Politics & Policy

The Wrong Governors

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks at a daily briefing at North Shore University Hospital during the coronavirus outbreak in Manhasset, N.Y., May 6, 2020. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
The media don’t just overpraise Democratic governors; they overpraise the wrong ones!

Pretend for a moment that you are a journalist with a strong leaning in favor of progressivism and the Democratic Party, and you wish to make the argument that Democratic governors are doing a great job of mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.

If you use the measuring stick of fewest cases per million residents, Hawaii ranks first, as of this writing. Then Montana and Alaska, and Vermont ranks fourth. (While most people would consider Montana a red state, governor Steve Bullock is a Democrat; while most think of Vermont a blue state, governor Phil Scott is a Republican.) Maine ranks sixth, Oregon ranks seventh, and Kentucky ranks ninth. The states with the most cases per million residents are New York and New Jersey, and then, after a steep drop of about 5,000 cases, Arizona, Louisiana, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts round out the top six.

If you use the measuring stick of fewest deaths per million residents, Hawaii ranks first again. Then it’s three red states and a reddish state with a Democratic governor — Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, and West Virginia. Oregon ranks fifth, Maine ranks ninth, and Kansas ranks tenth.

The state with the most deaths per million people is New Jersey, with 1,757, and New York ranks second with 1,666. Then it drops by about 400 cases to Connecticut, followed by Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia. Louisiana is seventh, Michigan ranks eighth.

You’ve probably noticed that most of the states with the worst numbers for cases and deaths are densely populated, and the ones with the best numbers are generally less densely populated. The states that haven’t been hit as badly might have better state governments or governors, but elected leaders can do only so much. Controlling the outbreak of a contagious virus is just tougher when people live closer together, and mass-transit systems almost certainly complicate the matter, too.

Strictly by the numbers, if a political journalist wanted to praise Democratic governors as doing a terrific job, that writer would start with Hawaii’s David Ige. Hawaii’s low numbers came at enormous cost, however. Ige implemented a 14-day quarantine for all visitors and residents returning to Hawaii, back on March 21, more or less killing the state’s tourism industry. (Few travelers can afford to fly to Hawaii and then spend two weeks in a hotel room before enjoying themselves.) A year ago, the Hawaiian unemployment rate was 2.8 percent; now it is above 22 percent, which is down from 23.8 percent in May.

After Ige, the Democratic governors whose states have been most successful at containing the virus, according the available raw data, have been Bullock, Oregon’s Kate Brown, Maine’s Janet Mills, Kentucky’s Andy Beshear, and Kansas’s Laura Kelly. My guess is that unless you live in or near one of those states, you’ve heard little about these governors, compared with what you’ve heard about New York’s Andrew Cuomo, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, California’s Gavin Newsom, and New Jersey’s Phil Murphy.

No governor has been more ostentatiously praised than Cuomo, who a little while back was  joking around with Jimmy Fallon about his fanbase of fervent “Cuomosexuals.” The Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote of  “the Newsom the outside world sees: a calm, confident and intelligent (and verbose) governor handily guiding his massive state through an unprecedented crisis, informed by science and a sincere desire to protect the public’s health” — but at least acknowledged that Newsom hasn’t always lived up to the image he aims to project. A largely gushing New York Times profile described Whitmer as “approaching it all with the same practical mind-set and vocabulary she brought to more manageable governmental challenges like fixing potholes.” The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that Murphy “channel[s] his inner technocrat at hour-plus news briefings. He comes armed with graphs and projections of the virus’ spread, saying he’s determined ‘to break the back of that damn curve.’”

The personality, the pugnaciousness, the presence, the poll numbers . . . these governors have assembled all of the ingredients for a classic success story — except for the actual record of success.

By all kinds of measures, these most extensively covered and praised Democratic governors have done a job that is “meh” at best and pretty darn bad at worst. The decisions of Cuomo, Whitmer, Newsom, and Murphy regarding the movement of infected patients from hospitals to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities might be the worst and most consequential of the crisis. Whitmer made odd and difficult-to-justify decisions, including banning the purchase of seeds, and her husband apparently “jokes” about being exempt from state orders. California’s coronavirus-testing programs stumbled right out of the gate. Murphy violated his own order on large gatherings. Very little of this has affected the job-approval ratings of these governors — in part because only some portions of the media world are interested in the flaws of the records of these governors. The others prefer to stick to their preselected happy narrative.

You notice those less-covered Democratic governors don’t have a brother hosting a prime-time show on CNN, aren’t getting serious consideration to be Joe Biden’s running mate, and govern states that are not home to the headquarters of major national media institutions.

The problem is not merely that most national media institutions are biased in favor of Democratic governors over Republican ones. The problem is also that certain voices in our media are biased in favor of big-state, better-known Democratic governors over other Democratic governors.

The fact that Vermont is in relatively great shape compared with the rest of New England gets little attention. Bernie Sanders demonstrated that the political world and national media could pay a lot of attention to the state of Vermont. If Phil Scott were a Democrat, would he be getting more praise for his state government’s performance? Or is Vermont just not interesting enough to the national media, no matter which party controls the governor’s mansion?

This is how disconnected the dominant conversation in national media is from the actual facts on the ground. The governors who are getting the most praise for their response to the coronavirus pandemic are more or less the same governors that the national media was most interested in before the pandemic started. The policies of a Bullock, Brown, or Beshear don’t count as much — or even get much scrutiny — because they’re in flyover country.

We are not as informed as we ought to be, because those who are supposed to inform us are infuriatingly incurious.

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