Coronavirus pandemic could push politics to the left, progressives hope

WASHINGTON — Six months ago, government-sponsored income and health care sounded like pipe dreams from failed presidential candidates. In a post-coronavirus world, progressives hope, they aren’t so far-fetched.

The pandemic has already brought bipartisan support to left-wing policies that would have been off the table before 2020, including direct stimulus payments to Americans, an expansion of unemployment coverage and a requirement that many companies offer paid sick leave.

Now progressives see an opportunity to build on those gains, potentially pushing policy to the left for the long term.

“What this has exposed is the economic precariousness of so many Americans, and now many people empathize with that,” said Fremont Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat. “They no longer see the struggling as the other, but actually view themselves in solidarity with people who have been on the economic sidelines. So I think that the support for an agenda for economic security and economic dignity will have a broader coalition.”

In the near term, progressives are pushing for Democrats to ensure more priorities in the next coronavirus relief package that Congress takes up. Khanna is hopeful that pieces of his proposed list of rights for essential workers with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren could be included, such as safety standards for frontline workers, living wages, collective bargaining protections, paid family and sick leave and support for child care, and guaranteed basic income.

The roughly 80-member Congressional Progressive Caucus has also written to House Democratic leadership asking that expanded direct cash assistance, food security and eviction protection, and full coverage for COVID-19 care be in the next relief bill.

But over the long term, progressives are also looking to make some of those changes permanent.

“If we can get some of the priorities in the COVID bill to help people now … we can then make the case when the crisis is over that some of these things are so basic they need to stay,” Khanna said. “If we can get worker protections in the COVID bill and get the fact that people should be paid more decently and they should have child care, all the things that seem obvious now, then they seem much harder to take away after.”

He added it would be hard to tell the workers who were on the front lines during the pandemic, “Now that you’ve done your job for society, we’re going to take it back.”

It’s not just progressives who see opportunity for long-term changes. Republicans are pushing for tax cuts that have long been central to their economic policies, as well as liability protections for businesses. The right flank of the party also sees the pandemic as reason to further restrict immigration and pull back from globalism and free trade.

But in a moment where Congress is doling out trillions to help struggling workers, progressives believe the political winds are at their backs.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested last week that she was open to pushing one progressive idea in talks over the next bill, a universal basic income that would go beyond the $1,200 one-time payments in earlier legislation.

“Others have suggested a minimum income for — a guaranteed income for people. Is that worthy of attention now? Perhaps so,” the San Francisco Democrat said on MSNBC. “Because there are many more people than just in small business … and other people who are not in the public sector, you know, meeting our needs in so many ways, that may need some assistance as well.”

Neera Tanden, president of the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, said the country has made major structural changes in past crises, such as the New Deal during the Great Depression and Reconstruction after the Civil War. The pandemic is one such moment, she said.

The coronavirus crisis “exposes conservative libertarian thinking, in a sense, because essentially the actions of each individual can affect larger communities and the larger country,” Tanden said. “The unique challenge of the virus is if someone isn’t getting access to the health care system and has the virus, it affects everyone.”

Progressives aren’t just making the case for a stronger social safety net. They also see opportunities to address climate change, bolstered by a renewed appreciation for science. They argue that the changes Americans made to their lifestyle overnight for coronavirus are evidence that they can alter longstanding habits to tackle climate change, too.

They also intend to portray increased spending on domestic programs as a matter of national security, something that’s always been the province of military budgets.

“In the big picture, we prepared for the wrong war in the aftermath of 9/11,” said Palo Alto Rep. Anna Eshoo, a more moderate Democrat who chairs a key subcommittee on health care. “Which is understandable, but where we are now looking over my shoulder, I can’t help but think that.”

Khanna has said the National Defense Authorization Act, a yearly must-pass bill, could be a vehicle for lasting progressive changes. He predicted Americans will see that spending $740 billion on defense but $50 billion on public health is misguided. Less money for defense spending, he said, could mean big investments elsewhere.

“Do people around this country really think that the big risk to them is that Russian tanks are going to come into Ohio, or do they think that the bigger risk is we may have future pandemics?” Khanna said. “We need to talk as progressives about how our broken priorities in Washington have hurt the safety of the American people.”

One area where progressives could have a harder time coming out of the pandemic, however, is immigration. Advocates of a welcoming immigration policy may struggle to convey that message when unemployment is in double digits. In a recent Washington Post poll, voters supported 2-1 a policy temporarily suspending immigration to the U.S. during the pandemic, and President Trump has been advocating his agenda of restricting immigration as necessary to help jobless Americans.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., conceded in The Chronicle’s “It’s All Political” podcast that Democrats may need to recalibrate their message in the face of the virus’ economic consequences.

“We need to address it based on the dynamic that exists after we get through the pandemic,” said Harris, a strong proponent of immigration rights. For now, she said she’s been focusing on ensuring that the administration is protecting the rights of immigrants who are already here, including the safety of farm workers integral to the food-supply chain, and ensuring there aren’t virus outbreaks among undocumented migrants in detention centers.

In an interview with CNBC, Pelosi sounded optimistic that the country would come out of the pandemic less socially stratified, not more.

“I’m very confident that when people realize the assault that this has made, not only the health, the lives of the people and the livelihood of the people but to the sense of community of who we are as a country, we’ll have an opportunity to do something working together,” Pelosi said.

She added that opportunity will include “recognizing the role that every aspect of our society plays in it — the public sector (and) private sector.”

Tal Kopan is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. Email: Twitter: @talkopan