Moving the Shutdown Goal Posts
Liberals try to set Trump up to take the blame for any further coronavirus deaths.
By Kimberley A. Strassel
April 16, 2020 7:00 pm ET
Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Washington, Feb. 6.
The shutdown came. The shutdown conquered. Long live the shutdown.
That’s the line congressional Democrats and liberal journalists are now adopting, as they set new battle lines in the pandemic debate. The Trump administration might have thought the hard call was shutting down the U.S. economy. The left intends to make reopening it far harder, lacing it with political risk by raising the bar for “success” to fantasy heights.
“Speaker Nancy Pelosi lashed President Donald Trump during a private call with her caucus Monday, saying he was putting Americans in grave danger if he rushes to reopen the economy at the end of this month,” reported Politico this week. The article laid out Mrs. Pelosi’s requirement: Until a robust “testing and contact tracing” system is in place, “it would be impossible for the president to guarantee Americans a safe reentry into their normal life.”
The Covid-19 pandemic will cost thousands of lives and cause a sharp economic recession. WSJ Opinion’s Paul Gigot and Kimberley Strassel, with guests Marie Harf and columnist Karl Rove, joined “Opinion Live” on April 14th to discuss how America is mobilizing against this challenge, the social and economic lockdown, the response from business and governments, and the impact on the election.Click here to watch the Q&A Video replay.
Congressional Democrats are meanwhile debating their “own plan to reopen the nation,” said Politico, with legislation that would ask “each state to submit a plan” and that “would also require adequate testing and contact tracing to prevent a second outbreak.” The Washington Post reports that “Trump has been so insistent on the reopening that some officials worry only a narrow window exists to provide information to change his mind or to ensure that the effort to reopen does not significantly add to the country’s rising number of infections and deaths.”
By these standards, no lockdown may end until the Trump administration can “guarantee” a “safe” world in which people return to “normal.” The feds must stand up a testing system capable of hunting down and snuffing out each new infection. There can be no more outbreaks, and reopening cannot “significantly add” to existing counts (and the press reserves the authority to define “significantly.”) The unsaid corollary is that Mr. Trump will be held politically responsible for reopening in any way that fails to meet these baselines—on the hook for each subsequent death.
Talk about moving goalposts. A month ago, the administration announced its 15-day plan to “flatten the curve” and “slow the spread” of the virus. Examine those phrases. The goal of the shutdown was never to eradicate the disease—an impossibility absent a vaccine. The lockdown was designed to buy the health sector time, to make sure all the cases didn’t hit at once in a crush that would overwhelm hospitals, à la Italy.
In that regard, the Trump administration has become a victim of its own success. The guidelines did flatten the curve. As ugly as the outbreak has been, even New York City and other hot spots have had enough ventilators. Numerous emergency field hospitals ended up sitting empty. The lockdown has been so effective that it has allowed Mr. Trump’s political opponents to lay out a false narrative of what counts as “victory.”
The political cynicism is extraordinary. The liberal cognoscenti can read the scientific data as well as anyone; all of it makes clear this battle is far from over. While widespread testing may help, it won’t eradicate the virus. They also know even another month of lockdown, much less the year needed for a vaccine, would mean severe stress for the economy. Reopening must go forward, and that will by necessity mean more outbreaks, more cases, more deaths. That was always going to happen in a pandemic. Yet Mrs. Pelosi sees in this moment a political opportunity to pin the blame for the natural course of a disease on the White House.
The administration spent this week working on a plan for reopening, holding calls with business leaders and governors, and tapping experts for a new task force. It understands it needs to get this right. Come Election Day, Mr. Trump is likely to be judged more on the success of his efforts to get the economy back on track than on the shutdown itself. That means opening in a way that doesn’t instantly lurch the country into a second “peak infection” scenario, which would inspire calls for a second debilitating shutdown.
What’s missing from the White House reopening plan—and what is urgently required—is management of expectations. The administration needs to keep reminding the country of the original mission—to flatten the curve. And it needs to define quickly its own measure of success. That means explaining the limitations of even a wide-scale testing regime, preparing the country for continued rising death tolls, and warning that this virus is going to be with us for many months to come. It also means enlisting governors to help in delivering that message, as well as to share in the responsibility and rewards of reopening.
No politician likes to deliver hard truths, but that’s a far better strategy for this pandemic than stepping into the trap Democrats are laying.