Once Political B-Listers, Governors Lead Nation’s Coronavirus Response

Once Political B-Listers, Governors Lead Nation’s Coronavirus Response

WASHINGTON — One day after President Trump told the nation’s governors on a conference call that he had been “watching a lot of you on television” dealing with the coronavirus, he proved it Tuesday morning by angrily tweeting at Michigan’s governor for saying on MSNBC that “the federal government did not take this seriously early enough.”

But Mr. Trump’s name-calling — he referred to Gretchen Whitmer only as “Failing Michigan Governor,” and said she needed to “work harder” — soon backfired. Responding on Twitter, Ms. Whitmer laid out a list of steps she had taken since last week to mitigate the outbreak, and mentioned both the website and toll-free hotline Michigan has set up to answer questions about the virus.

“Ironically, he made my point that they’re not taking this as seriously as they need to,” Ms. Whitmer said in an interview Tuesday afternoon, noting that the president had been “watching TV.”

The back-and-forth illustrated the enormous gap between the president’s response to the colossal public health crisis and that of many chief executives in the states.

Since the coronavirus began spreading, the governors have taken a lead role in issuing strict guidelines and stern warnings, asserting themselves in ways that only highlighted the initial inaction and lack of seriousness from the White House.

With polls showing that far more Americans have confidence in their state governments to address the virus than they do in Mr. Trump, the contagion has elevated a class of veteran political leaders whom Republican voters bypassed in the 2016 presidential race and Democratic voters shrugged off in 2020.

As a result, the leadership of figures like Jay Inslee of Washington and Ms. Whitmer, who are Democrats, and Mike DeWine of Ohio and Larry Hogan of Maryland, who are Republicans, has vaulted them into contention to play roles or have influence in the next administration of either party.

Mr. Inslee, who ran for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and whose state is at the epicenter of the crisis, dismissed the political implications of the virus but did reveal in an interview that he had not yet received a phone call from Mr. Trump, who this month referred to the governor as “a snake.”

Mr. Inslee said he had been in frequent contact with Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the coronavirus task force and himself a former governor, and expressed hope that Mr. Trump’s transition from what the Washington governor called “denial to grudging acceptance to active leadership” would continue.

“Our leaders in the federal government at every level ought to be thinking of this moment as December 8, 1941,” Mr. Inslee said, calling for “the same federal response we had the morning after Pearl Harbor.”

Mr. Hogan also said he was pleased that Mr. Trump seemed to be taking the virus more seriously, but suggested that it was overdue and he should have looked to the governors sooner. “His messaging sounds a lot more like the way I’ve been talking and some of my colleagues have been talking about it for weeks,” he said.

The political process, Mr. Hogan continued, “is broken and needed a shock to the system. He said that while “it’s terrible it took this, maybe when we all recover we really can end some of the divisiveness and dysfunction.”

Mr. Trump, of course, has benefited from and fostered divisiveness since he began running five years ago. And given his penchant for showmanship and impulsiveness, he could have a difficult time sustaining any attempt at restraint, as his attack on Ms. Whitmer shows.

He also refused to acknowledge his early and well-documented skepticism about the seriousness of the virus. “I’d rate it a 10,” Mr. Trump told reporters Monday when asked to grade his performance. And on Tuesday, Mr. Trump said, “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” contrary to weeks of his own statements.

But the bigger question coming out of this crisis may be whether the new premium on competence and experience can lessen the polarization that has come to define American politics in this era.

With many in government and business predicting a terrible human cost from the virus as well as a national economic catastrophe, the partisan appeals to ideology and tribalism are bound to lose some of their salience, at least in the short term.

“In this election year, people are going to be thinking about who is competent to handle an emergency,” said Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois.

After all, Mr. Trump is not the only one closely watching the nation’s governors: So, too, are the many Americans cooped up in their homes, fixated on incremental news announcements about the crisis and assessing the various public figures managing the crisis.

“There will be new appreciation for clear, decisive and competent leadership,” said former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican. “And if things get mishandled, botched, miscommunicated in a way that’s viewed as incompetent or bumbling, politicians will pay a price — as they should.”

Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania who served as the first secretary of Homeland Security, predicted that some of the current class of governors would take up roles in the next president’s cabinet.

And Mr. Ridge, a Republican, suggested that the White House might have done well to regard the aggressive actions of Democratic and Republican governors as a reason to “rethink the recommendations I’d made as president, to the country.”

“I’d want to take a clue from my governors,” Mr. Ridge said. “It seems that message has finally caught up with the White House.”

Nick Everhart, an Ohio-based Republican strategist, went even further, predicting that the severity of the virus would prompt “a shift from the political-outsider candidate era — where public service, having been in office and branded a career politician was a liability — to an era where that competence and experience of understanding how to manage government is seen as a plus and important litmus for handling the next crisis.”

The durability of partisanship in American history, even in times of crisis, and deep mistrust of institutions may test such an assessment. Most voters may return to their usual habits after the virus has been contained.

But for now, the country is turning to governors, some of them little known on the national scene, for reassurance and leadership in a fashion that sharply breaks from the Washington-centric lens through which government has been viewed in a period of national and celebrity-oriented politics.

For example, it would have been difficult to picture Mr. DeWine, a mild-mannered government lifer first elected county prosecutor in 1976, as a daytime sensation. But there he was on ABC’s “The View” on Tuesday morning, appearing via satellite from Columbus.

“One of the things I’ve learned from doing this for 40 years is to trust my gut instinct,” Mr. DeWine said in an interview Tuesday night. “And my instinct all the way through this has been we’ve got to move faster.”

Former Gov. George E. Pataki of New York, a Republican who led the state for a dozen years, including through the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said, “Right now, the governors are in the forefront, and appropriately so, and presumably it will stay that way for some time.”

It has been many years, perhaps since the early part of Mr. Pataki’s time in office, since state executives occupied as dominant a role in the life of the country as the one they have been playing in the last few weeks.

And though governors have continued to exercise crucial influence within their own states — on defining issues like criminal justice, environmental protection, abortion and voting rights — they have faded as actors in national politics.

This year, not a single Democratic governor became a major contender for the presidency. And in the 2016 primary campaign, a long roster of current and former Republican governors were trampled by Mr. Trump.

But figures like Mr. DeWine, Mr. Inslee and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, each of whom have decades of government experience, may be some of the few leaders who emerge politically stronger from this crisis.

And it is not only on public health that governors are currently leading the way: With the coronavirus throwing the 2020 presidential primary calendar into disarray, state leaders have taken the initiative in drafting backup plans and alternative procedures for voting.

Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon, a Democrat whose state already votes entirely by mail, has begun an initiative through the Democratic Governors Association to study alternative voting procedures to rescue her party’s presidential nominating contests, deploying aides to review where states might be able to greatly expand absentee voting or switch to mail-in balloting, people familiar with the effort said.

In an interview on Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Brown said she was overwhelmingly focused on confronting the coronavirus outbreak in her state, but added that taking steps at the state level to protect the election was an urgent priority, without waiting on the federal government.

“Given, at least, the administration’s past track record on these issues, states need to take the lead to protect voter rights and access to the ballot,” Ms. Brown said. “And honestly, we need to take decisive action.”

And Ms. Brown said there were also increasingly formal conversations between governors to share strategies for containing the pandemic: the National Governors Association, a nonpartisan group, had organized a “governors-only” conference call for Wednesday that Ms. Brown said would be ”focused on emergency actions and replicating best practices.”

That sort of information sharing has already crossed party lines, according to a number of governors who said they had been in constant contact with one another by phone in part because the White House was not addressing their needs with any level of urgency.

“I can’t tell you the number of calls I’ve had with various governors around the nation,” said Mr. Pritzker, noting that he had telephoned Ms. Whitmer on the issue of school closures and Mr. Inslee on how to address virus outbreaks in nursing homes.

Ms. Whitmer also named a number of her colleagues with whom she had spoken as the situation has turned dire.

“Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican governor, we’re who people are looking to at a time when there’s not been a lot of clarity or honest dialogue about the seriousness of this situation,” she said.

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