This Is a Historic Crisis. Where Is Democratic Leadership?

In the moment when the working class needs them the most, the Democratic party is leaving people behind.
Collage by Hunter French | Images via Getty

Donald Trump’s response to the global pandemic will cost an untold amount of lives. His denial of the virus’s seriousness, failure to stockpile and manufacture the necessary protective gear, dismissal of the pandemic team, and spread of misinformation and pseudoscience means, quite literally, that hundreds of thousands of people could die who otherwise may not have. The rot goes all the way down: The Republican Party is using this crisis to jam through the largest corporate bailout in history, while doing almost nothing in comparison for the millions of Americans who are now without jobs or had little income to begin with.


None of this is unexpected. Yet as Republicans militantly push through their policy priorities—one might say they are “politicizing” the pandemic—Democratic leadership has been largely absent. In what is not simply a political opportunity, but a historic moment of unprecedented need, the party that supposedly represents the working people is barely putting up a fight.

Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic nominee, is nowhere to be found. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are operating as if it’s business as usual, ceding whatever power they have to Republicans. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren quickly folded and voted for the stimulus bill, perhaps in part because of the bruising primary process. And, while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez railed against the bill, she’s only a single freshman representative. The working class is still vastly underrepresented in the House and the small but newly emboldened progressive wing has not yet come together as a consistent, effective bloc to put pressure on leadership.

Biden, who is still rejecting the idea of single-payer health care during a global pandemic, is a frontrunner leading from behind. After the Democratic establishment spent the last month of the primary coalescing around their candidate, that same candidate has suddenly disappeared during a moment of national crisis. As Biden fell off the face of the earth for nearly a week in March, he told reporters that his team was still working on figuring out the infrastructure at home to be in “significant contact with the American people.”


When Biden does emerge, he’s reticent to go hard on Trump. As an outside advisor to Biden told Politico on Monday, “As much as I dislike Trump and think what a bad job he’s doing, there’s a danger now that attacking him can backfire on you if you get too far out there. I don’t think the public wants to hear criticism of Trump right now.” In the meantime, Donald Trump’s polling has managed to creep up in the initial weeks of the epidemic (though it has begun to fizzle in recent days).

Biden’s strategy, it seems, is to stay on the sidelines, much to the frustration of some within the party.

“They need to be drawing a sharper contrast with Trump at this point in time given his obvious failings while standing at that podium every afternoon,” Jim Manley, former aide to Senators Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy, said of Biden.

Instead of more livestreams and televised spots, Biden has decided to release a podcast, “Here’s the Deal,” in which he tells the American people what, exactly, the deal is. Going the podcast route is not just a missed political opportunity, but a missed public health opportunity. Older, at-risk people are more likely to get their news from television. And while someone like Biden may not be able to easily break through the coronavirus disinformation Fox News viewers receive, a not-insignificant number of moderate viewers who watch CNN are also confused about what’s happening. According to the Pew Research Center, a quarter of CNN viewers think that the media has greatly exaggerated the risks of the pandemic and nearly one fifth think COVID-19 was developed intentionally in a lab.


The other obvious rallying point for Democrats would be in the House, which is the one chamber that they currently control. Yet even as the coronavirus stimulus bill was making its way through the Senate, Republicans were down by five votes because of members who were quarantined, meaning that Democrats in that chamber had more leverage than usual to push for priorities.

But neither Speaker Nancy Pelosi nor Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer offered any sort of robust defense or rebuke to the Republican Party’s corporate robbery in the Senate’s most recent stimulus bill. The bill includes $500 billion in corporate bailouts, which essentially translates into a $4.5 trillion bailout in leveraged lending from the Federal Reserve. In turn, Democrats secured weak oversight of the bailout money, one-time $1200 checks for individuals, and more generous unemployment benefits—wins that are far from commensurate with the much more permanent losses.

“The bill was a monstrous, indefensible giveaway to greedy financiers and monopolists and arsonists, justified by the scraps it gave people out of work and the scraps it gave small businesses,” Zephyr Teachout, a corruption expert and Sanders ally, told VICE. “I understand that Democrats don't control the Senate, but I don't understand why they didn't stand on the rooftops and demand two separate bills, one for immediate needs and the other for bailouts, and yell at Republicans at every possible opportunity for their effort to put them together.”


Pelosi is now gearing up for a fourth bill, in which she is pushing for more of the Democrats’ priorities. “This isn’t about how fast we can do it. It’s how fast we must do it,” she told reporters on a call earlier this week. Yet with the corporate bailouts already secured, Democrats have less leverage than they did before. Republicans have little incentive now to bend on any of their opponents’ policy priorities—“No more spending. We did all the spending,” one White House economic adviser told a Washington Post reporter.

Again, none of this is unexpected—Republicans have always had a Machiavellian focus on corporate giveaways. Yet during the crisis, many of Pelosi’s decisions have been to seemingly stymie the priorities of her own party. Not only did she fail to pass a more progressive House relief bill, Pelosi stubbornly refused to push for remote voting before sending members home. Without remote voting, members have to either accept the stimulus bill wholesale—corporate bailouts included—via unanimous consent, or individually object and force all their colleagues to return to Congress during a pandemic. Some progressive members saw this as a power play by Pelosi.

“If you have remote voting and you actually have to whip your members rather than just being able to count on unanimous consent, it would definitely give more leverage to members,” one senior aide to a progressive House member told HuffPost.


The lack of remote voting also means that House leadership can use the excuse that pushing too hard for progressive priorities would mean a Republican member would block unanimous consent and force everyone to come in and risk getting sick. David Segal, the executive director of Demand Progress, a progressive group that is pushing for emergency remote voting, told VICE that because of this, the “outcomes of House negotiations have been, and will continue to be, more moderate than they otherwise could be, and it means the House can't pass strong, progressive stimulus measures and try to force the Senate's hand.”

If the Democratic establishment hasn’t broken out in this moment, those on the party’s left wing aren’t doing much better. Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren voted for the Senate stimulus bill, which passed unanimously 96-0, despite the fact that it included a historic bailout for the shareholder class. Warren even went to the lengths of laying out a progressive litmus test for any corporate bailouts, a test that the bill did not pass. Sanders made a speech criticizing Republicans who were fighting the unemployment provisions, killing an amendment that would have made the deal even worse. But in the end, this just essentially served to move forward Schumer and Mitch McConnell’s package, corporate bailouts included.

To be fair, only the left-wing of the party has offered a robust policy vision proportional to the scale of coronavirus. And as a fraction of the Senate body, both Sanders and Warren had much less power over the deal than those in actual leadership—it was clear that the bill was going to pass regardless. But it was a moment when either senator could have registered dissent, in the likes of Barbara Lee and her lone vote against the war in Afghanistan. Yet neither did.

The pandemic has revealed fractures in how our country operates as a whole. As a result, the nation is opening up to the idea that broad social programs are not only viable, but necessary solutions. Support for Medicare for All is at a nine-month high, the Republican administration itself instated a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions for homeowners, and lawmakers are seriously discussing a universal basic income. Much of this is temporary, of course, until it’s not. It’s up to Democrats seize upon this energy and change that—as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in The New Yorker, “Now is a moment to remake our society anew.”

If there is one national Democratic leader who has emerged over the past month, it’s New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo. Giving measured, daily press conferences from the epicenter of the pandemic, Cuomo has won over the media class and given the public a sense of authoritative control over the situation. But this is also the bare minimum that a public official should do in the time of crisis. In reality, Cuomo is also bungling the situation—he didn’t shut down the city until nearly two weeks after the state’s first confirmed case, is refusing to give relief to renters, and has left people to die in jails. Perhaps most egregiously, as millions of people lose their jobs and face a public health crisis, the governor is focused on cutting Medicaid. Cuomo’s rise says more about the vacuum in leadership from the rest of the Democratic Party than anything else.

This is an unprecedented moment. Republicans, some of whom are selling off stock to enrich themselves, understand that. But the energy on the ground for a new, better world is here. There are people organizing mutual aid groups, those calling for a massive, nation-wide rent strike, and Whole Foods and Instacart workers who are striking over their health and safety. Democrats could seize on this energy to push for massive New Deal-era public policies that would help the working-class. At the very least, they could offer a unified steady, moral vision for such policies. Yet in the moment when the working class needs them the most, the party is leaving them behind.