The partisan divide keeps getting deeper

When the members of Congress gathered to sing God Bless America on the Capitol steps after a devastating terrorist attack, their collective state of mind was powerfully expressed. Who were the Republicans, who were the Democrats, and at that moment in time did anyone care?, video (1:02), 9/11/01.

Over the next few months, the two sides worked together in unprecedented harmony. The decisions they reached weren’t necessarily beneficial, e.g., the wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq would last far longer and prove much costlier than most Americans were expecting, but the collegial tone of the national political conversation was a refreshing change from previous complaints about how Republicans had “stolen” the 2000 presidential election (sound familiar?), etc.

The coronavirus pandemic also poses a crisis, which has been likened to 9/11 or even to Pearl Harbor – both events that inspired Americans to put aside their differences and unite against a common enemy. Is anything comparable going on currently? Maybe in some cases, but overall the political class seems more divided than ever.

While impressions of the current situation are fresh in our minds, it may be helpful to document what has been going on and where things seem to be headed – with the ultimate thought of informing constructive change.

A. Irreconcilable differences – Nearly six years ago, we reviewed Pew Research’s in-depth survey of the US political climate and in some cases offered our own reflections. Mapping a perplexing political landscape, 7/21/14. Among the conclusions were the following:

(1) Within both major political parties, the balance was shifting towards the polar extremes (consistent liberals and consistent conservatives) while moderate sentiment was declining.

(2) The formerly observed overlap between moderate liberals and moderate conservatives had largely disappeared, leaving nearly all politically active Democrats further to the left than politically active Republicans and vice versa. The perceived differences between the two sides were diverse and ran deep, as indicated by the following chart:

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(3) Politically active Americans accounted for 1/3 of the adult population; the remainder of the population lacked strong convictions about or interest in political issues unless their individual interests were directly affected. Whether as moderate members of their respective parties or independents, these people were inclined to think that the right answer to the issues dividing the two parties was somewhere in the middle.

(4) In our view, the right answers are in the middle conclusion wasn’t necessarily supported by Pew’s analysis and/or valid.

Considering Pew’s unsparing profiles of the middle segments (young outsiders, hard-pressed skeptics, next generation left, faith and family left, and bystanders), it’s hard to see why the people in these segments should be looked to as arbiters for a host of political issues they haven’t bothered to follow and don’t much care about.

Furthermore, isn’t there a chance that one side or the other is right on most of the issues and splitting the difference would be a disastrous mistake? We don’t necessarily agree with all of the “conservative positions” identified by Pew, but the “liberal positions” could run this country into the ground. Automatic acceptance of ever “stricter environmental laws and regulations” – more handouts for needy Americans, “even if it means going further into debt” – unlimited immigration – gut the military and rely on diplomacy – punitive taxes on businesses that “make too much profit” – etc.

B. Political stalemate – The partisan divide has been around for a long time, but it seems to be growing deeper every year. Thus, the only major legislative accomplishment since the inauguration of President Trump was enactment of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act, without a single Democratic vote, while Republicans controlled both houses of Congress.

Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 mid-term elections, and the following year was dominated by nonstop investigations of the Executive Branch (conclusion of the Mueller probe, further activity by House committees, and a vindictive impeachment process that ended with an expeditious acquittal of the president in the Senate). Meanwhile, the only congressional action that represented a win was ratification of the renegotiated trade treaty with Canada and Mexico. Once again, Congress delivered subpar results,

Some ideas for overhauling the US government were outlined in a two-part blog entry in early March and summarized in the SAFE newsletter,
Spring 2020. Work on this project will continue based on reader feedback that has been received and further reflection on the current situation.

C. Coronavirus – When the coronavirus pandemic first reached our country, it was perceived as a manageable problem. See for example this comment by the president in the State of the Union address on February 4.

Protecting Americans’ health also means fighting infectious diseases. We are coordinating with the Chinese government and working closely together on the coronavirus outbreak in China. My administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.

As the number of COVID-19 cases multiplied and the death toll rose, the pandemic came to be seen as a full-blown national crisis, but unlike previous crises (supra) it has not served to unify the country. To the contrary, both sides have striven to play the situation for their own political advantage and partisan differences have if anything intensified. Discussion follows.

#CHINESE ORIGIN – Have there been US missteps in combatting the pandemic? Yes, notably including the slow start in organizing an adequate testing program. In all fairness, however, initial knowledge about the coronavirus was sketchy and US vulnerability was exacerbated by misinformation provided by China and the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO).

•China initially stated that the disease was not readily transferable from person to person (i.e., contagious) despite knowledge to the contrary. China knew the coronavirus could become a pandemic in mid-January, Aly Song (Reuters),,

•The government blocked travel from Hubei Province to the rest of China in order to limit the spread of the disease, but China (supported by WHO) objected to the travel ban imposed by the US (in late January) and continued to permit people from Wuhan to travel internationally, e.g., fly to Italy, where travel bans had not been imposed. WHO chief says widespread travel bans not needed to beat China virus, Stephanie Nebehay,,

•US experts have been denied access to review how the pandemic began; the matter is of continuing interest due to possible involvement of the Wuhan virus lab. Pompeo: US asking China for access to Wuhan lab to determine coronavirus origins, breitbart,,

All things considered, claims that the president (or his administration) was “asleep at the switch” don’t seem justified – particularly given how critics slammed his initial China travel ban as an overreaction. Flashback: Let’s take a look at how the press covered Trump’s China travel ban, Shelby Talcott,,

That hasn’t stopped the other side from attempting to fault the president for ravages of the pandemic, however, and start laying the groundwork to hold him and his party responsible in the upcoming elections.

#NATIONAL RESPONSE – It only took a few weeks to idle major sectors of the US economy in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus and minimize resulting deaths. This result was achieved in accordance with federal guidance, based on policies set on a state-by-state basis – with no clear understanding as to how long the shutdown would remain in effect.

As the staggering costs of the shutdown sunk in, many people started worrying about when they would be able to go back to work and otherwise resume their “normal” activities. While the initial round of economic relief (the $2.2 trillion CARES Act) would ease the pain for many Americans, it seemed obvious that the government couldn’t continue this level of support for long.

Understandably, the president and his supporters began talking about the need to get America back on its feet as soon as circumstances would permit. The president’s first suggestion was that this should happen by Easter, although there was little hope of the disease cresting by then.

Critics likewise questioned setting a goal of May 1, and the administration has now proposed that the states reopen in phases as their respective circumstances permit – which suggests that the reopening process will take quite a while. Trump unveils three-phase plan to reopen states and reach a “new normal,” Rob Crilly, Washington Examiner,

This leaves Republicans vulnerable to a two-prong political attack. If there are second wave outbreaks of COVID-19 this fall, they will be faulted for having worried more about business profits than human health. And if the economy is still ailing in November, as now seems likely, they will be blamed for that too on grounds that the recession happened on their watch.

In effect, the presidential election has been turned into a referendum on the president’s management of the coronavirus crisis – while the other side isn’t obliged to prove that they could have done better. The politics of a pandemic: How Trump will be judged in November, Linda Feldmann (Christian Science Monitor),,

Some observers have speculated that the president’s opponents might be willing to delay the coronavirus shutdown and thereby sabotage the coronavirus recovery in hopes of preventing his re-election. Democrats will keep the states closed to tank the economy and take down Trump, Todd Starnes,,

#LOG ROLLING – If both sides were operating in good faith, it’s hard to believe there would be so much difficulty in agreeing on economic relief measures to hold the US economy together pending its eventual reopening. As previously reported, some rather extraordinary maneuvering occurred before the CARES Act was passed in late March. Big bucks for the coronavirus crisis, Section II,

“The political conversation about the pandemic and how to react to it has been downright ugly at times.” Impugning motives – unrelated demands - pointless delays – showboating. And a real issue about this legislation that should have been discussed, namely how it would impact the government’s already serious fiscal problem, was swept under the rug by both sides.

One element of the relief package proved very popular and has already been exhausted, namely the approximately $350 billion backstop for payroll-protection small business loans; the administration has requested an additional $250 billion to keep this program going. Given that the $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed both houses of Congress by overwhelming majority votes, e.g., 96-0 in the Senate, and that the small business loans are likely to be offset by a lower volume of unemployment benefits, one might have expected this request to be readily granted.

House Democrats are demanding a quid pro quo, however, namely an amendment of the bill to add spending for various other purposes – while Republicans say the additional demands are unjustified or premature. No additional small-business relief funding in sight, McConnell says, Nihai Krishan, Washington Examiner,

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried last week to pass a bill infusing $250 billion more into the program, but Democrats blocked the request. They proposed their own $500 billion measure, which included changes to the program, restructuring it to provide special funding for vulnerable businesses and underserved communities. They also sought to include money for hospitals, state and local governments, and food assistance recipients.

The WSJ editorial board urged the GOP to stand fast, and we would whole-heartedly agree. No more paycheck protection, Wall Street Journal,

Mrs. Pelosi has been saying far and wide that President Trump is responsible for the Covid-19 death toll because he didn’t act quickly enough to stop it. The longer Democrats refuse to provide financing for small businesses after government cut off their revenue, the more Americans will have every right to conclude that Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer are responsible for the worsening economic destruction.

#PERSONAL ATTACKS – Politics is about power, the stakes are often quite high, and frank discussion of substantive differences is vitally important. Emotions of the players will inevitably surface from time to time, but we continue to believe civility should be the norm.

This has not always been the case of late, as demonstrated by examples such as this one. [Trump vs. Pelosi statements], Erin Coates,,

Action: Speaker Pelosi sent a letter to her House Democrat colleagues, slamming the president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis: “The truth is because of an incompetent reaction to this health crisis, the strong economy handed to Donald Trump is now a disaster, causing the suffering of countless Americans and endangering lives.”

Reaction (Trump tweet): “[Pelosi] is totally incompetent & controlled by the Radical Left, a weak and pathetic puppet. Come back to Washington and do your job!”

Dear leaders, shame on both of you!

#POWER PLAYS – Here are two examples of proposed strategies that seem either unconstitutional or unwise, take your pick.

Having learned nothing from their previous impeachment efforts, it seems, House Democrats envision a new round of politically-motivated investigations focused on the president’s response to the coronavirus crisis. Pelosi and Schiff ramp up new Trump investigations, Byron York, Washington Examiner,

[Pelosi] gave Democrats room to go after Trump for whatever reason they choose. "The committee will be empowered to examine all aspects of the federal response to the coronavirus," she wrote. Among those powers, she added, will be the ability to "press to ensure that the federal response is based on the best possible science and guided by the nation's best health experts." That could mean just about anything.

It’s also been suggested by several Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Speaker Pelosi, that the president’s threatened cut-off of US funds to WHO for their China-centric handling of the coronavirus pandemic (see earlier discussion) was illegal in that the funds had been authorized by Congress. Shades of the temporary hold on military aid funds to Ukraine, for which he was impeached last year. Clinton says Trump has “no authority” to stop US funding of WHO, David Krayden,,

Not to be outdone, Trump allowed during a National Coronavirus Task Force briefing that he might order an adjournment of Congress to expedite some presidential appointments that are being purposely delayed by Senate Democrats. The president’s rationale was that 129 appointees are awaiting Senate confirmation, but Congress isn’t due back in Washington until May 4. Moreover, he couldn’t resolve the situation by making recess appointments because the houses of Congress have been conducting pro forma sessions to prevent such action.

Although there is a provision in the Constitution for the president to adjourn both houses of Congress in the event that said houses disagree on when to adjourn, this provision has never been invoked and such action would surely be challenged in court. While acknowledging that he shares in the president’s frustration, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he wouldn’t support the idea. McConnell dismisses Trump’s call to adjourn Congress to make appointments, Tobias Hoonhout,,

D. Conclusion – US political leaders have not started cooperating as a result of the coronavirus crisis, which tends to confirm our belief that a structural overhaul of the government is overdue. This can’t be accomplished before November, however, so Americans should make special efforts to insist that the 2020 elections be properly conducted, e.g., with meaningful debates of the key issues and in person voting on election day.

Early voting and voting by mail are already far too prevalent, and an expansion of these procedures due to the coronavirus pandemic would be a serious mistake. US electoral system is faltering,

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