While most of us are busy hoarding hand-sanitizer and hunting for toilet paper like it was the Lost Ark, the White House and its surrogates have been rolling out a rallying cry: Stop politicizing the pandemic! This week, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee charged Democrats with airing “disgusting attack ads that politicize a disease[.]” Republican Congressman Mark Green invoked “the politicization of this Covid-19 response,” while Jim Jordan lamented that Democrats “should not play politics with the coronavirus.” Last week, Vice President Mike Pence carried the message on Good Morning America, accusing Democrats of deploying “irresponsible rhetoric.”
Exactly what were these outraged conservatives reacting to? Maybe it was a leading House Democrat who condemned the White House’s inability “to run a competent administration.” Or the liberal congressman who accused Trump of “not protecting our country and our families.” Or the sitting US senator who called the government’s response “fundamentally unserious.” Not to mention the DNC’s new nationwide TV spot, which hammers the White House: “Coronavirus inside the US!” a man’s voice snarls.
Actually, Democrats have said and done no such thing, not yet at least. But the above statements were uttered—by prominent Republicans, back in 2014 when the GOP sought to gin up absurd fears about the Ebola virus. (The above examples are quotes from Steve Scalise, Tom Cotton, and Ted Cruz. The ad was by the Republican National Committee.)
The reality is that epidemics are inherently political events—perhaps the most political.
As our toll of cases climbs past 4,000, it is inevitable that Covid-19 will become a campaign issue. Republican strategists already know this, and they’ve begun an early effort to inoculate the public against charges of incompetence. The first two weeks of a pandemic are crucial for “flattening the curve” of mortality, and the same is true in politics. The next month will define the political frame in which the voting public understands the crisis, in both its handling and origins.
It’s a window that Democrats can’t afford to miss, as they’ve done so many times before. But already, more than a few Democrats have unwittingly taken Republicans’ bait—fiercely denying that they are “politicizing” anything, as Senator Chris Murphy implicitly did recently, along with several Democrats during testimony by NIH’s infectious-disease director Anthony Fauci.
The Republican argument is a bear trap—like George W. Bush’s “tax relief”—tempting Democrats to strengthen its premise by denying its veracity. Truly rebutting it requires acknowledging a reality: The reality that epidemics, like all Black Swan episodes, are inherently political events—perhaps the most political. They’re a true referendum on the coordination and competency of the entire federal government. Democrats should be presenting the pandemic in starkly political terms—and it would not be an overstatement to suggest that they have an obligation to do so. Anything otherwise would be civic malpractice.
A White House will be tested by all sorts of things. Until now, the voting public did not tend to put pandemics in the same mental category as other “blinking red phone” scenarios. We favor images of nuclear war, a market crash, or a natural disaster as the types of events that will test an administration.
But a public health crisis is arguably the purest test of a president’s competency. Consider the Ebola episode of 2014. The White House had already forward-deployed the CDC in 49 countries. President Obama put someone competent, Ron Klain, in charge of coordinating the response, sent 3,000 US troops abroad to provide medical infrastructure, and created a National Security Council directorate on bio-defense. The efforts were a major success from an American perspective—projections for Ebola’s spread were dramatically revised downward. The total number treated in the US was eleven.
None of this was of particular concern to don’t-you-dare-politicize Republicans. Candidates like Tom Cotton, Joni Ernst, Thom Thillis and Scott Brown fanned the flames with hair-on-fire rhetoric. Some created a nonsensical fruit salad of Republican wedge issues: One Republican Congressman warned of “illegal migrants” carrying Ebola; Ted Cruz announced that “[b]efore Obamacare, there had never been a confirmed case of Ebola in the US.”
For many Democrats, 2014 proved why political parties shouldn’t mix pandemics and politics. That’s the wrong lesson.
It worked. Republicans flipped nine Democratic seats, handing Republicans the Senate—and set the stage for Merrick Garland, foot-dragging on Russia, and Brett Kavanaugh. Polls showed Ebola was a top concern for voters. A later analysis found Ebola had helped Republicans win close races against their Democratic opponents.
For many Democrats, the takeaway from 2014 was a repugnance toward political parties that would use a pandemic for electoral gain. But that’s the wrong lesson. The problem in 2014 wasn’t that Republicans tried to “politicize” Ebola; that’s what opposition parties do, litigating the effectiveness of crisis response in what is probably as close to a total referendum on the federal government as one can imagine. Instead, the problem was that Democrats didn’t do nearly enough to defend the Obama White House in that referendum. They could have made a forceful case for the administration’s professionalism and expertise—boasting of their response, rather than deflecting it.
Donald Trump is certainly good at one of these things—boasting. But the list of failures from this White House to prepare the country for Covid-19 is truly staggering, from lowballing the required amount of money to fight the pandemic, to dismantling Bush-era predictive programs to prevent outbreaks—even ignoring repeated warnings from Bill Gates.
Trump has also left the country uniquely vulnerable to this kind of crisis for another reason, because pandemics bring out the oldest truism in government: Personnel is policy. The federal institutions Trump has spent three years reducing to dry husks continue to suffer from record numbers of vacancies, or remain stocked at the top with “acting” leaders whose principle talent is for indulging Trump’s whims.
Reminder that as this crisis escalates, we have no Director of National Intelligence, no Dep Dir, no Homeland Security Secretary, no Dep Sec, no head of CBP or ICE, no State Dept Under Sec of Arms Control, no Asst Sec for Europe, and no Navy Sec.
— Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) January 8, 2020
That Obama-era NSC team for bio-defense? Trump disbanded it, including one of its point-people, Tom Bossert. Now we know that during the time Trump was calling the epidemic a “hoax,” Bossert was trying to get through to the President in order to warn him to take the virus seriously, only to be blocked by White House aides.
It’s understandable that Democrats would want to tread delicately. One Democrat who thinks his party should push the issue, though, is strategist Paul Begala. In an email, he recounted to me his experience from 2014: “The scary-sounding African virus was definitely used by the right to frighten people, especially in Georgia,” where Begala was advising the Senate campaign of Michelle Nunn. But in contrast to these scare tactics, the administrations’ failures are very real: “Trump ignored the warnings,” Begala wrote. “He’s like a guy who closed down 80 percent of the fire stations, and then could not respond to a wildfire.”
Given the White House’s unprecedented failure of leadership, if Democrats can’t find a way to make Trump own his disastrous response, they don’t deserve to win in 2020.
How might they do this? Early advertisements from Michael Bloomberg were inching in the right direction (“Trust is essential”). And a recent speech by Joe Biden justifiably won accolades, painting a picture of a parallel universe in which competence still reigns. But neither was the fire-and-brimstone indictment of the administration’s ineptitude Americans need to hear.
That may be starting to change. In Montana this week, a Democratic group is testing a new ad, asserting that Republican Senator Steve Daines‘ opposition to Obamacare should suggest to voters that he “doesn’t worry” enough about healthcare, including the coronavirus. That’s not only a potent charge, it’s a factually correct one.
It was this advertisement that so infuriated the NRSC, the GOP’s Senate fundraising wing: “Democrat Ads Politicize Coronavirus,” they announced, calling the spot “disgusting.” Their alarm should tell us much. They know that Trump’s incompetence is undeniable—and have freely admitted that without a strong economy (which the outbreak now threatens) the raison d’etre of Trumpism for the average voter vanishes like smoke.
True, Democrats should be careful. Their indictment of Trump must convey an outrage over needless deaths, not I-told-you-so perorations that appear to celebrate them. And the focus should stick relentlessly to the lack of preparation at the outset—because with a virus as unpredictable as Covid-19, there’s always a chance the country has rebounded by summer, and Trump’s charges of overreactions are bolstered. Political framing of this nature requires finesse and tact; some suggestions—such as Gail Collins’s idea that we start using the term “Trumpvirus”—will almost certainly backfire.
Even so, Begala thinks Democrats are sitting on a winning issue: a set of compelling facts, blended with Trump’s Greek-tragedy-level flaws of character. “This is life-and-death stuff, not a reality show,” Begala wrote. “Trump’s ignorance and arrogance could literally kill people.”
The man who said “I alone can fix it” on the campaign trail, and “I don’t take responsibility at all” in the Rose Garden, should be made to account for both statements. An effective ad would be as simple as running the quotes side-by-side.
And when Democrats are accused of “politicizing,” they shouldn’t lose their nerve. In battle as well as politics, when your enemy is asking you not to use a weapon, that’s a good indication that it works—and that you should.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that a political advertisement was directed at a GOP state senator. In fact, it was directed at Steve Daines, the junior U.S. senator from Montana.