• Trump has every right to boast about his TV ratings, but he really ought to give the virus some of the credit.
• The headline in the New York Times gets this one right: “U.S. Deaths Set to Surpass China’s, but China’s Figures Remain in Doubt.” If you believe official numbers, we passed the virus’s homeland long ago, but why in the world would anyone believe the official numbers of the Chinese Communist Party? They denied the existence of the virus for months, silencing brave doctors who dared to mention it; then they staged a grandiose health campaign, quarantining cities and welding the doors of the sick. Now, presto, all is well. Meanwhile, video taken by Chinese people shows large shipments of funeral urns to the hard-hit city of Wuhan; there was a riot at the border of Hubei Province, where Wuhan is located, the neighbors in Jiangxi not wanting to share what they believe is still a medical emergency. The regime publishes lies to calm its own people, whose exchange of freedom for security has been betrayed. It publishes lies to defend its status. Americans who casually repeat China’s figures need a dose of the Times’ skepticism. Make that a double.
• Perhaps the middle of a crisis isn’t the best time to haul out the guillotine, but the officials responsible for the testing debacle in the U.S. deserve to be sent to one forthwith. The CDC fouled up its initial testing kit, and then the FDA put obstacles in the path of others trying to deploy tests via the asinine imposition of its usual regulations. Presiding over the entire mess was HHS Secretary Alex Azar, reportedly frustrated but clearly ineffectual. The testing delay prevented us from learning of the spread of the virus earlier and meant the criteria for testing were too restrictive for too long. Now, finally, tests are becoming widely available. Sensitive to any criticism, President Trump has been defensive about the testing failure, which he should have been focused on much earlier. He should take ownership of the mistakes and resolve, when the appropriate time comes, to fire those most responsible.
• The coronavirus has pushed Joe Biden to the sidelines. President Trump’s daily briefings are drawing viewers, as he grotesquely bragged, while few people are watching the challenger critique the administration’s response in low-tech productions. Biden’s short-term problem is that some people are asking “Where’s Joe Biden?” while others are forgetting to ask. His longer-term problem is that eventually people are going to start listening to him again.
• “You’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real, whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time.” That was Joe Biden’s view, in September 2018, of sexual-assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. Now the glove is on the other hand. Former Biden staffer Tara Reade claims that Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993. Reade first complained publicly of the incident in April 2019, then describing only inappropriate touching. She is not the first woman to speak about the presumptive Democratic nominee’s wayward hands. She seems to have confided her account to others when the incident occurred. Biden’s campaign now says “reporters have an obligation to rigorously vet those claims.” There are cases for skepticism. Reade supported Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and has had warm words for Vladimir Putin. Her story has grown somewhat in the telling. But these are questions of credibility and motive. Biden and others who once said such questions were out of bounds should be made to answer why the standard should be different this time. Goose, gander.
• During Lincoln’s hapless quest for good Union generals in the early days of the Civil War, he lighted twice on George McClellan. McClellan was an efficient organizer beloved by his troops, and he would win the bloody battle of Antietam. He was also arrogant, and contemptuous of Lincoln personally, calling him an ape in private and ostentatiously keeping him waiting for meetings. Lincoln’s reaction? “I will hold his horse if he gives us victories.” Flash-forward to 2020 and President Trump’s schoolyard spat with Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer (D.). Whitmer is a piece of work, but Trump responds in kind, dubbing her “half-Whitmer” and saying he tells Vice President Pence not to call her. Pence rightly ignores the advice, and Michigan has been federally approved as a disaster area. But why the antics? Trump’s supporters often argue, Watch what he does, not what he says! But in this crisis, the president’s words matter more than ever.
• When a reporter listed senators who were in isolation because of the coronavirus, Trump interrupted, saying, “Romney is in isolation?” The reporter said yes, prompting Trump to say, sarcastically, “Gee, that’s too bad.” Three days later, Trump tweeted out an article headed “Mitt Romney Tests Negative for Coronavirus.” The president commented, “This is really great news! I am so happy I can barely speak. He may have been a terrible presidential candidate and an even worse U.S. Senator, but he is a RINO, and I like him a lot!” If on nothing else, Trump fans and Romney fans can agree on this: Those two men are nothing alike. And in this time, especially, the president could use a little charity and grace.
• In Illinois, pro-life Democratic congressman Dan Lipinski lost his primary race to progressive challenger Marie Newman, who took issue in particular with Lipinski’s refusal to support legal abortion. Several abortion-rights groups backed Newman, eager to unseat a Democrat who bucks the party’s extremist line. In his concession speech, Lipinski was bold: “I’ve watched many other politicians succumb to pressure and change their position on this issue. . . . I could never give up protecting the most vulnerable human beings in the world simply to win an election.” We’re grateful to Representative Lipinski for his consistent, costly witness to the dignity of unborn human life.
• While Washington was downplaying the threat of the coronavirus and happy-talking the markets out of a correction, powerful players in government got on the red phone — to their brokers. Senator Kelly Loeffler (R., Ga.) and her husband unloaded millions of dollars in stock beginning on the day she received a coronavirus briefing. Her husband is the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) sold between $1.5 million and $6 million in stock in a California biotech company right before the recent market crash. Senator Richard Burr (R., N.C.) sold as much as $1.7 million in shares in 33 transactions on February 13. It is unlikely that any of this rises to the level of “insider trading” in a legal sense, but the senators’ explanations for their actions range from the plausible to the preposterous. Burr, who is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says that his decisions were based on watching CNBC, whose Asia bureaus he claims to admire. Senator Feinstein says that the sales were taken on her husband’s initiative without her knowledge. Senator Loeffler says her sales were undertaken by “third-party advisors without my or my husband’s knowledge or involvement.” While Senator Loeffler’s third-party advisers were selling, the senator was on Twitter downplaying the economic risks of the epidemic. No incumbent wants to run for reelection in a bear market, and they are happy to take a bad bet with your money. Their money? Different story.
• Andrew Cuomo’s nickname, for the many years he has been in New York politics, has been “Ratface” — meant, what is worse, as a comment on his character rather than his looks. As a young man he was his father Mario’s dark self; as a politician in his own right, he has been abrasive, arrogant, incapable of working with others. His tenure as governor has been a strange combination of left-wing crusades (for abortion, against fracking) with enough deviations to alienate his party’s progressives (he supports charter schools), plus a dash of old-fashioned corruption (his big-ticket development projects for upstate collapsed in a welter of embarrassing accusations). Came the coronavirus, and a new Andrew Cuomo appeared. His briefings on the catastrophe have been clear and direct; he has taken pains not to tangle with President Trump, on whose help he depends; he has avoided preening and admitted error. As the New York Post’s Bob McManus, no friend to Cuomo, observed, “he has gotten the poetry of government-in-a-maelstrom right.” His stricken state is grateful for the transformation.
• Former Chicago mayor and Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel famously remarked that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Nancy Pelosi and her caucus in the House apparently took that advice when they stuffed their 1,432-page coronavirus-relief proposal full of progressive policies. The bill would have required aid recipients to upend their corporate boards, file annual diversity reports on the demographics of their staff and suppliers, and, in the case of airlines, “fully offset” their annual carbon emissions. Pelosi’s bill would even have required the 29 states that do not offer same-day voter registration to do so, which — whatever one thinks of the idea — has nothing to do with the pandemic that necessitated the relief package in the first place. While a slightly pared-down version ultimately cleared the House and the Senate with many of the initial partisan provisions removed, Pelosi’s Democrats threw a wrench into negotiations during a moment of national crisis, a moral mistake that they should be made to pay for at the ballot box.
• After the Senate unanimously passed the relief bill, it was expected to pass the House on a voice vote. Representative Thomas Massie (R., Ky.), a libertarian, objected, demanding a roll-call vote. To defeat his motion, 216 congressmen had to come back to the House chamber. Under normal circumstances, Massie would surely have been right to want a roll-call vote on a $2 trillion bill — just as, under normal circumstances, he would have been right to oppose a big-spending bill. The House should have made provision for remote voting in exceptional cases. But the outcome of the vote was foreordained; voters had access to every congressman’s position on the question; and requiring members to travel was a risk to public health. The ideologue, unlike the statesman, will insist on his principle at just the wrong time.
• Congressional debates over the relief bill were held up by several sticking points, one of which was whether Planned Parenthood would be eligible for federal money under the legislation. Democrats fought to extend aid to the abortion provider, but Republicans and pro-life groups won out: The new law’s language about nonprofit affiliates seems to exclude Planned Parenthood from receiving forgivable small-business loans. Good: The organization gets too much federal money as it is.
• As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in the U.S., several states are taking action to keep residents home and limit the spread of the disease. In Texas, Ohio, Alabama, and elsewhere, lawmakers have deemed elective abortions “non-essential” procedures in an effort to enforce social distancing and conserve necessary medical supplies for treating patients with the coronavirus. Abortion providers and their legal allies have sued. There is no Supreme Court precedent directly on point, doubtless because it had never occurred to even the most creative jurist that the Constitution exempts abortion from emergency measures in an epidemic.
• Triage strategies formulated by public-health officials in Alabama and Washington State have provoked sharp criticism. Under the Alabama plan, people with intellectual disabilities, including dementia, were classified as “unlikely candidates” for ventilators. In Washington, patients with “loss of reserves in energy, physical ability, cognition and general health” were targeted for possible transfer from the hospital to outpatient or palliative care. Advocates for people with disabilities in both states filed complaints with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services. The office has issued a bulletin reminding the public of laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability or age. “Our civil rights laws protect the equal dignity of every human life from ruthless utilitarianism,” said the OCR director, Roger Severino. “Persons with disabilities, with limited English skills, and older persons should not be put at the end of the line for health care during emergencies.” He explained that the office was not dictating to states how to allocate care but only reaffirming that any rationing standards must comply with civil-rights law. They should comply as well with the moral principles that make our civilization worth preserving in the first place.
• Shortages of surgical masks and respirators have many Americans wondering whether we should have protected more of our manufacturing base from trade. It is certainly true that the U.S. has a national interest in ensuring ready access to supplies that are vital to public health and to defense, whether from within the country or from diverse friendly countries. While trade can promote that goal, especially by driving down costs, allowing Chinese dominance in masks was a mistake (probably one made out of inattention more than ideology). New production of protective equipment in the U.S. also has to pass stringent regulatory review. But it’s also true that even the most intelligent policies are not going to produce the optimal amount of supplies for a historically unprecedented epidemic. We would in any case have to resort to such measures as repurposing existing factories. We should begin preparing to stockpile vital supplies and, yes, rethink some trade policies. Like our doctors, we will need a scalpel and not a sledgehammer.
• There is such a thing as coronavirus machismo — a skeptical or devil-may-care attitude toward the pandemic. Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va., exhibits this machismo. Defying national norms, he brought his students back from spring break. Almost 2,000 of them returned, and more than 800 soon left. How many had the virus, it’s hard to tell. Marybeth Davis Baggett, a professor of English, wrote an open letter to the university’s board of trustees, asking them to close the campus. On Twitter, Falwell referred to her as “the ‘Baggett’ lady.” Addressing Falwell, Jeff Brittain tweeted, “I’m as right wing as they get, bud. But as a parent of three of your students, I think this is crazy, irresponsible and seems like a money grab.” In his reply, Falwell called him a “dummy.” Machismo in this time is not only silly but potentially fatal.
• The Supreme Court reaffirmed in 1998 (Saenz v. Roe) that Americans have a constitutional right to travel between states. Though not spelled out as such in the Constitution, the right is so deeply ingrained in the formation of the Union that it is deemed “virtually unconditional.” Ah, but there’s that word: virtually. No right is absolute. Even fundamental rights must yield to the degree necessary to vindicate legitimate government interests, such as preventing the spread of infectious disease. The coronavirus outbreak illustrates this tension. As the Court explained, the right to travel includes “the right to be treated as a welcome visitor rather than an unfriendly alien when temporarily present” in the host state. Yet states such as Rhode Island have threatened to detain and force quarantines on out-of-state visitors from such “hot spot” states as New York. It is for the federal government, not the states, to regulate interstate travel. While states may restrict intrastate travel, they may not subject citizens of other states to restrictions more onerous than their own face. That said, if state authorities have reasonable grounds to believe a person is infected, they must be able to test and, if necessary, quarantine.
• Gallup recently asked Americans whether they approved or disapproved of how U.S. leaders and institutions have been handling the coronavirus pandemic. Only one group, the news media, ended up with more people disapproving of it (55 percent) than approving (44 percent). Donald Trump — who the press corps seems to be convinced is failing the task — has a 60 percent approval rating on coronavirus. Vice President Mike Pence, the CDC, and even Congress are rated far higher than journalists. While conservatives might celebrate the public’s rejection of the media, the fact that Americans are unable to trust the fourth estate as a reliable source of information during a time of crisis is a problem. In a vacuum of trust, people are more vulnerable to quacks or erroneous information. Some of this perilous situation was created by the president’s scattershot denunciation of media, but plenty of blame falls on the laps of journalists, who even now are preoccupied with gotchas, political correctness, and partisan squabbles. Let’s hope everyone learns a lesson.
• The people of Venezuela are unlucky in manifold ways, and lucky only in one: The Trump administration is actively opposed to the dictatorship that rules them. The Justice Department indicted Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s dictator, for narco-terrorism and drug trafficking. The State Department offered a $15 million reward for information leading to his arrest. In addition to indicting Maduro, the Justice Department indicted an array of Venezuelan officials, plus members of the FARC, the Colombian narco-terrorist group. Some critics say that these moves prevent a negotiated exit for Maduro and his gang, denying them a “soft landing” and thereby forcing them to hang on till the bitter end. But they appear to have been doing this anyway. The administration acted boldly, and may this boldness pay off.
• Israeli politics much resemble professional wrestling, in which losers seem ready to be taken away in an ambulance only to end the contest in the same good shape as the winner. Three general elections in the last twelve months have failed to produce a winner and a loser, so that deadlock appears to be a permanent condition. Veteran prime minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu and his Likud Party are supposedly on the right and his foremost opponent Benny Gantz, former chief of staff and founder of the Blue and White Party, is supposedly on the left, but it takes specialists in split hairs to differentiate most of their policies — with one vital exception. For the first time in the country’s history, Arab members of the Knesset have come together in a so-called joint list in numbers that give them the role of king-makers. If they could, they would abolish the State of Israel, for which reason Bibi and Likud refuse to have them in coalition. When Blue and White split on the issue, Gantz had no choice except to agree to a government of national unity. In a similar fix in the past, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres set a precedent for such an outcome. For the moment, the usual haggling over posts obscures who gets what and on which terms. The Left is screaming that Bibi is mounting a palace coup and Gantz is making a shameful surrender. In plain fact, reality wins again.
• Anthony Fauci, the 79-year-old physician and immunologist, is having a moment. George H. W. Bush called him a hero in 1988, but until the COVID-19 outbreak, most Americans had been fortunate enough to remain unaware of his quiet diligence. He has again risen to the occasion, a reliable font of clarity in a confusing time. Donuts Delite, a pastry shop in Rochester, N.Y., has landed on a way to thank him: by making a doughnut with Fauci’s face on it. “We noticed Dr. Fauci on [TV], and we loved his message and how thorough he was, and how he kept everyone informed during the crisis, . . . so we wanted to give back and say thanks,” owner Nick Semeraro told CNN. The doughnuts are selling well. And even though Fauci is a lifelong runner who credits the pastime for his physical vitality and mental clarity, he likely appreciates the gesture. After all, as one of Fauci’s former running buddies told the Wall Street Journal, “if you run every day for five miles, you can basically eat a cow.”
• Capitalism is endlessly adaptable. With virtually no sports left in action, America’s strapped bookmakers are finding all sorts of unconventional events to satisfy the nation’s hard-core gamblers — even presidential press conferences. Bookies, like everyone else, have noticed that when President Trump speaks in public, he uses a rather limited vocabulary and tends to repeat himself. So now a Las Vegas firm has compiled a set of proposition wagers on how often Trump will speak certain words and phrases in a single coronavirus briefing. “We’re doing a great job” has an over/under of 2.5; “best” is 5.5; “more tests than any other country” is 9.5; and the omnibus “fantastic, incredible, amazing or tremendous” gets a whopping 24.5. It’s all meant (at least partially) to make fun of Trump, but if this catches on, it could make thousands of voters tune in to his press conferences and focus intently on every word.
• In New York, “three healthy twentysomethings,” as they describe themselves, have started a volunteer service dedicated to running errands for “those in high-risk demographics,” primarily the elderly. Liam Elkind, one of the founders, saw his father working tirelessly as a doctor in the crush of the pandemic. “I figured, okay, I can buy some groceries,” Elkind said. “That I can do.” He and his team sent the word out on social media. They built a website. They posted flyers in several languages. They call themselves “Invisible Hands.” Within 72 hours, they had signed up 1,300 volunteers. They’re duly cautious, insisting on social distancing and ample hand-washing, but providing human contact to the extent possible, if only by phone. Elkin told reporters that he hoped they would become obsolete. He added that he does not think, however, that “the need for social connection or for helping out your neighbor or for making new friends ever goes away.”
• Kenny Rogers knew when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. In the mid 1960s he was a member of the New Christy Minstrels, a folk ensemble. As the folk scene began to fade, he folded his hand and left to form a band called The First Edition, with a psychedelic and anti-war slant. As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, Rogers, now in his 30s, dropped the hippie angle and shifted increasingly to mainstream pop (while also appearing in a memorably cheesy 1970s commercial for the Quick Pickin’, Fun Strummin’ Home Guitar Course). Then, in 1978, he recorded “The Gambler” — and remained a country(ish) artist for the rest of his days, while parlaying his Gambler character into a series of movies and opening a restaurant chain bearing his name. He did some holding and folding in his personal life too; after four unsuccessful marriages, he got hitched to Wanda Miller in 1997 and stayed with her until his recent death at 81. R.I.P.
• Who was the last great composer? Shostakovich (d. 1975)? Britten (d. 1976)? It is possible that Krzysztof Penderecki will be ranked among the greats, or near greats. He will certainly be rated highly, as he long has been. He was a Pole, born in 1933. That means he grew up in the war. This ever marked him, obviously. Penderecki wrote a variety of music, including symphonies, operas, and concertos. In his younger years, he was attracted to a severe modernism. But gradually he loosened, and broadened. “I was saved from the avant-garde snare of formalism by a return to tradition,” he once remarked. Penderecki influenced many younger composers, and he was unusually admired by performers. In 2009, our Jay Nordlinger interviewed Lorin Maazel, the great conductor, and asked him, “Who’s good today, among composers?” Immediately, Maazel said, “Penderecki.” Then he paused a long while — thinking — before naming anyone else. Many other top musicians said “Penderecki” first too. Krzysztof Penderecki — not an easy name for non-Poles — has died at 86. R.I.P.
• Curly Neal, virtuoso ballhandler and point guard for the storied Harlem Globetrotters, joined the team in 1963, fresh from a stellar college basketball career in North Carolina, where he was still known as Fred, before his shaved head had earned him his nickname. Over the next 22 years he played in thousands of games in nearly 100 countries. For a generation he served, or rather shone, as the face of the act, to which he lent his spirit, and vice versa. Sliding to his knees and then rising as he dribbled in circles around other players, up and down the court, he did things the hard way, for fun, and made it look easy. With an athleticism that concealed his athleticism, he would dazzle the crowd and then mix his stunts with occasional slapstick humor. In 2008 the Globetrotters retired his number, 22. “We weren’t just entertainers,” he wrote in 2015. “I truly believe that we helped ease many of the tensions that pulled at the country. It didn’t matter if you were black, white or whatever — laughing and enjoying our games made those barriers disappear.” Dead at 77. R.I.P.
• How easy it is to vote for “something that sounds good,” Tom Coburn told the New York Times. “It is hard to stand against it and say there is a bigger principle.” A fiscal hawk, Coburn made his mark in the Senate by opposing spending bills. “Dr. No,” they called him. He called out government waste. “You cannot negotiate with Coburn,” his colleague Harry Reid (D., Nev.) remarked — high praise, in Coburn’s book. Before running for Congress in 1994, he was an obstetrician. He delivered 4,000 babies. He served in the House through 2000, keeping his promise to leave after three terms. Elected to the Senate from Oklahoma in 2004, he became fast friends with the freshman senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. Coburn, a full-spectrum conservative, on social as well as economic issues, observed that “the interesting friendships are the ones that are divergent.” In 2007, he voted twice against funding the Iraq War. His health flagging, he retired from the Senate in 2015, before the end of his second term, and served as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His largely unheeded message of fiscal conservatism has never been timelier. Dead at 72. R.I.P.
• Presidential campaigns are dedicated to selling their candidates as colossi bestriding history. But such efforts are the product of the men and women behind the scenes, without whom any campaign would collapse. Such a man was John Patrick Sears. Born on July 3, 1940, in Syracuse, N.Y., Sears managed his first presidential campaign in college, helping a friend become class president at Notre Dame. Law school and a court clerkship eventually brought him to Richard Nixon’s law firm. He worked for the former vice president in various capacities, helping to manage his 1968 presidential campaign and ultimately securing a White House post. But Sears got along poorly in the Nixon White House, something that redounded to his advantage when he was forced out well before the Watergate scandal destroyed it. Uncorrupted, he remained a force behind the scenes in Republican politics, helping to engineer Ronald Reagan’s near-win in the 1976 primary and the early stages of his eventual victory four years later. But the behind-the-scenes operator fell out behind the scenes again, and Reagan bounced him from the campaign. Thirty-nine then, the man Lou Cannon called “the resident mastermind of Republican politics” had worked for his last candidate. Dead at 79. R.I.P.
• Richard Reeves was trained as an engineer but gave it up after a year to go into journalism. The 1960s were a fertile time for someone interested in politics and social trends, and by the end of the decade he had worked his way up to a plum job at the New York Times. He was best known for writing about presidents, in his syndicated column, newspaper and magazine articles, and well-researched biographies of presidents from Kennedy to George W. Bush. Over the years, Reeves came to embody the Washington liberal consensus, but toward the end of his career he softened some of his opinions, admitting in a 1996 American Heritage article that he had been wrong to criticize Gerald Ford for his pardon of Richard Nixon. Reeves’s biography of Ronald Reagan was critical but even-handed and understanding, which earned it some hostile reviews, but he had nothing good to say about Nixon or George W. Bush. Dead at 83. R.I.P.
• NR joins our longtime friend and contributor Terry Teachout in mourning the death of his wife, Hilary. He is familiar to our readers, as he is to readers pretty much everywhere. She had a sharp mind, a ready wit, when necessary a tart tongue, and a bright countenance. One deed illuminates the whole: She gave him, on one birthday, a necktie formerly owned by the composer and critic Virgil Thomson: the perfect gift, signifying her love of the recipient and her knowledge of just what would please. She was also, as Terry said, tough as an old boot, which she needed, having endured for years the lung ailment that finally took her. Her memory, in the hearts of all who knew her, will be even more tenacious. R.I.P.
First and Foremost, Defeat the Virus
If President Trump is right that the fight against the coronavirus is the equivalent of a war, we need to focus first and foremost on defeating the enemy.
That means, as an urgent priority, getting hospitals the protective gear and ventilators that they need to keep from getting overwhelmed by the surge of patients in places like New York City and New Orleans, with staff pushed to the brink and refrigerated trucks parked outside awaiting bodies. It means continuing with the lockdowns as long as necessary, despite the terrible cost. And it means coming up with a post-lockdown regime that will allow us to open for business as soon as possible, even as the virus is still with us.
It’s a sign of seriousness in meeting the need for hospital equipment that President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act — the Korean War–era law allowing the government to direct the manufacture and distribution of goods necessary for the national defense — to compel General Motors to make ventilators on an emergency basis.
The action came after a typically confusing back-and-forth over GM. If a report in the New York Times was to be believed, the $1 billion price tag of a potential deal with GM for the ventilators caused the administration to have second thoughts. The Times also reported that the administration worried about getting saddled with too many unused ventilators, a concern that accorded with President Trump’s statement on Fox News that he doubted that New York City would really need 30,000 ventilators.
At the end of this, though, if we have kept hospitals from getting swamped at the cost of paying top dollar for gear and buying too much of it, our response will have been a success well worth the price.
As bad as the escalating numbers of cases and fatalities have been in recent weeks, the situation is surely going to deteriorate further. Besides fortifying the medical system, the massive scale-up in testing has to continue and every exertion must be made to develop and deploy therapies as soon as possible. The roll-out of a test by Abbott Laboratories that can reveal a positive in five minutes is a sign of the role technological innovation can play.
The hope that Trump briefly expressed about opening up the economy again by Easter weekend was understandable, but nothing is truly going to open up — nor should it — unless we have clearly gotten a handle on the virus and its spread has begun to wane. Trump backed off the Easter date, in part in reaction to sobering estimates from the government’s experts that even in a best case, 100,000 people or more may die in the epidemic.
The shutdowns have their critics on the right. It’s important to remember, though, that the disease itself is imposing an economic cost. It would have caused a recession regardless of government policy. Would New York City restaurants really be full if it weren’t for the Governor Cuomo–ordered lockdown? Would people be eager to get on airplanes? To book a cruise? To see a Broadway show? To go to Disneyland? If the disease had been left unchecked, it would have exacted an enormous price, in lives of the infected, in the breakdown of the hospital system, in the follow-on effects on people ill with conditions that would have gone untreated.
More important than coming up with an aspirational date for a return to normalcy is thinking through what our post-lockdown strategy will look like — how testing, masks, contact tracing, and other methods will be deployed to allow a return to economic and social activity without risking a major second wave of infections. Life in a place such as New York City may not look the same for a long time.
President Trump has gotten a bump in the polls recently, perhaps a rally-around-the-flag effect or a reaction to his briefings, where new measures are announced every day. We suspect that his mini-bounce would be even higher if he could at least stop warring with governors and shooting at his critics during this interlude. Trump should know that how he responds in this moment will define his presidency and determine his odds of reelection.
We hope and expect that our country will, in its characteristic fashion, find its way through this crisis by marshaling huge resources, discovering innovations, and relying on the incredible courage and initiative of medical personnel, grocery-store clerks, and countless millions of others who make our civil society so robust. But the worst is yet to come.
Relief from Congress
What Congress passed was not a stimulus. We have often opposed stimulus bills in the past, considering it a mistake for the federal government to borrow money to expand a depressed economy. At the moment, though, the government is not trying to expand the economy or even arrest its contraction. It is principally trying to enable the temporary shutdown of much of the economy with the least human damage.
The legislation should be judged on whether it aids efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus, aids the treatment of the infected, relieves those adversely affected by it and the fight against it, and supports the overall economy. These purposes, as we noted in our last issue, sometimes overlap and sometimes conflict. They also call for placing speed ahead of efficiency, and both ahead of mere partisan objectives.
Congressional Democrats did not rise to this occasion. They saw an opportunity to advance goals on the environment, racial diversity, and Planned Parenthood funding that, whatever their other merits, do not belong in this bill. And they were willing to slow down the process for the sake of these goals.
Some Republicans also lost perspective, albeit less crassly. They feared that the expansion of unemployment insurance in the bill is too generous and will incentivize quitting or refusing to take work. Under normal circumstances, we would share this concern. But at the moment we should be more focused on helping the unemployed — especially since the rules of unemployment insurance discourage the gaming of the system, however imperfectly, and this expansion is temporary. (Congress has let temporary expansions expire before.)
The bill’s rebates — $1,200 for singles and $2,400 for married couples, up to an income limit beyond which the value declines eventually to zero — are not especially well designed. The income limits are based on previous years’ income, which means that some people who need help won’t get it. It would have been better to give the rebates to everyone and count them as income for the taxes collected next year. But they will mitigate some near-term hardship.
The provisions to support businesses, small and large, are especially valuable. Businesses cannot be expected to have saved enough money to weather a once-in-a-lifetime pathogen. The public has an interest in their being able to pay ongoing expenses during this crisis and to resume as viable enterprises once it ends. The legislation stipulates that businesses receiving loans may not pay dividends or conduct stock buybacks for several years. This is faddish thinking, and there are better ways to protect taxpayer interests and keep existing shareholders from making windfall gains.
The law that passed is far from perfect. The enormous spending involved would be easier to stomach if legislators and presidents had shown greater restraint before this crisis hit or showed at any time any interest in getting the national debt on a sustainable trajectory. But we will heed our own stricture. The support for business, the relief for individuals, and the expansion of medical capacity are all urgent matters. They justify a bill that, in a happier time, nobody would consider, and we ourselves would vehemently reject.
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