House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif. speaks outside her office on Capitol Hill, Monday, March 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)
In mid-March, President Trump announced his 15-day plan to shut down the economy. His administration’s hope was that we could “flatten the curve” and “slow the spread” of COVID-19. Toward the end of that period, the situation was reassessed and the decision was made to extend the shutdown until the end of April. By now, most cities and regions of the US, including New York State, the epicenter of the pandemic, have managed to achieve this milestone and Americans, currently ending our fifth week of the quarantine, are growing restless.
The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel writes, “The goal of the shutdown was never to eradicate the disease—an impossibility absent a vaccine. The lockdown was designed to buy the health sector time, to make sure all the cases didn’t hit at once in a crush that would overwhelm hospitals, à la Italy.”
Politico reports that, according to comments House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made during a two hour conference call with her caucus this week, her conditions for ending the shutdown have changed. She said that “Trump was putting Americans in grave danger if he rushes to reopen the economy at the end of this month.” The Politico story said, “Until a robust testing and contact tracing system is in place, [Pelosi believes] it would be impossible for the president to guarantee Americans a safe reentry into their normal life.”
Knowing that the longer the lockdown remains in effect, the deeper and more prolonged the recession will be, Democrats would like to see it continue for as long as possible. They are acutely aware that a slow economy will hurt the President’s chances of reelection.
By these standards, no lockdown may end until the Trump administration can “guarantee” a “safe” world in which people return to “normal.” The feds must stand up a testing system capable of hunting down and snuffing out each new infection. There can be no more outbreaks, and reopening cannot “significantly add” to existing counts (and the press reserves the authority to define “significantly.”) The unsaid corollary is that Mr. Trump will be held politically responsible for reopening in any way that fails to meet these baselines—on the hook for each subsequent death.
Politico reports that House Democrats are working on their “own plan to reopen the nation” which will “require adequate testing and contact tracing to prevent a second outbreak.” They will ask “each state to submit a plan.
The Washington Post reports that “Trump has been so insistent on the reopening that some officials worry only a narrow window exists to provide information to change his mind or to ensure that the effort to reopen does not significantly add to the country’s rising number of infections and deaths.”
“The Democrats have moved the goal posts,” writes Strassel. They are setting up impossible conditions so they can blame President Trump for each COVID-19 death that comes after the shutdown ends. Even with mass testing and contact tracing, deaths will continue to occur. Trump is not a magician. And the Democrats know this. “Yet Mrs. Pelosi sees in this moment a political opportunity to pin the blame for the natural course of a disease on the White House,” notes Strassel.
The administration spent this week working on a plan for reopening, holding calls with business leaders and governors, and tapping experts for a new task force. It understands it needs to get this right. Come Election Day, Mr. Trump is likely to be judged more on the success of his efforts to get the economy back on track than on the shutdown itself. That means opening in a way that doesn’t instantly lurch the country into a second “peak infection” scenario, which would inspire calls for a second debilitating shutdown.
What’s missing from the White House reopening plan—and what is urgently required—is management of expectations. The administration needs to keep reminding the country of the original mission—to flatten the curve. And it needs to define quickly its own measure of success. That means explaining the limitations of even a wide-scale testing regime, preparing the country for continued rising death tolls, and warning that this virus is going to be with us for many months to come. It also means enlisting governors to help in delivering that message, as well as to share in the responsibility and rewards of reopening.
No politician likes to deliver hard truths, but that’s a far better strategy for this pandemic than stepping into the trap Democrats are laying.
It is true that the coming election will be a referendum on Trump’s management of this crisis. But voters aren’t stupid. They can see for themselves that the President is focused on the pandemic. They also see that as millions of Americans struggle, the Democrats view this an opportunity to exploit. Pelosi delayed the original relief bill by trying to add her “wish list” items. Just this week, she blocked the replenishment of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) which has helped so many small business owners make it through the shutdown. Rep. Steny Hoyer announced that the House would adjourn until May 4 – unless there was an emergency. And the repellent Adam Schiff has already planned his “9/11 style” commission to investigate the President for all of the “mistakes” he has already made and for those he will surely make. They’ve seen the President persecuted for nearly four years for crimes he did not commit.
This is virgin territory for the President and his advisors as it is for every world leader. No head of state alive today has ever dealt with a pandemic of this magnitude. Unless Trump were to commit a deliberate, egregious error, I think most Americans will see through the Democrats’ spin.