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A false choice between life and the economy

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“It’s the economy, stupid.” So quoth James Carville, the architect of Bill Clinton’s 1992 come-from-behind primary victory, in an attempt to remind staffers what really matters in the arena of federal politics. It’s a lesson our present president seems to have taken to heart. 

Trump’s very incumbency is founded on the premise that he is good for business. He beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 thanks in part to suburban white women, the kind of voters who take issue with his personality but will hold their noses as long as their 401ks appreciate. In Trump’s first 36 months, the Dow Jones soared to an all-time high, and the unemployment rate plummeted to a half-century low. Deserved or not, he took the bulk of the credit in the eyes of the American public. By mid-February, with strong market conditions at his back and an imploding Democratic Party at his feet, a Trump victory in 2020 looked like a safe bet.

But that was then. If nothing else, the last month has shown us how fast the world can change. Biden’s resurgence and the coronavirus outbreak have flipped this election’s political calculus on its head. Now faced with a high-polling challenger and a wildly mishandled pandemic, it is unclear whether all the liberal-bashing in the world will be enough to retain swing voters. So Trump is taking a different tack, leaning into his relatively popular economic record and pushing for the resumption of everyday life in the midst of COVID-19. If you squint a little, it makes a certain amount of sense. Mandatory shutdowns are to consumer spending the way hurricanes are to Houston, and it is obvious that the longer we stay inside, the worse the inevitable recession will be.

Yet returning to business as usual would come at an astronomical human cost. The president repeatedly and persistently floated Easter Sunday — April 12 — as a target date for easing quarantine measures. Though he ultimately extended federal distancing guidelines through the end of the month, his mind seems far from made up, even as public health officials warn we must ramp up our efforts exponentially between now and then, not dial them back. We need drastic action, moral courage, deference to experts, leadership on an individual level. But Trump has preferred to misinform, obstruct, flout the scientists and prioritize corporations over citizens. In the crucible of national crisis, he has demonstrated nothing save a failure to live up to the moment and a willingness to sacrifice Americans on the altar of unfettered capitalism.

Still, the current financial turmoil shouldn’t change the calculus here. When it comes to COVID-19, epidemiologists and economists are saying the same thing: The harm this pandemic could cause to our health and wealth will be far more catastrophic if we reopen the country too early. Urging workers back to the office and shoppers back to the stores will do nothing but overload the hospitals, tank the markets and pile up the body bags, none of which bodes well for Trump’s presidency come November.

It’s not surprising to see the president choose knee-jerk reactionism over his own long-term interests. His response to coronavirus is just one more short-sighted decision in an administration whose defining quality is an inability to think beyond the next news cycle. But in this most unprecedented of circumstances, maybe Trump shouldn’t base policy on James Carville’s economic platitudes. More useful might be the tried-and-true rationale of a retiree on a cruise ship: You can’t spend money when you’re dead.

Contact Sean Casey at spcasey ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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