Much of the Republican Party — despite the deaths of more than half a million Americans — still acts as though the pandemic is more a platform for political grandstanding than the worst national crisis since World War II.
New ideological divides are being exposed with President Joe Biden’s huge Covid-19 relief bill coming up in the Senate on Thursday. There’s also a fresh rush by GOP governors in Texas, Mississippi and elsewhere to ditch precautions that eased a horrific post-holiday spike in infections — mirroring a similar and ultimately disastrous opening at the urging of ex-President Donald Trump last summer.
These moves follow a weekend in which some governors — and possible 2024 GOP presidential candidates, such as South Dakota’s Kristi Noem and Florida’s Ron DeSantis — boasted to conservative activists about keeping their states open even while the worst of the virus was raging.
Not all Republican governors have adopted the conservative orthodoxy of mask skepticism and spurning scientific advice. Some, such as Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Ohio’s Mike DeWine, have won bipartisan praise for their strategies.
But the broader GOP’s tendency to put political goals over the recommendations of government scientists, a holdover from the Trump era, is also evident as battle lines are drawn in Washington over the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief plan.
It is only right that Democrats should face principled Republican arguments on whether they are properly targeting the spending blitz or rewarding pet causes and on whether huge aid to states and cities is needed. And 10 Republicans did seek to make that case in their failed effort to get Biden to sign on to a $600 billion stimulus that the President judged underestimated the magnitude of the health and economic crisis.
But GOP leaders also have a problem. Biden’s measure is surprisingly popular, so they need to slow it down and discredit its contents to extract some political gains and deprive the new President of a clean win.
So Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, taking a timeout from his conspiracy-fueled effort to absolve Trump supporters in the Capitol insurrection, is planning days of stunts that threaten to turn debate over the package — with unemployment benefits for millions of Americans set to run out within days — into a made-for-conservative-cable-TV farce.
“We’re talking about $1.9 trillion … a stack of one billion dollars that would extend halfway past the distance to the moon. And we want to do this in a matter of hours? I don’t think that’s right,” Johnson said Wednesday.
The senator plans to force a full reading of the bill — that will take 10 hours — and stretch out debate with an array of procedural traps.
The opposition to the Covid-19 bill and the stampede to open states before science suggests it is safe are brewed in the same political vat as the effort by many Republicans to solidify the lie that Trump was cheated out of power.
Each drama reveals behavior forced on a party that has collectively decided that its most reliable path to power relies on its own radical, activist base and providing soundbites to conservative media rather than adopting policies that might appeal to a broader group of more mainstream Americans.
The big lie that the election was stolen will loom over the Senate Covid-19 debate. Senators will meet behind high iron fences and increased security because of new fears of violence by extremists incited by Trump’s lies and the absurd QAnon conspiracy theory that he will be sworn in as president on March 4.
Biden pleads for patience
In the other corner from the Republican disrupters, Biden, who won the presidency largely on a vow to replace Trump’s denial and neglect of the pandemic with organized, compassionate leadership, is pleading with senators to act fast.
He argues that the behemoth of a bill is packed with funding to get schools open, injections into arms and to tide over laid-off workers and small businesses until a sped-up inoculation drive can revive the economy.
“I’m not sure we’ve ever seen something that is needed as badly as the American Rescue Plan that was as broadly popular,” Biden said on Wednesday after adjusting some aspects of the bill to appease moderate Democrats, to the dismay of progressives.
The President is also expressing disbelief that Republican governors are using his success in broadening vaccine supplies as an excuse to open up with the virus still rampant.
“The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking,” Biden said on Wednesday, reacting to Texas and Mississippi laying plans for 100% openings, amid fears that new viral variants could trigger a new tsunami of infection.
If the vaccines are as effective as everyone hopes — and Biden says there will be enough for every American adult in just three months — the country could be entering the political endgame of the pandemic.
There is a definite sense that each side is positioning for the post-Covid-19 reality. If things go back to normal this year, Biden will credit the relief package, his reliance on science and the use of government power to mount a vaccination drive as Democrats head into midterm elections next year.
Republicans, especially those facing primary races, have an incentive to brand the Covid-19 relief bill as a giveaway by big-spending socialists who want to curtail basic American freedoms with mask wearing and keeping restaurants closed.
Fauci: Opening now is ‘inexplicable’
Federal health officials warn that Americans need to stay patient for just a few more months to allow vaccinations — which hit a seven-day average of 2 million per day milestone on Wednesday — to suffocate the virus.
“It just is inexplicable why you would want to pull back now,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases specialist, said on CNN”s “Erin Burnett OutFront” on Wednesday.
“We have been through this scene before, months and months ago, we tried to open up the country and open up the economy when certain states didn’t abide by the guidelines (and) we had rebounds that were very troublesome,” he said.
But as has been the case for the entirety of the pandemic, scientific arguments don’t satisfy pressures bearing down on Republican governors in red states and their own particular political ambitions.
Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s declaration on Tuesday that increasing vaccinations and a fall in Covid-19 infections meant it was time to ditch mask mandates and reopen businesses with no restrictions caused consternation in the White House.
The politicization of the pandemic was underscored in Sen. John Cornyn’s cutting reaction to Biden’s anthropological rebuke of Abbott, saying the President should quit “preaching to my state about how to handle this Covid-19 virus.”
“At some point, the government needs to quit making arbitrary rules that do not have any demonstrable connection with the public health,” the Texas Republican said.
Masks, social distancing and avoiding crowded indoor venues such as restaurants and bars are scientifically proven to be some of the most effective measures in preventing the swift transmission of the virus.
In Texas on Wednesday, speculation was rife over Abbott’s motivations. Critics wondered whether he was searching for a headline following his poor handling of the rare winter storm that blacked out much of the state recently. Political commentators noted that the governor is up for reelection next year and vulnerable to an even more right-wing primary challenger. And should Abbott decide to run for president in 2024, he might find himself up against fast openers Noem and DeSantis in the Republican primary.
Still, the governor appeared to step back from a confrontation with the White House. A spokeswoman stressed to CNN that while he had said it was time for Texans to decide their own responsible counter-Covid-19 precautions, he was in no way arguing that the pandemic was over.
“It is clear from the recoveries, the vaccinations, the reduced hospitalizations, and the safe practices that Texans are using, that state mandates are no longer needed,” the governor’s press secretary, Renae Eze, told CNN. “We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans.”
But the Republican governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, hit back hard at criticism of his own announcement.
“Given how long ago Mr. Biden was elected to the US Congress, he certainly should know how Neanderthals think,” Reeves said, taking advantage of the President’s low-blow rhetoric to return the shot himself.
“You cannot focus on data and science and making good decisions on those days when the numbers are going up and ignore the data and science on those days when the numbers are going down,” Reeves said.
His comment, however, appeared to misunderstand the basic science of recommended steps to quell the pandemic. Cases came down because of masking and restrictions on large gatherings inside and in public, not despite them. And since the virus hasn’t disappeared and sufficient people are not yet vaccinated to limit transmission, the fear is that as soon as normal life returns, so will a new wave of infections.