WASHINGTON — In the face of a national crisis, we have a governing system functioning on two tracks. Large parts of it are working like a real government — in Congress, at the state and local levels, and among civil servants and front-line responders. But the presidency is now just a daily talk show, hosted by a self-centered blowhard worried only about his poll numbers.
This leads to big achievements, and to frightening problems. When President Donald Trump, based on absolutely no data or analysis, explained on Tuesday that he wanted coronavirus health restrictions lifted by Easter because “I just thought it was a beautiful time” and because “Easter is a very special day,” he told us exactly what we needed to know: Even in the face of death and economic turmoil, there will never be anything serious about his presidency — except for the serious threat it poses to our collective well-being.
The real work in Washington was being done, first, on Capitol Hill. In the early morning hours on Wednesday, senators across party lines agreed on a $2 trillion stimulus bill. It’s imperfect, and we’ll likely need more. But it’s far better than the original proposal by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The opportunity for this authentic give-and-take was brought to life not by sermons about civility but by fear and sheer political power. All sides are petrified about the possibility of economic collapse. Democrats made good use of their control of the House of Representatives and McConnell’s need for Democratic senate votes.
Thus, the final bill is more generous than the original draft to those in real need — in its unemployment insurance provisions and in providing the poorest Americans with the lump sum payment from which they were originally excluded. The corporate bailout section has at least some accountability features, and significant sums will be spent to help our threatened hospital systems and state and local governments.
Of course, the proposal could have done more for the least advantaged — guarantee health insurance to everyone (isn’t that a logical policy goal in a pandemic?) and to expand other forms of help to those most in need. And, yes, many progressives and libertarians will always have a healthy skepticism about government largesse toward big corporations. But the economy badly needs this record-breaking relief and — while nothing is certain in life or in Congress — it looks likely to happen.
At the state level, New York’s Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is winning praise for his thoughtful, passionate and fact-based daily briefings and for trying to push Trump toward policies he should be pursuing anyway. Cuomo is the most public face of all the governors and mayors who have risen to the occasion, even if some “What? Me Worry?” state leaders — in Mississippi and Florida, for example — have been in denial over the virus’ threat.
And let’s note how right Cuomo was to praise doctors, health care workers, police officers and firefighters, among others.
Which only sets Trump’s failures into sharper relief — his failure to take the crisis seriously at the outset, his failure to set up a comprehensive testing system, his failure to deploy the Defense Production Act to direct the private sector to produce the medical supplies and equipment we need and, above all, his failure to abandon his pettiness and self-involvement.
— Twitter: @EJDionne.