As pandemic surges and economy stalls, Trump fails to live up to dealmaker image in face of partisan gridlock

Attempts to deliver a stimulus package have faltered in recent days as President Trump’s erratic approach to governing and Democrats’ eagerness to press a political advantage have repeatedly clashed at the negotiating table. The result has been a historic failure of the nation’s political class to mount a response to an approaching catastrophe, according to historians, public health experts, economists and lawmakers of both parties.

As a president whose reelection hangs in the balance, Trump faces the prospect of shouldering much of the blame and the blowback — despite his efforts to deflect responsibility onto his foes. Trailing his Democratic rival Joe Biden significantly in the polls, Trump’s unwillingness to use his political capital to deliver a final bipartisan victory ahead of the Nov. 3 election has confounded strategists and undermined his image as a dealmaker.

As he has vacillated between abandoning talks and restarting them, Trump’s “vaunted ‘art-of-the-deal’ mystique” has evaporated, said Barbara Perry, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

“Unfortunately for the country, even the looming election cannot break the bonds of hyperpolarization,” she said. “It has only solidified them. With both parties firmly wedded to their opposite positions on covid-19 and the economy, neither seems willing to help the electorate and win votes by fashioning a winning compromise.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has capitalized on a largely united Democratic caucus and favorable electoral prospects, telling colleagues this past week that now is the time to exert maximum leverage against the disunified Republicans. Still, the lack of progress has created tension even among her ranks.

Pelosi, who shepherded a $3.4 trillion stimulus bill through the House in May, has pushed for Trump to accept a $2.2 trillion package that includes money for schools, the unemployed and state and local governments. Trump, who has said he is willing to spend more than his administration’s $1.8 trillion offer, has accused Pelosi of playing politics with the negotiations — blaming her despite his struggles to bring his party on board for elevated spending.

“Pelosi is holding up STIMULUS, not the Republicans!” Trump wrote Thursday on Twitter, hours after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would not allow a vote on the larger spending proposal backed by the president.

In a milestone without precedent in the modern political era, Friday marked a year since Trump and Pelosi have spoken to one another. Neither the worst health crisis in a century nor the swiftest economic downturn in decades has been able to break the lingering animosity that exists between the two leaders uniquely positioned to strike a deal.

With those crises worsening, there is scant evidence of the bipartisan urgency that pushed lawmakers together to pass four bipartisan bills totaling an unprecedented $3 trillion in the early days of the pandemic. No new stimulus legislation has passed Congress since April, even as economists, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell, local officials, small-business owners and social service groups warn that the lack of fiscal stimulus could create long-lasting damage throughout the economy.

Negotiations between Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have proceeded in fits and starts since July, with Mnuchin’s $1.8 trillion offer unable to break the logjam. This past week, Trump asserted he wanted to spend more and criticized Mnuchin for failing to “come home with the bacon.”

The White House has blamed Democrats for the impasse, accusing them of using the stimulus talks to advance partisan interests ahead of the election. White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews said Trump remained open to reaching a deal.

“As President Trump continues to lead the nation through this unprecedented pandemic, including safely expediting vaccine development and responsibly reopening our economy, he also remains focused on saving the jobs of airline workers and providing relief to Americans unemployed through no fault of their own,” Matthews said in a statement.

But Trump’s lack of consistency has given Pelosi greater leverage to hold out for the kind of comprehensive bill she wants. She has pointed to Trump’s demands to “Go big or go home!!!” in private calls with Mnuchin and separately with House Democrats, some of whom have grown increasingly anxious to make a deal before the election. Pelosi has cajoled lawmakers repeatedly in recent days that now is not the time to fold.

With McConnell and the Republican-led Senate essentially writing off the prospect of passing such a large bill, there’s little sign that the standoff will end before Nov. 3. As a result, struggling Americans could face a months-long wait for relief. A new Congress — and potentially a new president — would not be in place to act before January.

Many can’t afford to wait that long. Some congressional Democrats, including Rep. Ro Khanna of California, have urged Pelosi to accept Trump’s offer rather than holding out for a better deal under a potential Biden presidency. They have pointed to the economic devastation that awaits millions in the interim.

Millions remain out of work seven months into a pandemic that is inflicting an increasing toll on the country’s fragile economy. More could join them, as companies including Disney, Aetna, Chevron and American and United Airlines have announced layoffs recently.

More than 25 million Americans are receiving unemployment benefits.

Much of the relief aid from legislation passed in the spring — including forgivable small-business loans to maintain payroll and extended unemployment benefits — has already been used up. In the months since, more than 8 million Americans have fallen into poverty, according to researchers at Columbia University.

Facing those challenges, leaders in Washington have resorted to finger-pointing and name-calling.

“Speaker Pelosi does not want to lift a finger to help the American people,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters Thursday. “She has offered resistance instead of relief.”

Pelosi has cast Trump as desperate for a deal that could allow him to send out a new round of stimulus checks bearing his name before Nov. 3.

“The president only wants his name on a check to go out before election day and for the market to go up,” she wrote in a letter to colleagues last week.

Trump, who has repeatedly referred to Pelosi as “crazy,” has called her the main impediment to a deal.

“She couldn’t care less about the worker, she couldn’t care less about our people,” he said Thursday during a town hall that aired on NBC.

In reality, Trump’s biggest obstacle may be McConnell, who has been sternly opposed to allowing a vote on stimulus legislation that is not fully backed by his Republican caucus.

McConnell has said he plans to hold a vote on a limited bill offering about $500 billion in relief this coming week, before moving on to confirm a new Supreme Court justice and leaving town for the election.

Speaking in Kentucky on Thursday, McConnell dismissed the idea that Republicans would support a bigger relief bill.

“You’re correct we’re in discussions with the secretary of the Treasury and the speaker about a higher amount,” McConnell told a reporter. “That’s not what I’m going to put on the floor.”

Trump has suggested that he could bring Republicans on board if Mnuchin and Pelosi make a deal. McConnell’s recent comments and actions suggest otherwise.

As Trump’s standing in the polls has dropped, Republicans such as McConnell have begun distancing themselves from him. In recent weeks, some have been talking frequently about the ballooning federal deficit — which reached a record $3.1 trillion for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Many Senate Republicans have said Congress has already spent enough money and no further action is necessary.

The moves are an indication that conservatives are looking beyond the 2020 election to life under a potential Biden presidency.

McConnell’s timeline leaves no room for wrangling over a big new spending bill, but another vote on a narrow bill could help inoculate vulnerable Senate Republicans against accusations that they aren’t doing enough to help constituents.

Trump faces similar accusations, with both Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), telling voters recently that the president’s failure to secure a bipartisan relief bill is one reason he should be voted out.

For her part, Pelosi is negotiating from a position of political strength, with House Democrats poised to pick up seats in the November election.

Some economists say the political dynamics will cause the stalemate to persist until next year — a development that could have dire consequences for the economy in the final months of 2020.

“There will be no bill of any size until after the inauguration,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said Thursday in a webinar presentation. “So, here we are, in mid-October, we’re looking at money not flowing until mid-February. That means a real void for the economy. It means potentially some very nasty growth numbers.”

“The momentum clearly has faded,” he said of the economy, adding that the fourth-quarter gross domestic product figures could plunge into negative territory based on current trends.

The stimulus plan being negotiated by Pelosi and Mnuchin would include payments of at least $1,200 for most Americans, extended weekly unemployment aid for the jobless, support for airlines and other affected industries and billions of dollars for coronavirus testing, contact tracing, schools, and state and local governments.

As he has held campaign rallies across the country, Trump has not touted the stimulus plan or attempted to put public pressure on Democrats or Republicans to support the targeted relief.

Instead, he has used the packed events to downplay the virus, repeatedly telling the crowd that America is “rounding the turn” on the pandemic.

Trump, who himself contracted the virus and was hospitalized this month, “seems not to have been chastened by the experience,” said Max J. Skidmore, a political science professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and the author of a book on presidential responses to pandemics.

Trump has falsely claimed that there is a cure for covid-19 and contradicted scientific evidence by suggesting that people wearing masks are more susceptible to catching the virus.

Trump’s decision to campaign on an anti-science platform rather than a stimulus deal may reflect a realization of his weakened political position, Skidmore said.

“Despite the dire need, he, the great dealmaker, has been unable to get his own Republicans to accept a new stimulus,” he said. “Trump may now have reached the end of the country’s — and even the Republicans’ — patience.”