Nancy Pelosi
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got in some hot water for her answers to questions about a potential lame duck COVID stimulus. This quote was singled out in particular, in response to a question about why she is now willing to accept a smaller stimulus bill than before:

It’s for a shorter period of time, but that’s okay now, because we have a new President – a President who recognizes that we need to depend on science to stop the virus, a President who understands that America’s working families need to have money in their pockets in a way that takes them into the future, without any of the contraptions of any of the other bills that the Administration was associating itself with before.

We feel very excited about the prospect that there’s a bipartisan bill.  Because I told Members, I am not bringing any more bills that are not bipartisan.  We wanted to show what needs to be done in the interest of negotiation.  They’re negotiating.  It’s a good product.  It’s not everything we want; don’t get me wrong.  I don’t want the Republicans to think that this is a dream come true.  It is not.  But it is a path forward.

When asked if it was a mistake to reject a “half-loaf” stimulus prior to the election, she answered:

Look, I’m going to tell you something.  Don’t characterize what we did before as a mistake as a preface to your question, if you want an answer.  That was not a mistake, it was a decision.  And it has taken us to a place where we can do the right thing without other, shall we say, considerations in the legislation that we don’t want.  No.  That was it.

Now, the fact is, I’m very proud of where we are.  My chairs – my chairs have worked very hard on all of this.  They were not even happy with our proposal that we made the other day before we saw this proposal.  They thought we had come back too small.

Predictably, right wing (and some leftist) media pounced on the quotes to say that Pelosi scuttled COVID stimulus in order to submarine Trump’s election chances.

That’s not entirely true. But the tendency by many Democratic leaders to speak in layers of talking-point obfuscation and paint inadequate things as objectively good causes a host of problems here. One of the things that allows Republicans to continue to hold power despite having incredibly unpopular policies is that you never doubt what they believe or what they want to do. Republicans tend clearer and more partisan in their prevarications than Democrats are in their truth-telling, and as such voters tend to give them greater credit for moral clarity.

The reality is that Democrats tried to give the American people a real COVID stimulus before the election. Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, who both have a history of doing less than nothing to help regular Americans as opposed to wealthy executives, both had a strong incentive to uncharacteristically benefit their constituents in order to help Trump’s presidential chances. It may sound unappetizing at first to admit it, but Democrats were right to use that leverage to try to force Trump and McConnell to do the right thing.

So in late September Democrats passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill. Even that was too small and inadequate to the task. But in a world where Republicans held a Senate and White House veto over decent policy, it was a best-case offer.

Trump blinked slightly and raised his offer to a $1.8 trillion package instead. But the president’s plan had some fatal flaws: it didn’t contain funding for a direct plan to tackle the virus. It shortchanged a number of necessary programs. And crucially, it lacked any support for state and local governments facing horrific budget crunches from the loss of sales tax and other revenues.

But Senate Leader McConnell, notably, refused to go even as far as Trump. McConnell pooh-poohed the notion of any stimulus happening prior to the election, focusing his gaze almost entirely on locking down his theft of the Supreme Court via the nomination of Justice Barrett. Not content with destroying the Senate and delegitimizing the Court, McConnell also made himself the Grim Reaper of COVID stimulus talks.

Trump knew he was in a bind, and pretended to be the glorious populist frustrated with both political parties and wanting even more aid than Democrats were offering:

“I would like to see a bigger stimulus package frankly than either the Democrats or Republicans are offering,” he told radio host Rush Limbaugh, hours after apparently signing off on the offer that costs $400 billion less than the Democrats’ plan.

In the end, though, this was the story: Democrats passed a reasonable bill and tried to get Trump on board, knowing he wanted the political boost. Trump offered far less than Democrats, including several dealbreakers. Republicans in the Senate were happy to let the whole thing die, preferring to trade a Supreme Court Justice for an entire election if need be. So the talks fell apart.

Now, in the days after the election, House Democrats have no leverage over Trump–but people still need help. So it makes sense to pass something now, and then take a another crack at the matter when Biden sits in the Oval Office with a mandate, and Democrats either hold the Senate or are closer to doing so than they are today.

Instead of pretending that a smaller bill is OK now because Biden will be president and vaccines are coming soon—a response that practically invites accusations of October sabotage in refusing a similar deal—Democratic leaders should just tell the truth: “The smaller package is inadequate. We tried to pass a more robust package when Trump wanted to get something done before the election, but he still refused to help Americans in blue states—and Grim Reaper McConnell wouldn’t even go as far as Trump. So we’ll get what we can now to help the American people and then come back to this when we have a real president. And if you’re listening, Georgia—we want to help get you and everyone else through this pandemic, but we need a Senate Majority to do it.”

Clear, simple, partisan language will do the trick. It also has the benefit of being brutally and appropriately honest.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.