Last Wednesday, with a pandemic spiking and the economy plummeting, Senator Charles Schumer finally lost his cool and dispensed with syntactic best practices in the name of urgency. In outlining the Senate Democrats’ response to a steepening crisis, the Senate minority leader demonstrated that some bold action was in the offing by abjuring the words “Here is” at the beginning of three successive serious tweets. “What we’re proposing,” Schumer began, straight-talkishly, before treating himself to a line break and delivering a robust helping of dense Democratic fudge. “If you’re a working parent and suddenly have to worry about finding a safe place for your kids to stay during the day,” Schumer thundered, “we would provide emergency funding to safely ramp up child care services for heavily impacted parts of the country.” It went on like this, climaxing with this rousing promise: “If you’re a small business owner suddenly facing cash flow problems, we would allow you to apply for low-interest loans and other forms of financial assistance that can offer relief quickly.”
Schumer, who famously pegs his policy positions to appeal to a fictitious Long Island family that almost certainly would have voted for Trump, was by no means the only national Democrat to respond to broad upheaval with this kind of meticulously hedged and carefully tranched language: If you fit into social unit x, then you will be eligible in some circumstances to receive benefit y. When the House was debating a bill that would have provided immediate cash payments to Americans harmed by the indefinite shuttering of much of the economy, Speaker Nancy Pelosi pumped the brakes. Her aim was not so much to ensure that the maximum aid would reach the greatest number of people but to guard against the prospect that too much federal support might reach insufficiently vulnerable people with untoward quickness. “The Speaker believes we should look at refundable tax credits, expanded [unemployment insurance] and direct payments,” Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff tweeted, “but MUST be targeted.” When Pelosi introduced her plan on Monday afternoon, the benefits were immediate, but also tiered and conditional—more an interest-free loan than an emergency cash disbursement.
With the usual exceptions—Senator Bernie Sanders in a series of live-streamed online addresses, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on social media, Representatives Maxine Waters and Rashida Tlaib in actual proposed legislation—every Democratic voice raised during a maddeningly unproductive week seemed to caution against trying too hard, while attaching a PowerPoint slide to the cautionary message for good measure. Senator Kamala Harris, whose dud presidential campaign has lately become a slightly more plausible vice presidential one, took the opportunity to reheat her LIFT Act, which would direct preposterously insufficient payments to a narrow subset of Americans who were neither too rich nor, not a little nauseatingly, too poor. (Harris later deleted those tweets.) When the front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination finally weighed in on the ongoing negotiations over the scale and targeted reach of a bailout at week’s end, it was to ask that the nation’s reigning plutocrats be mindful in processing the bailouts they were about to receive. “I am calling on every CEO in America to publicly commit now to not buying back their company’s stock over the course of the next year,” Joe Biden’s team tweeted on Friday morning. “As workers face the physical and economic consequences of the coronavirus, our corporate leaders cannot cede responsibility for their employees.” On Sunday afternoon, after a cheerful Weekend at Bernie’s–style emoji cameo on a popular D.J.’s Instagram feed the day before, Biden reappeared on Twitter to ask that Social Security payments be bumped up by $200 a month.
All the while, the Republicans did what Republicans do—sought to direct whopping no-strings-attached funds to powerful interests while effectively removing all nonwealthy people from the equation, pausing at regular intervals to laud the integrity and handsomeness that their forgetful and vinegary president had brought to duffing every single aspect of the governmental response to the virus. The Democrats, in response, did what they generally do. They made clear that they were disappointed in the Republicans; they advocated for something vague and qualified and means-tested that might benefit some people in a clever double-banked fashion; they made sure that it would not arrive too soon, or too generously. It would allow newly precarious workers and small business owners to apply for low-interest loans, where applicable. They maneuvered and then aimed to let the game come to them. “Biden aides and allies … are projecting an aura of calm,” Politico reported, “saying Trump’s false claims and reinvented history about the virus will haunt him on their own as the economy craters.”