Yes, the Democrats can play hardball with McConnell

Voters typically hold the President and his party responsible for the state of the country at the time of elections.  This means that Trump and the Republicans have a strong incentive to support an aggressive federal response to the Covid-19 epidemic and the economic collapse.  Under normal rules of political engagement, this should allow the House Democrats to extract concessions from the Republicans in negotiations over the government’s response to the crisis.

So far, however, this has not happened.  Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been a cagey negotiator, pretending to oppose economic relief measures that Republicans clearly need.  This strategy has forced Democrats to negotiate for desperately needed public health policies and economic relief that will improve the political prospects of Republicans in the November election.  McConnell has framed these policies as concessions and secured special benefits for key Republican constituents in exchange, without making concessions to Democrats on their distinctive priorities.

Many observers are worried that the Democrats will get rolled by McConnell again on the next Covid-19 relief package, which will center on desperately needed relief for state and local governments.  McConnell has already expressed opposition to aid, even though congressional Republicans almost certainly need to provide relief to states as much as Democrats.  If McConnell gets his way Democrats will use their negotiating leverage to secure aid to state and local governments, rather than on getting their other priorities written into law.

This would be a disaster.  Democrats have two urgent priorities that Republicans will strenuously oppose.  First, the Democrats need nationwide vote-by-mail to make sure that the 2020 election is as free and fair as possible.  They also need funding for the Post Office to ensure that mailed ballots are delivered and counted.  Second, the Democrats need to create triggers to automatically extend the economic stimulus measures that are already in place.  The CBO now predicts a severe contraction that will last into fiscal year 2021, with a deficit of $5.8 trillion over two years.  Without automatic triggers, it is predictable that the Republicans will cite the deficit to deny further economic stimulus if Biden wins the presidency, and if history is any guide, this effort to destroy Biden’s presidency may well succeed.

How can Democrats maximize their leverage to get their priorities through Congress?  I believe the best approach is for the House to pass its own bill and send it to the Senate for a vote.  In addition to economic relief for states, the bill should include automatic triggers and vote-by-mail, repeal of the tax cut for real estate developers, and other popular provisions that Republicans will oppose.  Democrats may end up making concessions to the Republicans, but they will be in a strong position to preserve their key policy objectives.

Moderate Democrats are reportedly worried that they will be labeled intransigent and suffer at the polls in November if they stake out a tough negotiating position.  However, there is little risk that this will happen.  By putting a popular and reasonable offer on the table, Democrats will put Republicans in the position of saying “no”.  The onus will be on Republicans to explain why vote-by-mail is unacceptable, why a huge tax cut for real estate investors is a good use of public funds, or why Trump should not be responsible for leading a muscular federal response to the epidemic.

It is always hard to predict how political perceptions and bargaining leverage will evolve over time, but there is little downside to a tough opening bid for Democrats.  Trump and the Republicans need economic relief more than the Democrats do, and they know it.  Furthermore, there is a real chance that events and perceptions will move against Republicans over the next month.  Progress against the epidemic has been slow.  It is far from clear that the daily death toll from the virus will decline over the coming month.  This will weaken Trump and the Republicans and give the Democrats more leverage in negotiations.

But what happens if political events move against Democrats over the next month?  The answer is simple:  they can simply fold.  A week or two of political squabbling in May or June will not affect the elections in November.  At the end of the day, Senate Republicans will support a bipartisan relief package and Trump will sign it, which will make it difficult for them to use it against Democrats.  The only people who will remember squabbling in November are political junkies who already know how they will vote.  The government shutdown in 2019 was the longest shutdown in United States history.  The shutdown ended on January 25, 2019 when Trump realized that public opinion was turning against him.  By February 25, one month later, Trump’s approval rating had fully recovered.

Democrats do not need to worry about charges of obstruction, but they do need to strike while the iron is hot.  The nearer we get to the election, the more difficult it will be for vulnerable Democrats to stand firm against McConnell’s demands, because fears of being perceived as obstructionist will be much more salient with the election looming.  There is a real chance that this is the Democrats’ last opportunity to safeguard the 2020 election and to get automatic triggers that protect a Biden presidency from McConnell’s obstruction.