Crises have a way of separating the leaderlike wheat from the opportunistic chaff. Coronavirus is the crisis of our time, and the political winnowing is something to behold.
Example: The Trump administration spent this week distributing ventilators, standing up small-business loans, dispatching hospital ships, erecting alternate care facilities, explaining virus modeling, revamping regulations to keep truckers on the road, and plastering the airwaves with information about hygiene and social distancing. Speaker Nancy Pelosi spent this week setting up a new House committee to investigate Donald Trump.
Nothing separates the shallow from the serious faster than high-stakes moments. At the federal level, Americans are seeing the serious in the White House task force briefings that provide daily updates on the government’s actions. When this is all over, we will find that the federal response was far from perfect. But we’ll also see that once the executive branch grasped the enormity of the problem, it moved with soberness, speed and a spirit of cooperation.
Mr. Trump is at the head of this operation, and while his leadership style isn’t for everyone, he’s certainly leading. He addresses the virus in stark terms but also insists on optimism—something that’s important from leaders in tough times. While punching back at some critics, he’s also reached across the aisle. He embraced Democratic calls for more-stringent corporate rules in Congress’s relief bill. Asked about the $25 million Democrats slipped in for the Kennedy Center, he defended it: “I really believe that we’ve had a very good back and forth.” He’s rushed to the aid of blue-state governors, and has praised Democratic state leaders, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, for their efforts.
And at least some of those Democratic state leaders are reciprocating, proving neither party has a monopoly on character. CNN’s Jake Tapper this week practically begged Mr. Newsom to recant his recent praise for the president, suggesting the Democrat had given it only out of fear that Mr. Trump would “punish” his state’s citizens. Mr. Newsom was having none of it. “The fact is, every time I’ve called the president he’s quickly gotten on the line,” he said. “There’s just too many Americans—40 million that live in this state—that deserve us to get together and get along.” Mr. Cuomo has taken the same approach, saying of president: “His team is on it. They’ve been responsive.” He added: “I want to say thank you.” This week he chided partisans: “Not now,” he said. “The virus doesn’t attack and kill red Americans or blue Americans—it attacks and kills all Americans.”
Contrast this with Mrs. Pelosi, who seems to view the pandemic as one big political opportunity. She held up last week’s relief bill for days, attempting to cram into it unrelated election and climate provisions. She used a Sunday CNN appearance to accuse Mr. Trump of killing Americans. This week she announced a new special House committee that will “examine all aspects of the federal response to the coronavirus” and will have subpoena power. This is yet the latest Democratic machinery for investigating Trump and ginning up scandals.
Or contrast the governors with the guy carping from his Delaware basement. Joe Biden might have used this moment to buttress his claims to be the more dignified candidate by throwing his support behind the federal effort and making clear he’d save his policy disputes for later. He instead spread the false claim that the president had called the virus a “hoax.” Mr. Biden has bashed Mr. Trump on testing and on the use of the Defense Production Act. He’s accused the president of “failing to prepare our nation” for a pandemic (never mind the Obama-Biden role in any such failure). He even blames Mr. Trump for soaring unemployment numbers.
Or contrast the governors who are leading with the one who is using today’s crisis as an audition to be Mr. Biden’s running mate. For every Mr. Cuomo there is a Gretchen Whitmer. The Michigan Democrat has spent weeks accusing the administration of failing to have a “national strategy,” and of “cuts to the CDC” that put us “behind the eight ball.” She’s insisted “we’re still not getting what we need from the federal government,” and even insinuated the administration was directing suppliers to withhold equipment to her state—a ludicrous suggestion.
Democratic partisans are playing a risky game here. Mr. Trump is currently clocking the best approval ratings of his presidency, and a late March Gallup poll found 60% of respondents approve of his virus response. Americans have traditionally looked dimly on those who undercut presidents and other elected leaders in time of crisis. Some on the left are making it easy to separate the politicians who are fighting for their people from the politicians who are fighting for their self-interest. That may come back to haunt them in November.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The disease can’t be that deadly if the ODE is taking this position, can it?
Oregon has cancelled public-school classes amid the pandemic, but political self-interest never sleeps. The Oregon Education Association and its labor allies are now blocking hundreds of children from continuing their education at virtual public charter schools.
As of Oct. 1, more than 14,000 children already attended Oregon’s 19 virtual public charters and received the bulk of their education remotely. But when brick-and-mortar schools closed on March 16 to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Oregon parents clamored to transfer their children to the online schools.
Monday was the first day at Oregon Connections Academy, the state’s largest virtual public charter, for seventh grader Natalie Ritter and her fifth-grade brother, Lincoln. Their mom, Stephanie Ritter, says the ability to transfer them was a godsend, though it was heart-wrenching to leave behind beloved teachers and classmates.
Ms. Ritter and her husband work full time and don’t have hours a day to teach their children at home. Attending school online “will help them not just learn but feel connected,” Ms. Ritter says. “Not having that as an option just means that we would have to put more faith in the Oregon schools figuring that out. And
I think they’re working on it, but we just don’t have the luxury to wait.”
Like Natalie and Lincoln, some 300 students successfully transferred in mid-March to Oregon Connections Academy alone, and the teacher’s unions were alarmed by this mass exodus from the public schools.
Under pressure from the unions, the Oregon Department of Education stopped allowing transfers on March 27. At Oregon Connections Academy, this means some 1,600 students who had sought to transfer won’t be able to, says Jeff Kropf, the school’s founder and president of the board of directors.
It could be worse. The state Department of Education originally contemplated closing down virtual public charters along with the brick-and-mortar schools, according to a March 24 PowerPoint presentation reviewed by the newspaper Willamette Week. Even during a national crisis, unions would rather deprive students of an education than see their charter-school competitors succeed.
In pursuit of something called Q rating, TV presenters and others with public images prefer to talk about ideal outcomes rather than optimal ones.
This is a problem I have alluded to more than once in the Covid-19 crisis. Then it was all thrown out the window when a noted stock picker on CNBC asked Mike Pence a straightforward question: Are we all expected to get the virus?
The vice president issued a stream of words none of which resembled “yes” or the simple clarity of the CDC’s own epidemic webpage, which says, “In the coming months, most of the U.S. population will be exposed to this virus.”
I have two kinds of friends: those with whom I email about when to get the virus, and those with whom I email only about how to avoid it. Lately intruding into this personal risk assessment are some realities about ventilators. They are not a miracle device. In one study of 22 Wuhan patients who needed mechanical breathing support, 19 died. Under calmer conditions in the U.S., one large study in the 1990s found about half of ventilator patients survived treatment and 30% were alive after a year.
Experts are now planning ways to get Americans back to work with mass testing and mass provision of masks and gloves. Second thoughts about the lockdown aren’t due only to the economic costs. Accumulating evidence seems to show Covid-19 spreading to the most vulnerable through close family contact rather than casual interactions. The experts’ recovery plans, though, tend to be mum on whether the goal is to slow the rate at which we get exposed or to save us from getting infected altogether. The polling data on which President Trump made this week’s decision to extend social-distancing guidance can be read as most Americans believing they should be kept safe from ever getting the coronavirus.
It’s amusing to see some bloggers using the term Straussian (I’ll explain later) to let each other know they are talking about that which they aren’t supposed to talk about. Australia in recent weeks has conducted a comparatively non-Straussian (i.e., candid) discussion. Should the country, with a one- or two-month ferocious lockdown, try to eradicate the virus from its shores, then ban foreign entry until a vaccine arrives in a year or two? Or should it accept a majority becoming infected and use a calibrated economic clampdown to slow the rate at which these cases hit its emergency rooms? “When it comes to lifting restrictions it’s like turning the tap of cases on or off depending on how full hospitals are,” a pithy academic told the government- backed Australian Broadcasting Corp.
If we were being as candid in the U.S., each of us might be asking ourselves the herd immunity question: Do I belong among the 60% who need to get infected or the 40% who should avoid exposure at all cost until the epidemic snuffs itself out? I tend to think of myself as on the bubble. That means weighing the chances of a severe illness against the advantages of putting the disease behind me and no longer being a threat to others.
“Flatten the curve,” of course, does not foreclose the possibility of happy surprises. Christmas could come early. A tentative discovery is that half or more of cases are symptomless. Many more people may have been infected than we realize. If so, herd immunity may be nearer than we think (and less avoidable too), and the death rate may be lower than we fear.
The summer months might also buy us some time if heat and humidity slow transmission. Our first-rate pharmaceutical establishment might yield up a treatment or vaccine sooner than we expect.
The TV news doesn’t do multivariate, though I presume many announcers understand that “flatten the curve” doesn’t mean defeat or banish the virus—it means delaying your infection and mine until the doctor will see us now.
I wonder what will happen if most Americans realize they are not being kept safe from the illness, the timing of their infection is merely being managed. If our lockdown goes on much longer, a divide could emerge between the lucky 29% who can work at home and live comfortably, versus the 71% who just lost their jobs or must face the virus to earn a paycheck. The latter category includes thousands of health-care workers manning the battle stations. Social solidarity can be a perishable flower—one more reason for thinking an endgame that comes sooner rather than later is to be preferred.
By the way, for those wondering about German-American philosopher Leo Strauss, his name is often invoked nowadays to suggest you can promote your conclusions while talking around them. I’m not sure this is one of those cases.
BUSINESS WORLD By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.
As I have said before, it is good to have alternative views to consider. And this is one. mrossol
A telling moment came on CNBC Thursday. A host gently shushed the learned Jim Grant, editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, saying discussion of tradeoffs was not encouraged. On TV, delivering up unpleasant choices is bad for the brand. Unfortunately policy discussion is about trade-offs, especially in the hardest of circumstances. Fortunately, the dam would break on CNBC a day later, thanks in part to an editorial in this paper.
In our coronavirus quandary, the cure may not only be worse than the disease. The cure is likely no cure at all. We might hold off an expected surge in coronavirus cases for two or three weeks with the kind of extraordinarily destructive economic lockdowns seen in California, New York and elsewhere. But unless warmer weather is coming to our rescue, Americans probably won’t accept the social devastation that would be inflicted by a five-month or 18-month campaign of virus suppression of the sort promoted, variously, by the U.K.’s Imperial College London, Germany’s Robert Koch Institute and other public-health think tanks.
Mandatory social distancing might well break down. (Look for speakeasies to re-emerge in New York and other shut-in cities.) The government might well face a choice of coercion or seeing its authority collapse. I’m not being alarmist.
This is a lesson the World Health Organization’s Bruce Aylward brought back from Wuhan. People with flulike symptoms had to be isolated in dormitories, hospitals and stadiums. Asking them to self-isolate voluntarily didn’t work. “After a couple of days people get bored, go out for a walk and go shopping and get other people infected.”
And he was talking about people who knew they were sick. We would be asking apparently healthy Americans to surrender much of what makes life interesting and meaningful for an indefinite period.
Bad decision making, as shown in research, often begins with reducing a complex problem to the single variable with the biggest emotional wallop. That’s what’s happening here. All of us sense the opprobrium and disgrace that would descend on our elites if Italy-like scenes of a health-care system meltdown played out on our TVs. But we may get the bad result anyway and worse if we overtax the willingness of Americans to isolate themselves indefinitely.
We also may be underestimating their ability to adopt effective voluntary distancing even as they proceed with their economic lives. Each of us knows our own situation in a way no top-down directive can. This is a virtue to leverage. I respect those experts who say we should suppress the virus until a vaccine arrives in 18 months or two years even at the cost of a global depression. Their job is to save lives, while the larger trade-offs are the province of voters and elected officials.
When experts predict that 70% of people will get the virus, they are estimating at what point the virus no longer finds enough uninfected people to sustain its transmission in a world where behavioral change is not restricting its access to fresh hosts.
The epidemic stops. People who aren’t yet infected but susceptible are spared (at least this time). We can make this work for us. We want three curves: a flattened curve for the elderly, a steeper one for the young, and a third curve showing the virus’s infectivity being reduced by isolating those who test positive and by encouraging everybody else to take care with their sneezes, hand-washing, etc.
Inconveniently for my argument, the U.K., a pioneer of such thinking, is now shifting to an accept-a-depression- and-wait-for-a-vaccine approach. The medical experts and their priorities are hard to resist. Resisting their wisdom doesn’t come naturally in such a situation.
Happily, I have confidence in the American people to let their leaders know when the mandatory shutdowns no longer are doing it for them. Strange to say, I have confidence in our political class to sense where the social fulcrum lies. A reader emails that Donald Trump could declare victory at the end of 15 days, say the blow on the healthcare system has been cushioned, and urge Americans, super-cautiously, to resume normal life. This idea sounds better than waiting for spontaneous mass defections from the ambitions of the epidemiologists to undermine the authority of the government.
Because—make no mistake— there are things worse than the coronavirus. You think our politics are irrational now? You haven’t seen anything. The 1918 flu was far worse medically than what we’re about to experience, slaughtering even young people with strong immune systems. Yet we can end up a far more damaged society as a result of the 2020 coronavirus. The America of 1918 won a world war and launched technological and commercial revolutions that created the modern world. We may not be saying anything as flattering about the America of 2020 if we handle this badly.
By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.