The big difference between Trump and state governors? Only one of them is capable of governing | Fletcher McClellan

April 21, 2020 6:30 am

Gov. Tom Wolf addresses Pennsylvanians in an online speech on Friday, 4/17/20 (screen capture)

One leader says he has “total” authority to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, yet declines to exercise power.

Another leader earlier acknowledged he has “no magic wand,” but is adding more restrictions to an already strict protocol. And on Monday, that governor announced a tentative reopening schedule for his home state that’s set to begin May 8 that will be driven by data, not partisan politics.

President Donald Trump, meet Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

If Trump’s strategy of delegating responsibility to the states to manage the coronavirus is going to work, he is going to need strong leaders at the grass roots.

If he lets them govern, that is.

Unfortunately, the president seems more interested in promoting chaos than effective administration.

It’s one thing to abdicate authority, as Trump has in declining to assert control over testing, medical supplies, and social distancing protocols (which he now labels “politically correct”).

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It’s another thing to undermine the tough decisions governors are having to make in the absence of national leadership.

This week the president cheered on anti-shutdown protestors in several states with Democratic governors, some of whose guidelines “are too tough,” Trump said. Those same protesters, in all their thousands, rolled into the state Capitol in Harrisburg on Monday.

As Wolf can tell you, it is hard enough trying to handle public health and economic crises with a legislature controlled by the opposition party, not to mention a million-plus citizens suddenly out of work.

Wolf has vetoed one Republican-authored bill easing guidelines for non-essential businesses to reopen, and he’s promised to veto another that transfers reopening authority to counties.

To be sure, there are genuine issues with the confusing criteria and lack of transparency the Wolf administration has applied to the business community.

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Furthermore, it is hard not to notice inconsistency across states when it comes to defining an “essential” business.

This is not to condemn the right of citizens, many of whom are clearly in pain, to voice their concerns publicly.

However, there is reason to be cynical about seemingly spontaneous demonstrations springing up all at once.

Reminiscent of the forces that staged the Tea Party rallies of 2009-10, local pro-Trump organizations and Facebook groups, some connected with the far right and funded by conservative mega-donors, have received magnified coverage and encouragement from Fox News and right-wing media.

It doesn’t require genius to see a broader strategy at play. Desperately anxious to get America back to work by the artificial deadline of May 1, Trump intends to win the cooperation of red state governments while his forces ratchet up the pressure on blue states.

The distribution of virus cases, located disproportionately in Democratic strongholds and constituencies, are conducive to MAGA politics.

On the other hand, Tea Party 2.0 may be delayed indefinitely for several reasons.

First, large majorities say it’s too soon to return to normal.

Second, COVID-19 clusters are making their way into the heartland. In much of the country, the worst has yet to come.

Third, the measures that Wolf and other governors, including Republicans, appear to be working.

Though the Commonwealth ranks in the top ten of states with confirmed virus cases and deaths, the state’s health care system is not presently overwhelmed. In other words, we are flattening the curve.

Fourth, while the president, Wolf, and others have issued frameworks for reopening, little progress will be made until the scale of testing is increased several-fold and people have confidence that the virus is under control.

Places that are preparing to ease restrictions have far greater mass testing and production regimes than the U.S.

Currently, 145,000 tests are conducted daily, far short of the 500,000 to 1 million tests that experts say are needed. Disturbingly, the daily average of tests has plateaued.

Clearly, the current decentralized approach is not working. If anything, it is breeding cutthroat competition among governments and providers for scarce equipment.

We need a national strategy that substantially increases the number of test kits and trained personnel to conduct tests, as well as prioritizes who should be tested.

And that requires leadership from the top, whether it is a White House czar or a single task force with real expertise and authority.

Right now, Trump is going in the opposite direction, creating multiple task forces with competing aims and little scientific knowledge.

There is no national testing plan, and the question is why. Is it ideology, incompetence, avoidance, or a deliberate effort not to act?

One senses Trump knows he is in over his head, and is simply creating the appearance of action, including daily two-hour rants, in order to blame the governors he “authorized” to do the job.

Until someone unravels the mystery in the White House, it is up to the Wolfs, Hogans, Newsoms, and DeWines to do the best they can with what they have.

The best thing this president can do is let them lead.

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @McCleleF.

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Fletcher McClellan
Fletcher McClellan

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.