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The Return of COVID Anxiety Poses Problems for Democrats
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The Return of COVID Anxiety Poses Problems for Democrats

No one—except for a few hardliners—wants to hear about lockdowns and mask mandates.

President Joe Biden on July 27, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s time for back-to-school, the return of football, and the re-emergence, like locusts burrowing out of the still-warm earth, of the Halloween people. It’s almost time for the first fall of the truly post-pandemic era, and America is ready for it.

But we hear the footfalls of our old nemesis, coronavirus, and the miseries it brings. Not just sickness and death, but lockdowns, masks, shuttered stores, and canceled events. 

“If this feels like déjà vu, it should,” the Washington Post ominously intones. 

“While only about a dozen cases of the new BA.2.86 variant have been reported worldwide — including three in the United States,” the paper warns, “experts say this variant requires intense monitoring and vigilance that many of its predecessors did not.”

The new variant doesn’t appear to be more lethal, or even likely to make people sicker than whatever has been knocking around for the past couple of years. It’s just more contagious. Which is what we’ve come to expect of the many variants of the original COVID-19: higher transmission, but not the lethality of the first surge. Endemic, like the flu, not pandemic like the first COVID wave.

The remarkable success in getting more than 8 in 10 Americans at least partly vaccinated has helped enormously, too.

But as Noah Rothman at National Review observed, the pandemic infrastructure and hardline COVID fighters are nowhere near ready to throw in the towel:

“Yes,” University of Texas epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina declared without hesitation earlier this month when PBS Newshour host John Yang asked if she would again recommend masking in response to a recent uptick in COVID-19 infections. “You should be wearing masks in crowded areas, especially during a surge.” But “what about at home?” or “when you’re walking on the street?” Yang asked. “So, certainly at home it works, if you want to reduce household transmission,” Jetelina replied. She did, however, admit that masking while “walking your dog” is unnecessary as long as you preserve your “distance” from the society around you.

I will leave it to experts to debate the science of what Rothman rightly calls the “mask wars,” but as a political malady, the diagnosis is an easy one. Masking, for or against, has become a potent shibboleth in America’s civic life. Today, the use of a mask in public, or the refusal to wear one when asked, is as strong of a symbol as a MAGA hat. While this is unfair to those who have to wear masks because of their own health concerns, or those of their loved ones, there’s no missing the larger signals.

COVID conscientiousness or laxity early on defied easy political sorting. But certainly by the end of the pandemic, it had been divided along hard, intense partisan lines. In a country as thoroughly geographically sorted as ours, though, neighborhoods can follow their own preferences on these matters.

But the partisan sorting of COVID response has serious consequences for the parties themselves. 

When we look at how Donald Trump lost his re-election bid, there are many causes, but none so clear as his inability to address public concerns about COVID. At a time when the country was looking for steady leadership and reassurance, Trump was all over the place. In a world in which Trump could have summoned the self-discipline to allow his well-regarded coronavirus task force, led by then-Vice President Mike Pence, to continue to lead the response, it’s easy to see Trump winning a second term. He went another way … 

The most obvious reason for Trump’s incoherence on COVID was the competing political pressures from the general electorate that was sincerely worried and a Republican base that was increasingly hostile to the control being exerted by public health authorities at the federal, state, and local levels.

President Biden has faced similar problems from the other direction. As the general electorate grew weary of the rules and disruptions of pandemic policies, especially after vaccines became widely available, the base of his own party was reluctant to let go. The defeat of the once heavily favored Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia in 2021 had many causes, but none more evident than the frustration of families with schools that had remained shuttered well into a fourth semester.

The demands of education unions and general COVID concern in the Democrats’ urban, progressive strongholds were in tension with what Biden needed to show the general electorate: that things were finally getting back to normal.

For most of the past year, those tensions have faded. While Biden took some heat from the party base for officially ending the pandemic emergency in April, the march toward normalcy has continued apace. While Americans are unhappy with the lingering effects of inflation driven by the massive bipartisan spending glut from the shutdown era, the conversation has moved on. There’s even some optimism creeping in.

That’s why the return of COVID anxiety poses a significant potential problem for the party in power. If the “intense monitoring and vigilance” phase returns in any significant way, regardless of transmission rates, it will cost Democrats dearly with the same suburban voters on whom the party’s hopes rest for 2024. 

Anything that looks like a lockdown, a school closure, or a mask mandate will be anathema to the very constituency that put Biden in the White House and spared Democrats from a midterm wipeout in 2022.*


Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


STATSHOT

Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 41.0%
Average disapproval: 53.2%
Net score: -12.2 points 

Change from one week ago: ↑ 1.0 points                        
Change from one month ago: ↓ 2.8 points

[Average includes: Emerson: 42% approve-47% disapprove; Fox News: 42% approve-58% disapprove; Marist: 42% approve-52% disapprove; Quinnipiac: 39% approve-55% disapprove; Reuters/Ipsos: 40% approve-54% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


TIME OUT: LIVE MÁS, GREGORY GREGORY 

Washington Post: “Gregory Gregory is a man of many titles: a grandfather, a Jersey Shore restaurateur and raconteur, a 71-year-old with the same first and last name. … But he is best known for something else: Gregory has promoted the bar as the home of the original Taco Tuesday. … It’s a custom that comes in the form of two hard-shell ground beef tacos with taco seasoning, lettuce, tomatoes and shredded cheddar cheese that Gregory’s serves with a spork in a red basket and sells for $3.50. … The future of Gregory’s Taco Tuesday trademark in the state of New Jersey now faces uncertainty amid Taco Bell’s petition seeking to cancel the trademark. … Gregory acknowledges he does not know how long his business can keep up a legal fight with a conglomerate like Taco Bell. … But he can’t think about that now, because he needs to get back to work. It is Taco Tuesday, and tacos are still on the menu.”


VIVEK STEALS SPOTLIGHT AS TRUMP EMERGES UNSCATHED

Wall Street Journal: “Vivek Ramaswamy, a wealthy entrepreneur, started the debate as one of the least-known candidates of the eight on stage. But he was a formidable if combative presence throughout the event, interrupting and tussling with far more experienced politicians and exciting the feisty audience with red-meat statements. … Ramaswamy also offered a forceful defense of Trump. … Ron DeSantis didn’t make any apparent slip-ups during the debate, a steady performance that might reassure any voters and donors. … But he didn’t draw direct attacks or engagement from the other seven candidates on the stage, a suggestion that they no longer saw him as the same threat. … The question for the GOP field is whether Ramaswamy can turn his debate performance into more support, even if overtaking Trump still appears unlikely.”

But on defense over 9/11 conspiracy questions: The Hill: “Vivek Ramaswamy is seeking to clean up comments he made that appeared to cast doubt about the origins of the 9/11 attacks as part of an interview released just before the first GOP presidential debate. … In the quote in question, Ramaswamy said: ‘I think it is legitimate to say, “How many police, how many federal agents were on the planes that hit the Twin Towers?”’ … After Ramaswamy claimed he was misquoted, The Atlantic responded by saying that Ramaswamy was quoted correctly. It also released a recording of the interview showing the quote was correct. … It is way too early to tell whether the 9/11 remarks will hurt Ramaswamy, who has cast himself as a millennial version of former President Trump.”

Higher thresholds will thin second debate field: New York Times: “To qualify for the second debate, which will be held on Sept. 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., candidates must register at least 3 percent support in a minimum of two national polls. … The R.N.C. is also lifting its fund-raising benchmarks. Only candidates who have received financial support from 50,000 donors will make the debate stage, which is 10,000 more than they needed for the first debate. … As of Wednesday, seven Republicans were averaging at least 3 percent support in national polls. … Based on the R.N.C.’s polling requirements, Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota and Asa Hutchinson, the former Arkansas governor, are in jeopardy of not qualifying for the second debate.” 

Iowa Poll: DeSantis secures second, Scott surges to third: Des Moines Register: “Donald Trump holds a commanding lead over the rest of the 2024 Republican presidential field in Iowa—and a more than 2-to-1 lead over his closest rival. … Among those likely caucus goers, 42% say they plan to support Trump — a lead of 23 percentage points over DeSantis, who is at 19%. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina follows in third place with 9%. … The poll finds many indicators of Trump’s strength, but the race is not settled and may be ‘closer than it may first seem,’ said J. Ann Selzer. … Plenty could shift by Caucus Day on Jan. 15. A majority, or 52%, of likely GOP caucus goers have a first choice for president and say they could still be persuaded to support a different candidate, while 40% say their minds are made up. Seven percent do not have a first-choice candidate.”

Georgia GOP infighting could tilt Peach State to Biden: Wall Street Journal: “Fani Willis’s expansive racketeering case, which alleges that Trump and his allies ran a criminal enterprise seeking to seize a presidential term, has shown that the Trump loyalists and the increasingly vocal ‘let’s move on’ faction are still worlds apart. … The divergent visions for the party put it at a disadvantage on messaging, fundraising and organization ahead of 2024, calling into question Republicans’ ability to win over voters in a battleground state. … Some Georgia Republicans worry their own drama will hand the Democrats a victory. … Others hope the indictments will unite the party against Democrats, who many in the GOP say are weaponizing the legal system to go after political opponents. … [The charges] have animated Trump stalwarts in the GOP but potentially damaged Trump’s general-election chances with swing voters.”

BRIEFLY

Dems draw solid recruit to challenge Florida Sen. Rick ScottPolitico

Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor dips a toe into New Hampshire —NBC News 

Redistricting fight leaves New York battlegrounds in flux—Politico

Virginia Dems try to hamper GOP midterm effort with talk of Youngkin presidential  bid—NBC News


WITHIN EARSHOT: SOCIALLY DISTANT

“You may see eye candy sitting down somewhere, you may want to park and come and slip them your number. Hey, listen, come have fun, man.”—Mayor Eric Adams announces the extension of New York City’s outdoor dining policies in a press conference last week. 


MAILBAG

“There’s been some talk of third parties at The Dispatch lately, so I figured I’d ask you about them. Not No Labels, though. I was wondering about Andrew Yang’s venture, the Forward Party. What do you think their impact will be, if any, on the elections in 2024?”—Jack Funke, Poplar Bluff, Missouri

I have done my best to ignore the Forward Party, not out of any animus but mostly out of considerations of time. The group, founded by former Democratic presidential candidate Yang and the former Republican governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, seems like it is in about the same place as No Labels was a decade ago. It strives to create an alternative to the dysfunctional and unpopular two-party duopoly—so far, so good—but has no ideological North Star to guide it—uh, oh—and seems defined by the ambitions of a founder, Yang, who is focused on process and procedure—woof. It feels like the Libertarian Party, but for big government. No Labels works as a congressional coalition, the Problem Solvers Caucus, because it is a haven for the small number of members who hail from swing districts. They found a way to increase their power in a narrowly divided House of Representatives by banding together. It is explicitly moderate and seeks to exercise a veto on radicalism in both parties. It’s like a governor on an engine that is prone to overheating. That same mission seems to inform the presidential component of the No Labels effort. It’s not a replacement for the two-party system so much as an extension. The two biggest problems facing No Labels right now are ballot access (10 states is a start, but only barely) and candidate selection. I don’t mean which candidate it selects, but how the process works. There are plenty of people who might be interested in being the alternative candidate in an election as glum as the one next year is shaping up to be. But here, No Labels could take something from Yang’s project. A party without a transparent process for picking a nominee seems unlikely to inspire confidence and would seem to be more astroturf than grass roots. 

“Help me understand how polls are even +\- whatever accurate these days? Since the 2016 polling debacle this has been on my mind. Phone polls: who answers unknown numbers these days? Small business people? Journalists looking for a scoop? Okay, probably so but are they going to take the time to answer a survey? Old people who are desperate to talk to anyone? That’s a great cross-section of America … Internet surveys: probably the most responsive method nowadays but that still limits the participants to people who check their email regularly and have the time and inclination to answer surveys. How many young parents think, oh, I will take time from my family, work, and ME to take a survey? Full disclosure, I’m retired and agreed to participate in Ipsos surveys mainly to see how this survey process works. You are one of my favorite writers at The Dispatch, shhhhh, don’t tell Jonah … well, or Nick, or Kevin or Sarah or Declan!! This is my first year as a subscriber and I’ve finally found a political home.”—Nan Sansone, Chesnee, South Carolina

You are very kind and very welcome here, Ms. Sansone! First, the good news: Polls did very well in 2022. Now the bad news: We have little idea if that success can be replicated in 2024. You have correctly identified the big problem in public opinion research these days. Response rates for traditional polling, the kind conducted by live interviewers calling voters on cell phones and landlines, have taken a beating. The ubiquity of caller ID and an aversion to annoying spam calls have conditioned Americans to not answer calls from unknown numbers. Online polls don’t make the grade because there is too high a degree of self-selection. You have to be a) online and b) willing to risk phishing expeditions by scammers. As for the 2016 polls, they were actually better than they were in 2012, when polls dramatically understated the performance of the incumbent president. What makes the 2016 contest so memorable is that in a very close race, the error fell on the wrong side of the result. We knew Donald Trump would lose the popular vote, but because polls understated his support, we weren’t looking closely enough at his potential path to, as Jonah would say, “pick the lock of the Electoral College.”

“I hate to say this, but if I were Trump I’d do exactly what he’s doing. If you’re ~50 points ahead of your next rival, why give them a chance to make nasty accusations at you on TV?  And this is a good thing for Tucker Carlson too. Fox fired him, not because the audience didn’t love him, but because his stupid emails revealed things that cost them a fortune in a lawsuit. I assume the Republican debate is on Fox—if the Trump/Carlson love fest on Truth Social wins the ratings war against the debate, they’ll both have the last laugh.”—Michael Taglieri, Staten Island, New York

I think America’s political class continues to overcompensate for its 2016 misapprehensions about Trump. It is certainly true that Trump is leading his closest competitors by 40 points or so in recent polling. Sitting on slightly more than half of the national GOP vote is definitely a good place to be before Labor Day the year before the election. But which direction do you suppose Trump is heading from here? I don’t imagine there can be many Republicans who haven’t formed clear opinions about Trump. He may end up with two-thirds of the party’s support in the end, but that would be from the coalition effect among persuadable voters after the outcome is clear. Between now and then, though, Trump will face increasing pressure as other candidates gain name recognition. While he didn’t need to participate in the first debate, it was a decision he could afford to make because of the size of his advantage. Essentially, he could cash in some of his lead in exchange for not facing the risks that would come from being in the barrel in Milwaukee. But in the weeks to come, he will have to figure out a way to deal with Vivek Ramaswamy, who is a genuine threat to Trump’s support with younger, more radical voters. Trump’s support will sag at some point between now and Iowa—at least once—how much and for how long will depend on many factors including how Republicans perceive his vulnerability to criminal conviction, the canniness of his competitors, and his capacity to remain disciplined. Trump is obviously the most likely winner of the GOP nomination next year, but that won’t happen, if it does, in a straight line from today.   


You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the perspicatious Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


CUTLINE CONTEST: THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING

Former President Donald Trump plays golf at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster, New Jersey, on August 10, 2023. (Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump plays golf at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster, New Jersey, on August 10, 2023. (Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

You people made the last week of the August contest very tough! Lots of great entries for the picture of former President Donald Trump looking pained in his follow-through on a drive. The winner, and final contestant for this month’s fabulous prize, followed the immortal wisdom of golf sage Harvey Penick: “Take dead aim!”

“All right Donnie, don’t let them know you missed the ball, just keep looking at the pin and declare a hole in one.”—Mitch Reed, Ballston Lake, New York

Winner, Kim Jong-il Sportsmanship Award Division:

“That guy from North Korea shot an 18? I will beat that today.”—Doug Leo, Scottsdale, Arizona

Winner, Ty Webb Institute for Leadership and Dolphin Hunting Division:

“Oh, don’t sell yourself short, Donny. You’re a tremendous slouch.”—Bob Culwell, Englewood, Colorado

Winner, People Are Spraying Division:

“TEN! Fore is for losers.”—Linda McKee, DuBois, Pennsylvania

Winner, Your Honor Division:

“Four!”—Richard Miles, Washington, District of Columbia

Winner, That’s a Lot of Skins Division:

“Look Brad, I just need 11,780 strokes. Because I won and it’s not fair that they are saying I didn’t.”—Albert Turk, Benson, Arizona

Winner, No Malarkey Division:

“Hoo boy! That’s more Mulligans than the Dublin phone directory”—Steve McCardell, Redding, Connecticut

Winner, Hey-o Division: 

“Not ANOTHER hooker!”—Jim Laufenberg, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin

Our August contest winner was also channeling the distinctive voice of the former president. Reader Bob Lepine of Little Rock, Arkansas, overcame stiff competition with his caption for side-by-side photos of President Biden and Trump holding up clenched hands: “Some people say mine is a rock too, but it’s actually a wadded up piece of paper, and paper covers rock, so I win. Again.” Your prize, Mr. Lepine, is a 1961 edition of Schaper Toys’ honest-to-goodness rock, paper, scissors board game. What could be more mid-century than developing a plastic game in a box to replicate a game that is appealing because it requires no special equipment and can be played anywhere? Pop a Swanson TV Dinner in your Frigidaire Thrifty 30 and get ready for hours of family fun! Just email us your address so we can send it along.

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the best entrants for each week and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!


PORCH PIRATES, LEVELED UP

WAGA: “An Arnco [Georgia] man is accused of being a porch pirate, literally stealing a porch from a neighbor’s front yard. Robin Swanger is facing a felony charge. Investigators say it happened on Clemit Harris Road in Arnco. Although the property from which the porch was stolen has the appearance of being abandoned, the owner says the stuff on it was not up for grabs. … For one thing, there were ‘no trespassing’ signs up, and investigators say Swanger blew past them when he helped himself to a wooden porch left on the property when the home was taken away. ‘It’s a full 8’ by 10’ porch. It would be what goes onto [a home] for entry and exit,’ said Investigator Chris Stapler with the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office.”

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics. Nate Moore contributed to this report.

*Correction, August 28, 2023: A previous version of this newsletter misidentified the year Democrats most recently won the congressional midterm elections.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.