“I think you and any viewer knows exactly where I’m going with this,” MSNBC host Ari Melber said halfway into a stemwinder of a question for Sen. Cory Booker.
“What are we to make of the fact that for years on end, Washington, the town you work in, seems to speak with one voice that there are certain things that can’t be done, that are off the table, that are too expensive, then when we have a crisis like this … no one is saying don`t pass a big, expensive bill … we suddenly have trillions of dollars to deal with things on an emergency basis. What does that make you think of, and do you see any silver lining or hopeful sign that it means that actually things that we were told are impossible are suddenly possible and fundable?”
Then, Melber said the scariest thing someone can say to a senator: “And I’ll give you as much time as you need to give us your thoughts.”
To his credit, Booker’s answer was shorter than Melber’s question, but still too long to quote in full.
“Well, look,” Booker began, “it’s often during crisis that you see Americans expand their moral imagination.” He noted how the Birmingham church bombing opened America’s eye to the evils of segregation, and how the Triangle Shirtwaist fire illuminated the problem of poor working conditions. “And now,” Booker said, “this crisis has hopefully begun to inspire the moral imagination in our country” to deal with health care.
Booker’s response was better than the question. But that question and the underlying assumptions behind it are all over the place these days. It boils down to: You people said we couldn’t afford X (where X equals the Green New Deal, or Medicare for All, or canceled student debt, or all three), and now we can afford to spend trillions in response to the coronavirus. So were you just lying?
It’s an infuriating question, particularly coming from people who incessantly (and often fairly) criticize President Trump for wanting to politicize this crisis. It’s also a dangerous one, because while it may sound entirely legitimate to people who already agree with the premise, it sounds very different to people who don’t.
But let’s start with why it’s flawed on the merits.
Under normal circumstances I can’t afford to spend $20,000 to fly first class to Hong Kong. But if, God forbid, the cure for some terrible disease my daughter was suffering from was in Hong Kong and only first-class seats were left, we’d both be on that plane tomorrow—even if I had to borrow the money. And let’s not forget that this massive spending bill, justified though it may be, is a massive borrowing bill, adding trillions more to the debt.
In other words, crises are different. We spend money differently during them. We also do things that under normal circumstances we would consider wrong, illegal, unconstitutional or all three. If Lincoln had suspended habeas corpus during peacetime, he’d rightly have been impeached.
Which brings me to my second point.
One reason many people are deeply skeptical of climate change is that a lot of the stuff progressives propose to fight it are things they want to do anyway. And often, the stuff they want to do in the name of fighting climate change has nothing to do with climate change. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s original proposal for a Green New Deal includes trillions in funding for Medicare for All but nothing for nuclear power. The former would do zilch to reduce CO2 emissions; the latter would do a lot.
During the debate over the economic rescue package last week, House Majority Whip James Clyburn said this crisis offers a “tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.” The House version of the bill was full of gratuitous nonessentials such as regulations for forced diversity hiring. (The bill included 32 instance of the word “diversity.”) The final version has $25 million in funding for the Kennedy Center.
If you want to convince normal Americans to take a crisis seriously, you have a moral obligation to act as if you take it seriously too. Using it as an opportunity to get things you couldn’t successfully argue for before the crisis tells people you’re not as serious as you expect them to be. And that is a surefire way to sow precisely the sort of partisan distrust you decry.
Photograph of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.