Stirewaltisms: Democrats Have Issues About COVID Restrictions

One of the cardinal problems with modern politics is that issues often tend to be more attractive than solutions.

Take immigration, for instance. If you went by the nature of the political debate and media coverage, you would be surprised to see that year after year, Americans are fairly united on the question of what to do when it comes to immigration and the southern border. High percentages of Americans favor strict enforcement of immigration laws and also a pathway to citizenship for most people who entered the United States illegally in the past.

While the specifics would be challenging to work out, there is already enough of a broad consensus to shape a lasting policy. Except for two things: 1) Our dumb primary system makes support for the needed compromises potentially deadly to politicians’ personal ambitions on both sides. 2) If the parties solve it, they lose it as an issue with which to raise money and try to win general elections.

In the short-term calculations of electoral politics, an issue is often better than a solution. Solutions take a long time, involve risk, and require maintaining some trust and goodwill with the other side. Issues are easy. You just say that your side is right, the other side is not just wrong but corrupt or intentionally hurting the country. You can run one time on a solution that works. You can run forever on an issue.

Which brings us to Democrats and the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, let me stipulate up front, that just like immigration or many of the other areas where issues trump solutions, many of the feelings that contribute to Democrats’ current problems are sincere. The families of nearly a million Americans who died with COVID and millions more who have been seriously ill should not be expected to have detached views on the subject. For others who have serious health problems and spent years in fear of contracting the virus, vigilance has become a way of life.

But for the Democratic Party as a whole, coronavirus response has become a serious liability. After two years in which masks, sanitizer, distancing, and closures became powerful shibboleths for the American left, letting go is proving very challenging. Hardline coronavirus policies did not just seem serious and scientific, they were weapons in the culture war against those right-wingers who rejected even sensible precautions from the start.

Many Republicans fought imposing restrictions in 2020 in similarly irrational ways. That slowed and complicated the initial response and worsened the effects of the pandemic when infections moved outside of the big blue cities where the virus first took hold. Of all the things that cost Donald Trump a second term, his refusal to be serious and disciplined in his response to the pandemic is very high on the list. If he had just been able to stay out of the briefing room and like Mike Pence do the talking, it might have made the difference.

But if Republicans had the problem on the way in, Democrats are having the problem on the way out. Consider the WaPo’s story of Red Wine and Blue, a group for suburban moms that is organizing for, among other things, the fight to keep mask mandates in place in schools. I claim no special scientific knowledge, but the case against masking children in class has been made by many with serious credentials for many months. With vaccines now available to everyone 5 and older, the argument for keeping children in masks is even weaker. Do Democrats seriously want their brand heading into midterms to be the party that fights to keep children masked at school?

When Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams apologized this week for having taken off her mask during a campaign stop at an elementary school, she came across as a penitent not for hypocrisy but for failing to set a good example for the children “that we wear masks whenever possible.” Worse, she said that she had removed her mask in the first place because she said she “wanted all of them to hear me.” Just imagine how that sounds to students and teachers who have been struggling to understand and be understood for years under mask rules. But Abrams is obliged to support the restrictions because core Democratic constituencies still refuse to budge on what is increasingly security theater. If she were thinking of a general election audience, Abrams would have commiserated with students about how hard it is to wear masks in a classroom setting and how she hoped the restriction would soon end. But that is not an answer that, say, the Georgia Educators Association would like to hear. 

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