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Former Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said during the 2008 financial crisis that lawmakers should “never let a crisis go to waste,” and many Democratic lawmakers appear to be heeding that advice -- using the coronavirus pandemic as a jumping-off point to renew calls for a historic expansion of government.
Emanuel repeated his mantra again last month, this time in connection with the new crisis. “Start planning for the future. This has to be the last pandemic that creates an economic depression. We're going to have more pandemics, but this has to be the last economic depression,” he said.
The view that the crisis should be an axis for deep, long-lasting change was on display during negotiations over the $2 trillion stimulus package, in which House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn reportedly said that the package was “a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.”
That remark brought criticism from Republicans, when Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said of Clyburn's comments: "When we see a rising body count, they see a political opportunity. Shame on them."
But Clyburn's sentiment was reflected at the time in an ultimately unsuccessful House Democratic stimulus proposal that included environmental regulations on airplanes, diversity demands for the boards of companies receiving bailouts, as well as other wish list items.
The idea that the coronavirus crisis could spur a new progressive revolution is shared by California Gov. Gavin Newsom who recently said: “Absolutely, we see this as an opportunity to reshape the way we do business and how we govern.” The remark came near the end of a long answer to a question about whether he saw “the potential” in the crisis for “a new progressive era” in state and national politics.
The renewed push comes as ideas normally advanced only by progressives -- such as expanded unemployment benefits and direct cash payments to every American -- have been adopted by Republicans as part of a short-term response to an unprecedented national emergency. The over $2 trillion stimulus package that passed included both measures, and more remains under discussion.
But while Republicans and conservatives say that such measures are appropriate only in limited circumstances, Democratic politicians see the door as now having been opened to an enormous expansion of government. It's an expansion that would also have no clear off-ramp.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the de facto leader of the party’s left-wing faction in the House, has called for measures including “extending Medicare/Medicaid coverage to all, Eviction freezes, No-strings UBI [universal basic income] program, eliminating work requirements for SNAP & other assistance and humanitarian provisions in prisons & decarceral policies.”
She’s previously called for COVID-19 relief to be “drafted with a lens of reparations.”
All of those ideas track closely with ideas the left-wing freshman congresswoman has been promoting since coming to Washington, D.C.
Those ideas were on display on Monday, when the congresswoman said in a press call that the $1,200 stimulus payment to most Americans was not enough, and called for regular recurring payments of almost double that. She said she foresaw a fourth round of stimulus -- known as Phase 4 -- including expanded health care and $2,000 in monthly reoccurring payments to all families, regardless of immigration status, and $1,000 per child.
She was joined by Progressive Caucus leaders and fellow Democratic Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, and "squad members" Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and activists in demanding an even costlier version of the economic stimulus.
The progressive caucus already outlined its priorities -- including direct payments, a federal paycheck guarantee program for employers, essential worker protections, expanded health care and a vote-by-mail requirement for the 2020 federal elections. Other members touted their priorities, including Omar's legislation to cancel rent and mortgage payments during the pandemic and Pressley's call for student debt cancellations.
Bigger and more regular stimulus payments had been endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., when he was running for the Democratic presidential nod, as well as former 2020 hopeful Andrew Yang, who promoted the idea of a $1,000-a-month universal basic income long before the pandemic.
“They should be monthly and should go to EVERY American regardless of circumstance,” Yang said of the $1,200 payments this month.
Sanders, meanwhile, used the crisis to repeat previous calls that free health care be provided to illegal immigrants as well.
“We are all in this together and must demand that government economic and health care assistance is available to all, regardless of immigration status,” he tweeted on Tuesday. “A human being is a human being.”
Pushing for items that line up with one's pre-existing political agenda is not exclusive to Democrats, however. President Trump, who campaigned on stricter border and immigration controls, this week announced an immigration moratorium on top of a host of other restrictionist policies such as turning away illegal immigrants and asylum seekers at the border.
The push for bigger, broader government programs is something that Republicans are likely to be wary of, even if they are backing the expansion in the short term. The free-market economist Milton Friedman once quipped that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program.
Should the government get into expanding on a short-term basis, politicians could find themselves in a politically difficult position when it comes to rolling back popular giveaways -- especially if the economy doesn’t snap back as quickly as optimists are hoping.
Additionally, left-wing Democrats are likely to fight any return to a pre-COVID situation tooth and nail, and have already indicated as much.
"We just have to reject any calls for a return to normal," Rep. Pressley said Monday. "Because that normal is one that was slowly killing people."
Sanders, in a New York Times op-ed, went so far as to see a “silver lining” in the crisis.
"If there is any silver lining in the horrible pandemic and economic collapse we’re experiencing," he said, "it is that many in our country are now beginning to rethink the basic assumptions underlying the American value system."
Fox News' Marisa Schultz contributed to this report.