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Rise Of The Governors

Updated: May 18, 2020

February 27 The President “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

February 29 - Governor Jay Inslee of Washington declares a state of emergency.

February 29 The President “There’s no reason to panic at all.”

March 4 - Governor Gavin Newsom declares a state of emergency in California.

March 4 The President “It's very mild. They will get better very rapidly. They don't even see a doctor. They don't even call a doctor.”

March 5 - Republican Governor Larry Hogan declares a State of Emergency in Maryland

March 6 - Governor Andy Beshear declares a State of Emergency in Kentucky

March 7 - Governor Andrew Cuomo declares a State of Emergency in New York

March 8 Answering a question whether the President will continue to hold rallies with the threat of the Coronavirus

The President: Well, we’ll have tremendous rallies. And we’re doing very well. And we’ve done a fantastic job with respect to that subject on the virus.

March 9 Republican Governor DeWine declares state of emergency in Ohio

March 9 The President in a tweet - “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semiconsiderable power ... to inflame the CoronaVirus situation.”

March 10 Governor Gretchen Whitmer declares state of emergency in Michigan

March 10 The President “We’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”

It has not gone away, and Americans are not calm. The United States has seen over 850,000 confirmed cases and over 43000 people have died from this deadly contagion (which is most certainly not the flu).

In times of incredible peril, Americans look to their president for reassurance.

Think FDR during the Great Depression :

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Think George W Bush after 9/11:

“A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.”

But when asked by a reporter "What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now, who are scared?

All our President had to offer was "I say that you're a terrible reporter, that's what I say, I think it's a very nasty question."

Now, many have pointed out that the President should not be judged for his inflammatory rhetoric but instead for what he actually does and that the Administration’s actions in coordination with Congress to respond to the pandemic have helped the American people. And there is some truth to that idea : over the past three years many of the most outrageous things that he’s said never really materialized (thankfully). Also, the $ 2 trillion stimulus package that passed congress and the President signed into law is not only unprecedented in its scale and reach but has provided millions of Americans some respite from the worst of the crisis.

But the argument against the idea is two-fold. Firstly, rhetoric matters. The president’s bully pulpit directs national policy and has real consequences on the American people. The President’s enthusiastic recommendation of the drug hydroxychloroquine as a panacea, against the informed judgement of the medical community, cannot just be dismissed as unimportant statement. Not only does the drug have harmful, potentially fatal, side effects, but also the surge in demand meant that the millions of patients who suffer from lupus and rheumatoid arthritis and desperately need the drug, could not refill prescriptions. Again, when the President called COVID-19 the ‘Chinese virus’ it inflamed the xenophobia against Asian Americans, who have reported a surge in incidents of racial slurs and physical abuse. I’ll let you decide about the bleach.

But secondly, and more importantly, we are in the midst of a deadly and contagious pandemic that is endangering the health and safety of our loved ones and completely upending our life and society. Every wasted day exponentially worsens the crisis and puts millions at risk. And by all accounts, the administration wasted two precious months before March when they could have prepared the nation for the impending public health crisis. By shoring up essential medical supplies and investing in testing we would have mitigated the worst of the crisis that we are seeing right now. Even in late March, the administration resisted issuing a stay-at-home order that has been implemented in far greater severity by almost every other nation worldwide, as has proven to be the most effective counter-measure.

Instead of eschewing politics in this uncertain moment, the President has been unwilling to stand resolute and tell the American people not what they want to hear but what they need to, fearing political repercussions. The experts-be damned populism that he champions is grossly ill-suited to steer us out of this crisis but the President persists. As Maggie Haberman rightly pointed out “The president, who ran as an insurgent in 2016, is most comfortable raging against the machine of government, even when he is the one running the country.”

But the focus of this article isn’t only to disparage the President for his failings. Instead it is to bring attention to where we’re seeing resolute leadership and courage to implement bold actions that protect Americans – Governors.

In the vacuum of an absent national leadership, many state governors have emerged from the sidelines in American politics. The first indication of such leadership was from Jay Inslee from Washington State where the first COVID-19 related death was reported in the US. He immediately instituted a state of emergency and set in place activity and movement restrictions. When asked a question by a reporter asking what the consequences of violating the restrictions would be, Inslee bluntly replied “ The penalties are you might be killing your granddad if you don’t do it ”demonstrating a level of seriousness and solidarity that this crisis demands. The quick action has paid off and Washington State’s Curve is the flattest of all the 50 states.

But the Governor who did the most to put the nation on a war footing in the fight against coronavirus isn’t a Democratic Governor of an urban, coastal state which are worst hit by the virus, but instead the Republican Governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine.

A lifelong public servant, DeWine recognized the impending threat even when Ohio didn’t have a single death from COVID-19 and swiftly moved to shut down schools and even ignored a court order when he postponed the state primary, forcing his fellow governors to follow suit. His calm, sober and data-driven approach to the crisis has proven to work as Ohio stands 24th in the country in the number of confirmed cases despite its close proximity to heavily affected regions like New York and Massachusetts.

Finally, the state leader whose rhetoric has most resembled what presidential should and used to look like is definitely Andrew Cuomo of New York. He has been spelling out the dire situation that New York is facing, not sugarcoating anything but he’s also taking responsibility for his actions like when he said, “If someone wants to blame someone, blame me,”, unlike “I don’t take responsibility” from the White House. This has earned him the trust of New Yorkers, who are living in the epicenter of the crisis, and they give his handling an astonishing 87% approval.

But his briefings aren’t only about the details, and he routinely pauses to explore a more human side of this crisis talking about the emotional strain and anxiety that people are facing during these painful times and comforting them, sating “If you’re feeling disoriented, it’s not you, It’s everyone.”. These briefings have grown a viewership well outside NY and even resulted in Democrats romantically wish casting for a CUOMO2020, demonstrating the lack of enthusiasm and even media visibility that Biden commands.

“The coronavirus doesn’t distinguish between red states and blue states, and neither can we” wrote Gov. Larry Hogan (R) of Maryland and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) of Michigan in a bipartisan Washington Post Op-Ed. Both of them have recognized that “this crisis transcends partisanship, emphasizing a ‘getting things done’ philosophy that Governors have historically been known for. So, you may wonder that these Governors would be a natural fit for the White House, especially in the backdrop of its current inhabitant. And that historically has been true. Remember, FDR and Bush 43 reassuring the American people during times of crisis. Both of them were Governors. Even from 1976 to 2008, except for a 4 year exception in Bush 41, America was exclusively led by Governors including Carter, Reagan and Clinton.

But from 2008 there has been a profound structural change in National Politics. With more people moving away from consuming their news from their local outlets and instead from the major cable networks and online media which cover largely national issues, the chances of Governors to be noticed is limited. Furthermore, the issues that have dominated political discourse over the past years from the Iraq war to the Great Recession aren’t ones that Governors have a great story confronting. The increasing polarization of our politics especially the Republican party means that elected officials routinely face primary challengers to their right and risk losing their seat if they don’t appeal to their base.

These structural changes have had a tremendous impact on the handling of the crisis from Republican Governors in conservative states, some of whom have been dangerously slow in responding to the crisis. Gov. Ron De Santis of Florida has been the most illustrative example as he had refused to close down beaches full of students on spring break and even when he decided to shutter the state it was just a recommendation. They have been engaging in an irresponsible debate over making a false choice between the economy and the health of its citizens. This debate is having a real time impact as Georgia’s Brian Kemp has ignored outcry from within his state and even a presidential scolding when he moved to reopen Georgia’s economy this week, even as public health experts repeatedly state that it would exacerbate the pandemic. As Alex Burns of the Times pointed out, even though these leaders govern over diverse constituents, the republican base of voters they are reliant on for reelection are deeply conservative and rural voters for whom the threat of the pandemic isn’t visible.

The differing approaches to this crisis are creating a dangerous situation where the pandemic might persist in some regions even after it dissipates from regions who were aggressive in containing it, increasing chances of multiple future outbreaks and stoking regional tensions. To ensure a coordinated response many states on the east and west coasts have formed regional pacts to decide when to reopen their economies and to coordinate their responses. While that may seem like a positive development in the current predicament, zoom out and wonder when groups of states banding together to do things on their own has ever been a harbinger for good thing to come.

There are times when our country is 50 different states and times when it is one nation. After all the dynamism that comes from the unique marriage of diversity and cohesion is what makes America a model for countries around the world. But when we are under the threat of an “invisible enemy” which is ravaging our country and will cause unprecedented economic damage that will take years to recover from, we need bold and unified action to restore normalcy, if such a thing even exists.

Instead, as Ana Palacio of Project Syndicate points out “America, is falling victim to balkanization, internal competition, out-of-touch and short-sighted leadership” which is what plagued the EU’s response to the financial crisis and “fueled the profound political polarization, populist surge, and instability that continues to hamper” its response to COVID-19.

Lincoln’s words "A house divided against itself, cannot stand." seem eerily relevant now as I wonder if this great nation “can endure as it has endured”.

Author : Pranavi Guntupalli

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