Stirewaltisms: Democrats Have Issues About COVID Restrictions
After two years in which masks and closures became powerful shibboleths for the American left, letting go is proving very challenging.
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.
Democrats in many deep blue states are dropping indoor mask requirements or allowing them to expire in the coming weeks. But they are still struggling with the question of schools, which says a lot about the power of teachers’ unions inside the party. But it also speaks to the larger problem Democrats have in emerging from the pandemic, even as voters continue to send powerful signals about their frustrations. Some Democrats imagine that the movement against restrictions is driven by right-wing crazies. That is a delusion that could lead to a wipeout for the blue team this fall.
Here’s Yascha Mounk writing in The Atlantic: “Accepting restrictions that weaken our social ties when they seemed temporary was one thing. Putting up with them indefinitely is quite another. For many, the sense that we will live in pandemic purgatory for months or years to come now poses a heavy psychological burden. This makes defining a clear end point to the pandemic posture all the more important. How much longer will the restrictions on everyday life drag on? What purpose do they still serve?”
America needs a finish line, and Democrats will pay dearly if they seem to be the party of perpetual restriction.
Part of the reason that the Biden administration has been slow to express appropriate gladness about the end of the pandemic and the improving economy is the memory of last summer and the Delta variant’s squelching of their optimism. But another part is obviously a fact that parts of the Democratic base are attached to coronavirus as an issue more than a problem to be solved. It felt so good to be on the side of science against those knuckle-draggers on the other side. It also felt good when Americans solidly preferred Democrats on the handling of the issue when Trump was president. But the facts have changed with vaccines and more knowledge about the virus, and the politics certainly changed too.
It’s time for Democrats to accept the solution and give up the issue.
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Biden job performance
Average approval: 43.2 percent
Average disapproval: 53.2 percent
Net Score: -10 points
Change from one week ago: ↓ 1.4 points
[Average includes: Ipsos/Reuters: 43% approve-51% disapprove; Ipsos: 41% approve-56% disapprove; Monmouth University: 39% approve-54% disapprove; Marquette University Law School: 46% approve-53% disapprove; Fox News: 47% approve-52% disapprove.]
Generic congressional ballot
Democrats: 43 percent
Republicans: 44.4 percent
Net advantage: Republicans +1.4 points
Change from one week ago: No change
[Average includes: Monmouth University: 43% Democrat, 51% Republican; Fox News: 43% Democrat, 44% Republican; NBC News: 47% Democrat, 46% Republican; Quinnipiac University: 43% Democrat, 44% Republican; USA Today: 39% Democrat, 37% Republican.]
TIME OUT: BUT WHAT DOES A COMPUTER DO WITH 700 GRAND?
History: “On February 10, 1996, after three hours, world chess champion Garry Kasparov [lost] the first game of a six-game match against Deep Blue, an IBM computer capable of evaluating 200 million moves per second. Man was ultimately victorious over machine, however, as Kasparov bested Deep Blue in the match with three wins and two ties and took home the $400,000 prize. An estimated 6 million people worldwide followed the action online. Kasparov … and other chess grandmasters had, on occasion, lost to computers in games that lasted an hour or less. The February 1996 contest was significant in that it represented the first time a human and a computer had duked it out in a regulation, six-game match… In 1997, a rematch took place between Kasparov and an enhanced Deep Blue. … Deep Blue came out on top with a surprising sixth game win—and the $700,000 match prize.”
IF ALL YOU’VE GOT IS A MAGA, EVERYTHING LOOKS LIKE A TRUMP
The Ohio Republican Senate primary is already the most overanalyzed race in the nation. Not that it isn’t a good one to keep an eye on. You’d still have to give the edge to the GOP to hold on to the seat being vacated by Sen. Rob Portman, but Republican infighting could easily hand the contest to Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan. The excess attention in the race is substantially due to celebrity candidate J.D. Vance, who reinvented himself as an angry populist and distanced himself from his former agreeable demeanor and his opposition to Donald Trump. Vance is battling with, among others, former state treasurer and perennial candidate, Josh Mandel, who has reinvented himself as an even angrier populist.
One of the big stories in Washington this week was the leaked strategy memo from one of the super PACs backing Vance. The memo included a poll, which Politico included in its writeup: “The survey shows Mandel, a former state treasurer who unsuccessfully ran for Senate in 2012, out ahead with 15 percent. He is followed closely in the results by self-funding investment banker Mike Gibbons, with 14 percent, former state GOP Chair Jane Timken with 13 percent, business owner Bernie Moreno with 11 percent, and Vance at 9 percent. (Moreno dropped out of the primary last week, several weeks after the poll was taken.)”
When I tell you that this is a useless poll, I mean as useless as a Browns’ Super Bowl LVI T-shirt. As useless as a buckeye seed. As useless as the passing lane on an Ohio interstate. The primary is three months away and the poll, if we accept it as sound, tells us that … the race is close and voters don’t really seem to care yet.