In a semi-rational world, Trump and Senate Republicans would have agreed to a reasonably generous economic relief package along the lines of the HEROES Act approved by the House. Without an extension of the special pandemic unemployment benefits and aid to state and local governments, a humanitarian disaster is inevitable and a macroeconomic disaster a real possibility. Trump’s executive orders are grossly inadequate to prevent mass homelessness and hunger. This will quickly become evident. Layoffs of government workers will mount. How on earth do Trump and Republican members of Congress think they can avoid electoral accountability for the coming train wreck? How will Trump explain breaking off talks and rejecting a much more generous aid package, when it will be obvious that a bigger package was needed? What will Republican Senators say to their constituents? Remember, the party of the president gets the blame for bad outcomes, deserved or not.
Maybe Trump still wants to win but doesn’t have the mental capacity to game this out. Krugman argues that Trump is way out of his depth and has surrounded himself with sycophants who promise miracle cures; payroll tax cuts are just another hydroxychloroquine. Some Trump critics have consoled themselves with the thought that even if Trump is evil, at least he’s incompetent and lazy. There is something to this idea. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that a president who understood where his electoral bread was buttered would be a real asset on economic policy right now.
There are other possibilities. Perhaps McConnell feels his position as party leader will be threatened if he tries to move a bill without majority support within his caucus. A few days ago I expressed cautious optimism that Republicans would not try to hobble a Biden presidency by destroying the economy in the run up to the general election. But maybe I was wrong. Or maybe Trump and McConnell are betting that their indifference to suffering will let them get a relief bill without measures to protect the November vote, or with more corporate goodies, or with less overall spending. Whatever is going on, Republicans are playing a dangerous game.