile, seems frozen in the oncoming headlights of probable defeat. That is now likely to include the loss of the Senate as well as Mr Trump’s ejection from the White House. The party’s paralysis reflects its underlying divisions.
On the one hand, Mr Trump is loath to do any kind of deal with Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, whom he has not met since the pandemic began. Her $3tn economic stimulus plan, which the Democrat-controlled House passed in May but has run aground in the Senate, would keep American heads above water until after the election. It could only help Mr Trump’s re-election chances. His animosity to Ms Pelosi exceeds his grasp of his own self-interest.
There are some Republicans, including many who face likely defeat in November, who would be happy to split the difference with Ms Pelosi. She has offered to cut her plan by $1tn, provided that the Republicans raise their offer by $1tn to $2tn. This would be the kind of old-fashioned compromise in which Mr Biden exults. But the Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, will not bring anything to the vote that Mr Trump has not approved.
Barring his warnings about Mr Biden, Mr Trump thus has no re-election platform. Last weekend he issued executive orders to resume unemployment payments and suspend payroll taxes for employees. The legality of his orders is questionable. In practice, they are almost certainly unworkable.
His real objection to the Democrats’ pandemic bill is that it includes funding to make it easier for Americans to vote in November and for the US postal service to deliver ballots on time. Mr Trump thus has a plan of sorts — but it is based on scorched earth retreat. He would rather let Americans suffer through the pandemic than risk a high turnout election. It is about burning bridges, not building them.