Coronavirus epidemic reveals window into America’s politics; Mississippi at one extreme

Published 7:30 am Monday, March 30, 2020

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti has instituted a shutdown on a city of nearly 4 million people and threatened uncooperative business owners with power shutoffs and arrest.

In Mississippi, home to nearly 3 million people, Gov. Tate Reeves has allowed most businesses to stay open — even restaurants, so long as they serve no more than 10 people at a time.

The divergent approaches are evidence that not even a global pandemic can bridge the gaping political divisions of the Trump era. The fierce tribalism that has characterized debates over immigration, taxes and health care is now coloring policy-making during a coronavirus outbreak that threatens countless lives and local economies across nation.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

There are exceptions, but Republican leaders have been far more likely to resist the most aggressive social distancing measures, emboldened by President Donald Trump’s initial rosy outlook and a smaller early caseload in their more rural communities across middle America.

But in the more crowded population centers on the East and West coasts where the disease first appeared, the Democrats in charge have been more willing to embrace strict steps such as curfews, sweeping business closures and law enforcement assistance.

“This epidemic has been a window into our politics,” said Larry Levitt, who leads health policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been tracking responses. “Particularly over the past couple of weeks, a political divide has emerged.”

It is an election year divide that could have deadly consequences.

As his campaign struggles for attention, leading Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden has called for a nationwide lockdown to replace the patchwork of local responses, which have varied even among neighboring communities in the same states. Trump, meanwhile, is largely allowing local officials to choose their own course and has encouraged them to compete for scant federal resources.

On Sunday, the president extended social distancing guidelines through April as public health officials warned the death toll could exceed 100,000.

Politically, the strategy may be working for the first-term Republican president. With the election just seven months away, Trump’s favorable ratings are ticking up, even if his numbers have fallen short of past presidents during times of crisis. Yet the GOP’s loyalty will almost certainly be tested in the weeks ahead as the virus spreads from the blue-state coastal communities deeper into red-state middle America.

Democrats like Garcetti fear the politics that are shaping conflicting pandemic responses will have real-world consequences far more important than the next election.

“I do worry that making this a partisan issue will kill more people in redder states,” the Los Angeles mayor said in an interview. “There is no way to keep this out of your city.”

In Mississippi, Reeves has adopted many social distancing measures such as limiting groups to 10 people, even if he’s resisted some of the most aggressive steps.

In an interview late last week, the Republican governor reiterated his opposition to a stay-at-home order, adding that he’s heeding the guidance of state health officials and Vice President Mike Pence himself, who told him directly during a recent conversation that the Trump administration is not recommending a blanket shutdown.

Reeves dismissed those who think he’s not doing enough as enemies of Trump who “don’t like the fact that I’m a conservative and I’m willing to pray.”

He warned that extended social distancing orders could cause a more dangerous fallout than the pandemic by destroying the nation’s economy.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that if the United States found themselves in a severe depression with 20% to 30% unemployment that the abject poverty that could create could lead to more health problems than this particular virus is causing,” Reeves said.

He added: “One size doesn’t fit all in this country.”

No nation has more documented cases of the deadly virus than the United States, which surpassed 125,000 total infections and 2,200 related deaths over the weekend.

The partisan divide in infections and responses is difficult to ignore.

All 50 states have reported cases, but the seven with the most infections are led by Democrats. New York may offer a cautionary tale for other states: The state reported its first case on March 1 and surpassed 52,000 infections and 730 deaths in less than a month.

The bottom six states in total cases are rural states led by Republicans. Numbers have been escalating virtually everywhere, however, particularly in more populous red states like Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas, which reported more than 7,200 cases and 175 deaths combined as of Sunday.

Fifteen of the 21 states that have issued statewide stay-at-home orders so far are led by Democratic governors, according to Kaiser. The Republican-led holdouts include Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has so far agreed with Trump’s preference for a more incremental approach in the premier swing state, suggesting that restrictive measures be put in place only in the hardest-hit counties.

The GOP’s resistance was perhaps best explained in recent days by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who told a Fox News audience that he would be willing to die if necessary to avoid severe social distancing measures that have essentially shut down local economies.

There are exceptions, of course.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has split with Trump over when normal life might resume. And Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, has been one of the most aggressive leaders in either party, banning spectators from sporting events the first week of March. He was among the first governors in the nation to close public schools.

Aggressive steps by DeWine and others, however, have been complicated by Trump’s inconsistent rhetoric. After repeatedly downplaying the threat at first, the Republican president adopted a more serious tone before suddenly suggesting last week that the worst could be over by Easter, which is April 12. He has now reversed that view, calling it an “aspiration,” with the extension of the social distancing guidelines.

Trump has also engaged in a war of words with Democratic governors in key states, where elected officials have openly complained about the lack of federal assistance to stem a dangerous shortage of coronavirus tests and medical equipment.

Late last week, Trump told Pence, “don’t call the woman in Michigan” — referring to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is considered a potential vice presidential pick for the ultimate Democratic nominee. Trump dubbed her as “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer” on Twitter, claiming that she’s “way in over her head.”

At the same time, the Trump administration began to contemplate a plan to encourage increased economic activity in areas where infections are low, which is largely in Republican-led states at the moment.

That, too, appeared to be sidelined by the president’s new view that fatalities could reach 100,000 or more.

Many conservatives welcome the president’s preference to loosen restrictions.

“They have no right to tell me I need to stay in my house. They cannot impose a travel ban on me. They can’t. it’s unconstitutional,” said Texas-based activist Mark Meckler, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots who now leads the Convention of States Project.

Meckler began conversations in recent days with other grassroots conservatives leaders to explore the possibility of filing lawsuits to block some of the more aggressive social distancing measures. In the meantime, he’s encouraging like-minded conservatives to embrace “peaceful resistance.”

“I’m not going along with it,” Meckler said. “It doesn’t mean we won’t be smart, but we don’t want to be sheep.”

Meanwhile, the numbers are shooting up in California, which has reported more than 5,000 infections and 100 deaths.

Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti has assigned teams of city workers to ensure non-essential local businesses are complying with shut down orders. He is empowered to shut off their water and power if necessary, and the California Democrat has authorized the police to arrest those who continue to resist.

Garcetti said there have been no shutoffs or arrests so far and predicts that “99 out of 100 will comply.”

He also offered a dire message to Republicans who have resisted similar steps: “In the projections, you could see this taking tens of thousands of lives in America or millions. You chose. But I don’t think anybody wants the second to be on their hands.”