Scrambling the Political Divide: ‘No Normal Recession’

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We’ve written a lot about how this moment of national crisis is turning our politics inside out and upside down, scrambling traditional fault lines and leaving everyone unsure of where ideological and political divides will land once this is all over.

For some political leaders, this is really scary. For others, it’s an opportunity to reshape policy, their party and their country.

Senator Josh Hawley Republican of Missouri most certainly falls into the latter camp. The youngest member of the Senate, Mr. Hawley, 40, has spent much of his first term in office sketching out a populist vision for the post-Trump Republican Party, one that embraces (some) government, criticizes big business and attacks a “cosmopolitan elite” that looks down on religion and has sold out the American working and middle classes to multinational corporations.

His most audacious proposal yet? A plan to cover 80 percent of wages, up to the national median wage, for workers at any U.S. business and offer companies a bonus for rehiring workers laid off over the last month.

This is not the kind of limited-government, fiscally conservative plan traditionally embraced by the Republican Party. An outside economist estimated that a more expansive version of the proposal, introduced by Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington, a leader of the congressional progressive caucus, would cost $250 billion over three months and just under $500 billion over six.

Mr. Hawley has been hawking his plan to his colleagues, the White House and the public. In the process, he’s attracted a fair amount of criticism, with one conservative columnist exclaiming that Mr. Hawley had gone “literally full socialist.”

We talked to Mr. Hawley about the economic crisis, shifting politics and how to manage working from home with two young sons scooting around the driveway. (As always, our conversation has been edited and condensed.)

Hi, Senator. Where are you right now?

I’m in Springfield, Mo., which is my home. My boys are 7 and 5, so we’ve got a lot of activity and energy in the house.

OK, here is my slightly personal work-from-home question. Have you put on real pants?

I honestly find that it’s important for me psychologically. I’m a creature of routine. I really believe in routine and order, and it’s just as important to me personally. So I try to maintain as much of my normal routine. I try to get up at the same time I usually would, make my bed.

I get ready for work. Even though there’s really no place to go, that’s important to me. Meanwhile, my kids are early risers, so they’re usually up by 6:30 at the latest. What my wife and I found is with their distance learning — I guess that’s what we’re calling it — they’re usually done with all of their lessons, whatever they’re supposed to do, by like 8:30. So we’re like, Oh, wow, we have the whole day ahead of us.

That is a long, long day. But Missouri will start to reopen on Monday. Is that the right decision?

It’s a flexible order in Missouri. What we’ll see is different regions of the state will stagger their reopening and be sensitive to what the health picture looks like. I think that makes a lot of sense.

Missouri is a very diverse state. I’m in southwest Missouri right now, where our curve has been flat for weeks. That looks very different than St. Louis, frankly. So I think that allowing the municipalities and the counties to pursue strategies that are good for them, I think is a smart choice. And we have to watch the data and watch the health returns and see what we see and adjust accordingly.

So what’s the first thing you’ll do? Will you go to a restaurant?

I’ll be back in D.C., because we’re back in session. And that — I think we’re still in the pretty strict lockdown there. So, no, it will be cooking at home and take-in only for the Hawleys.

Should Congress come back? The House has a different view.

I can’t speak for the leader. I haven’t spoken with the national attending physician. None of that is my call. I will say I think it’s important we be working. It is vital that Congress not just shut down. I’m a big proponent of: We need to be doing our work, and we need to be focused, in particular, on jobs. And this is why I’ve been saying for literally weeks now that any further relief action by Congress has got to focus squarely on jobs and employment. So wherever we are, we need to be working, and we need to be focused on that question.

And you have proposed a pretty bold plan — a plan that has stood out as something fairly aggressive, particularly from a Republican. I’m wondering how you got there?

It’s in response to the unprecedented situation. We’ve never seen so many unemployment claims in such a short period in American history. We’ve just never seen this set of circumstances before in American history.

My view is that if government, as part of the health response, is going to idle large portions of the American economy and start throwing people out of work, there’s a responsibility there to make sure those folks can keep their jobs and then get back to work as soon as is practicable from a health perspective. So that’s the inspiration for it. Keep American workers safe, protect American jobs, and also get us ready to recover. To me, this is a recovery plan. We’ve got to get folks back to their jobs so that they can get back to work again as soon as they get the green light.

I spoke with a number of economists from across the political spectrum, by the way, and the ideological spectrum. And what came recommended to us over and over again from both policymakers and from economists was important that we preserve the relationship between a worker and the job. Give workers that security, give businesses the security of knowing, Hey, I’ve got my workers here. In Britain, for instance, Boris Johnson’s conservative government had offered a payroll support of 80 percent up to their national median. That appears in these early stages to be to be working well. And so we tried to look at the best practices of other regions, other nations, along with the advice of experts.

Republicans don’t typically look to the U.K. for fiscal policy advice. How do you think this squares with the Republican idea of limited government, fiscal restraint?

We’re in an unprecedented moment where you have government action that has shut down large parts of the economy. That’s the critical backdrop here. This isn’t a normal recession by any stretch of the imagination.

It is government action on a mass scale that has brought us here. Of course, that government action is against the backdrop of an unprecedented health pandemic. So my point is, is that we’re already well into a series of events that have been triggered by government response, government intervention. In that unique set of circumstances, the most important thing we can do is try and preserve people’s jobs. I think it’s a bedrock conservative principle that we want folks to be able to provide for themselves, for them to control their own destinies and provide for their families. They’re not going to be able to do that. They cannot work. So we’ve got to get people work and preserve that job security.

I know you’ve talked about moving past the fights in the past. Does this virus in some way accelerate those changes?

I believe that Republicans, conservatives, we have to be the champions of working folks, the kind of people who make up the vast majority, the work force in my state and, frankly, in the country. Lot of whom, by the way, don’t have college degrees. They are not well positioned to work from home. Just, “Hey, I’ll just fire up the laptop and I’ll sit on my couch and I can find that at my job is secure for six weeks or six months.” That’s just not most of the work force in my state or this country.

My view is that we need to be the spokespeople of working families and everyday workers, blue-collar workers. They are the ones who are, I think, most vulnerable and most affected by this pandemic. There’s nothing more conservative right now than saying let’s preserve work. Let’s get people back in a position to work, even if they can’t physically go to the workplace, depending on their region, their state. Let’s get them their job.

What’s been the reaction from leadership and other Republicans to this?

I’ve talked to every Republican in the Senate caucus. I have personally sent notes to every single one of my colleagues. I don’t like to lobby my colleagues. I don’t really believe in that. I’m not an arm-twister. But you want to get ideas out there, provide people with information, and then, hopefully, they’ll come to a good decision.

My view is that as the severity of this crisis really sets in, as we see these unemployment numbers mount, as we see the lines for food in this country grow longer and longer and longer, people are going to say we have got to do something about work. I’ve also had conversations across the aisle with Democrats. I’m going to be continuing to beat the drum and say our relief efforts have to focus on jobs.

You’ve been a supporter of the president. A lot of voters are going to head to the polls in November, and assessing the president on his performance during this crisis, what grade would you give him?

I think he’s done a really good job. The most important component of that to me is he’s been willing to adapt. This is something in a crisis that it’s underappreciated and underrated. But I think it’s really maybe one of the most important qualities that anybody in leadership position can have.

Six weeks ago, no one was envisioning 30 million Americans unemployed. It is a continuing situation, a continuing crisis. I think he has done a good job of rolling with the punches of trying to empower people like Dr. Fauci and other efforts. I think he’s increasingly concerned based on just what his public statements are about the severe employment crisis that we’re facing. And I think he wants to take action on that.

That sounds like an A-plus.

Yeah. I’m not a teacher anymore, so I don’t know the letter grade. But I think he’s doing really well.

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This week, Georgia became one of the first states to ease out of their shelter-in-place orders, following Gov. Brian Kemp’s April 20 announcement that some of the state’s businesses can reopen, including tattoo parlors, gyms, barbershops, salons and other enterprises that require close contact with customers.

The announcement was met with unease and even outrage from many Americans, including Georgians. But some entrepreneurs, regardless of their politics, have been relieved by the reopening. Jenna Cao, the owner of Chateau de Nails in Alpharetta, Ga., was among them.

In an Op-Ed this week, Ms. Cao explained her decision to reopen: “To stay in business while potentially being completely closed all summer would require me to take on a crazy amount of debt that I and my two daughters, aged 3 and 6, can’t afford.” Frustrated by the mounting hurdles presented by the Small Business Administration’s emergency loan program, Ms. Cao said, “When the government is mostly just helping big business, the rest of us have to begin to find a new normal, as best as we can.”

Keren Landman, an Atlanta-based specialist in infectious diseases, had qualms about Georgia’s reopening and offered lessons that other states could use. “For better or worse, the governor has made our state the nation’s canary in this particularly terrifying coal mine,” she wrote. And yet she also urged residents not to “punish small businesses by treating their decision to reopen — or not — as a purity test.”

She added: “Somehow, we’ve reached the point where caring about public health has become a progressive issue, while the nation’s economy has become a conservative one. This division is false; no one should have to choose between financial annihilation and helping to spread a deadly disease.”

— Talmon Smith

Coronavirus voyeurism is delightful.

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