Politics in Practice

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How Can America Weather the Coronavirus Storm?

Max J. Skidmore is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri – Kansas City and the author of Presidents, Politics, and Pandemics (2016). His subsequent books are: Unworkable Conservatism (2017), Donald J. Trump’s Presidency (with John Dixon, 2018), Anti-Poverty Measures in America (with Biko Koenig, 2019), and The Common Sense Manifesto—with a Nod to Thomas Paine, Not Karl Marx (2020). Read the introduction of Presidents, Politics, and Pandemics for free until 17th April 2020.

On Friday the 13th, the White House announced a national emergency because of the coronavirus pandemic. The significance of the date was not the “unlucky 13th,” but that it was in March, more than two months since the first reported death from the virus. Shortly after that death in Wuhan, China, authorities began warning of a worldwide pestilence. China and many other countries moved quickly in attempts to counter its spread. The World Health Organization declared a global health emergency on January 30th.

American health authorities for some time had been stressing hand washing, and recommending social distance. Governors and mayors around the country had already issued orders banning large gatherings, sports had begun to take place without audiences, schools and universities had cancelled physical classes and shifted to online instruction, Broadway was shuttered, and late-night comedians had begun to broadcast with empty auditoriums. The Trump administration, though, not only had wasted valuable time, but along with many conservative pundits misled the public with dangerously irresponsible comments. It was common to hear of “fake news,” “Democratic plot to impeach Trump again,” or, “the coronavirus is nothing but the common cold, folks.”

Long before Trump, though, despite warnings from health authorities, America had become almost completely unprepared. The country had suffered from decades of Republican orthodoxy at all levels, which had come to demand austerity, tax cuts, and diminished regulation. Some Democrats, too, supported starving government. 

The resulting austerity had stripped public services of the components needed to deal with pandemics or other emergency situations. Ever since Reagan, conservatives had argued that government was not the solution, it was the problem, and they acted accordingly. 

Despite its status as a superpower, America lags far behind the rest of the world. China and South Korea, for example, are equipped to assist the United States, which lacks test kits, hospital facilities, and sufficient numbers of health workers. At the national level, President Obama had left an effective administrative structure in place, but Trump, who resents all things Obama, dismantled it. In response to a reporter’s question as to why, he retorted that she was asking a nasty question. He accepted no responsibility.

In 1976, another horrific pandemic seemed possible. President Gerald Ford was a conservative Republican, but he acted quickly. The Democratic Congress granted his request for a massive program to “vaccinate every man, woman, and child in the U.S.”

Ford’s government brought about creation of an effective vaccine. Nearly 50 million people soon had received shots, but no pandemic developed. Criticisms mounted; after only nine months, his program ended. 

Ford paid the political price for his courage. Reagan followers condemned him, as did the press, and incoming Carter officials. Nevertheless, his program demonstrated government’s great potential. There are difficulties now that did not exist then, but it would make sense to study Ford’s experience to discover what did not work, but also what did, and what might work again.

What qualities are required in a president to make the government function effectively in a crisis, such as a pandemic? The president must be confident, competent (able to learn from past examples), and concerned as well as focused.

First, the president must have confidence in government, as both Roosevelts, Wilson, Truman, LBJ, Clinton, and Obama did. One skeptic, who ignored LBJ’s example, and had difficulty dealing with a crisis was George W. Bush, who failed with Hurricane Katrina. 

Second, the president must be competent. Those from above fit here as well; LBJ especially. Some failures include Hoover, and Bush again. Overwhelming all others with his incompetence and ignorance, is Trump. 

Third, the president must be concerned. Bush dealt poorly with Katrina, but showed concern by dealing well with AIDS in Africa, and in stockpiling anti-viral agents against a future pandemic. Trump has never demonstrated true concern for anything other than placating his base, undoing the Obama legacy, and stroking his ego. He leaves positions unfilled, damaging government’s capability. He has disbanded units designed to defend against pandemics (after all, they were Obama’s creations). His only solution is no solution: put a science-denying vice president in charge, to absorb any blame. Some bipartisan efforts now in the middle of March seem imminent, but Republican support seems to demand limitations on costs to big business.

How did all this happen? The antiquated electoral college, brought it about. Trump’s subservient party with its rejection of science, and its acceptance of the unacceptable, perpetuates it.