Forget the debt: Why Trump and pols want a trillion-dollar bailout

We are about to embark on a trillion-dollar effort to bolster an economy being ravaged by the coronavirus.

And given the magnitude of the problem, everyone in politics is scrambling to get on board.

Never mind that Republicans have long been the party of limited government, shrinking deficits and battling bailouts. Perhaps it’s true that in a pandemic, we’re all socialists. In any event, President Trump is leading the effort, and he has virtually total control over the GOP as he runs for reelection.

I’ve long argued that both parties are hypocritical when it comes to red ink, denouncing it only when the other party controls the White House. But that argument is moot right now. A virtual shutdown of America requires a response akin to war -- a term the administration is now using regularly.

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The damage to the economy grows by the day. The stock market has nose-dived, giving up all its gains since Trump took office. Businesses across the country, especially retail outlets, are laying off workers or slashing their pay (jobless claims, up 70,000 last week, are starting to soar). And tens of millions of Americans are hunkered down at home and not spending money.

Trump is pushing Congress to approve $500 billion in cash payments to Americans, $300 billion to help small businesses, $50 billion to shore up the airlines now that travel has plummeted, and $150 billion for other industries. The details, of course, will be hotly debated.

But as the Washington Post points out, “The president and many of his conservative allies rose to power on the strength of a grass-roots movement forged in opposition to the bank bailouts during the 2008 financial crisis and President Obama’s subsequent economic stimulus package.”

It was easy to hate TARP, since big and reckless banks got bailed out, with no one going to jail, while ordinary Americans lost their homes and jobs. But the virus is just as much an existential threat to financial stability, or more, and some on the right are calling it an act of God--the better to justify their support of massive government spending.

At stake, says the Post, is whether Trump is remembered as Herbert Hoover or FDR.

The paper quoted one White House official as saying Trump “doesn’t give a [expletive]” about the plan’s impact on the federal debt. “It’s all about the markets and the economy for him. It’s all about the jobs numbers.” And politically, most Americans would probably agree. The debt seems a far-off and abstract concern.

But while a massive bailout (or stimulus or other euphemism) is a virtual certainty, there will be a debate about the role of government. Is sending people $2,000 checks more than a Band-Aid? How small does a small business have to be to get aid? Should the airlines, like the car industry a decade ago, be limited to loans that have to be repaid?

Jonah Goldberg, in the Dispatch, says that “every five minutes, someone on Twitter or TV says that this crisis proves the need for government, as if the opposite view dominated public life. It doesn’t.” Virtually everyone on the right, the conservative pundit says, believes the feds should go full steam ahead in a pandemic.

“This is one of most infuriating rhetorical sleights-of-hand in ideological debates: Take an example of a problem the government should deal with, and then claim it proves that there is no problem the government shouldn’t deal with. I want the government to nuke a meteor heading our way. That doesn’t mean I must think we should have a federal minimum wage.”

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But that argument is for another day. Mistakes were made, in Ronald Reagan’s famous phrase. A Trump administration simulation last year of a killer virus that would start in China “drove home just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed,” says the New York Times.

We can and will fight about what happened in the past and what will happen down the road. But politicians are casting their usual beliefs aside over the clear-and-present danger that urgent action is needed right now.