There’s an old joke I used to deploy as a gubernatorial speechwriter in which a governor was under fire for not “standing with the president” on some controversial issue where POTUS himself was showing happy feet. “I’d be happy to stand with the president,” the governor would quip, “if he’d just stand in the same place.”
That’s probably how a number of Republican governors feel today after Donald Trump abruptly ended his talk of relaxing restrictions on businesses and returning to normal in a week or two, as the Associated Press reported:
The initial 15-day period of social distancing urged by the federal government expires Monday and Trump had expressed interest in relaxing the national guidelines at least in parts of the country less afflicted by the pandemic. But instead he decided to extend them through April 30, a tacit acknowledgment he’d been too optimistic. Many states and local governments have stiffer controls in place on mobility and gatherings …
Trump, who has largely avoided talk of potential death and infection rates, cited projection models that said potentially 2.2 million people or more could have died had the country not put social distancing measures in place. And he said the country would be doing well if it “can hold” the number of deaths “down to 100,000.”
Trump’s flip-flop was welcome to public-health officials everywhere and to disinterested observers fearing a renewed partisan polarization over COVID-19 after the president’s comments suggesting a quick end to the emergency. But it probably wrong-footed some Republican governors who had been following the earlier party line. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but there appears to be inordinate confusion in the office of Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, who has a lot of coronavirus cases on his hands but has refused to issue much in the way of statewide guidance about what to do to reduce the spread of the pandemic. Even as he’s encouraged local governments to exercise their discretion to impose tougher restrictions on dangerous activities, his own staff is complaining when they do, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:
Less than a week ago, Gov. Brian Kemp said he wasn’t worried that local communities were implementing tougher anti-pandemic restrictions than he had instituted statewide …
But over the weekend, Tim Fleming, Kemp’s chief of staff, criticized local governments of “overreach” for taking more stringent steps to curb coronavirus.
Said member of the governor’s staff, communications director Candice Broce, quoted from that well-known scientific journal the Federalist to slap down dire predictions from an Emory University epidemiologist. There’s science, and then there’s MAGA, and where they conflict, Team Kemp is, well, conflicted.
Some Republican governors under fire from local governments and under pressure from their own public-health advisers have been inching toward the measures Trump abruptly endorsed this past weekend. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, who just last week rejected any statewide action because “Y’all, we are not California. We’re not New York. We aren’t even Louisiana,” relented and issued a stay-at-home order over the weekend. Tate Reeves of Mississippi, whose state is even closer to coronavirus hot spot Louisiana, has been all over the place, responding this way to an interviewer asking about the unusually lax order he issued restricting the operation of “nonessential businesses”:
[I]n times such as these, you always have experts who believe they know best for everybody. You have some folks who think that government ought to take over everything in times of crisis — that they, as government officials, know better than individual citizens. When we made the decision to issue a statewide order, I will tell you that for the vast majority of Mississippians, the restrictions that we put in place were far more stringent than what they had in place before we issued that statewide order.
That’s undoubtedly true, since most places had no restrictions at all.
Several Republican governors have offered their own state-level versions of the one strong measure Trump has consistently supported as the pandemic unfolded: restrictions on incoming travel. Florida’s Ron DeSantis first ordered self-isolation for anyone entering his state from New York and then expanded the scope of the sanctions to include travelers from Connecticut, New Jersey, and Louisiana. Texas’s Greg Abbott has matched these restrictions and also imposed self-isolation on those flying into his state from Miami, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, and anywhere in California and Washington State.
The general drift of public policy in Republican-governed states is in the responsible direction — which isn’t that surprising given the proliferation of cases across most of the country — but GOP pols remain vulnerable to another backflip by Trump. His earlier mutterings aloud about wanting to simply declare the crisis over have led some of his fans to make rebelling against sound medical advice an act of ideological loyalty, as McKay Coppins reports:
Trump, having apparently grown impatient with all the quarantines and lockdowns, began last week to call for a quick return to business as usual. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” he tweeted, in characteristic caps lock. Speaking to Fox News, he added that he would “love” to see businesses and churches reopened by Easter. Though Trump would later walk them back, the comments set off a familiar sequence — a Democratic backlash, a pile-on in the press, and a rush in MAGA-world to defend the president. As the coronavirus now emerges as another front in the culture war, social distancing has come to be viewed in some quarters as a political act — a way to signal which side you’re on.
Given everything we know about the 45th president, it’s a waste of time to expect consistency from him in anything other than his high self-regard, his unwillingness to admit mistakes, and his determination to stay in office. But given the life-and-death stakes involved in maintaining a steady national response to COVID-19, let’s hope he’s paying close attention to those whispering to him that his reelection depends strictly and solely on turning the corner on the pandemic and that members of his party hear the advice as well.