She would’ve responded competently, but Federalism and partisanship in an election year would have doomed us all
Imagine it is late January, 2020; just a week or so before the Iowa Caucuses, and the GOP campaign to nominate a challenger to an unpopular incumbent President Hillary Clinton is well underway. Candidates are getting big crowds at rallies, excitement is through the roof, polls are showing the leading candidates competitive or beating the incumbent.
Then President Clinton gets the 3 a.m. phone call. The virus that is infecting thousands in Wuhan, China has arrived in the United States. A man in Washington State who was recently in Wuhan tested positive for COVID-19. President Clinton activates the Pandemic Response Team and tests are sent to Seattle and other entry points around the country.
Hospitals begin testing patients who arrive at the ER with flu-like symptoms, and positive cases pop up in California, New York, Chicago and Boston. Within days, it is clear there are already thousands of cases in the United States. The CDC and White House huddle together and decide to begin to suggest restrictions on mass gatherings, contact tracing and other mitigation efforts, and perhaps, if it came to it, lockdowns.
With just days until the first GOP caucuses and primaries, President Clinton goes on national television and announces new CDC guidelines that ban mass gatherings and social distancing measures.
What are the odds these measures would have been met with cooperation from her opponents? A (likely embattled) Democratic president running for reelection is curtailing the right to assemble just days and weeks before key primary elections. Hell, let’s face it, its entirely plausible that she would’ve faced a left-wing primary challenger, so not only would she be curtailing some freedoms right before GOP primaries, but Democratic ones too.
Unquestionably the Glenn Greenwalds and Cenk Uygers of the world, along with right wing pundits and her potential opponents, some of whom would be governors of states in the line of fire from COVID-19, would say it is politics: She’s afraid of how many people are showing up at rallies. She’s trying to quell uprisings against her. She’s colluding with China on a bioweapon engineered to get herself reelected.
Under a Hillary Clinton presidency, it is almost certain the 2018 Midterm Elections would have gone differently. Republicans would still hold Congress and would hold many governorships of states that were hard hid and had Democratic governors that responded with tough measures; states such as Louisiana, Michigan, Colorado, Connecticut and perhaps Illinois, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. These Republican governors who would likely been politically pressured to oppose the guidelines and recommendations from an unpopular Democratic president up for reelection. Further, they would have seen a pandemic, with widespread death and economic destruction, just before a Democratic presidents’ reelection as manna from heaven. After 12 years of Democratic rule, they are given the key to winning the 2020 election on a silver platter, and they finally have an opportunity to do the thing they’ve been trying to do for three decades – end Hillary Clinton’s career in disgrace.
Since the start of the pandemic, progressives and Democrats, and pretty much anyone with a brain, have blamed Donald Trump for his sheer incompetence and lack of response to the pandemic. Certainly his pathetic excuse for a response, and successive screwups, are probably the greatest domestic blunder by a president since James Buchanan allowed Kansas to enter the union as a slave state, which helped trigger the Civil War.
The justified and rational desire among progressives and Democrats to lay the blame for America’s failure to curb the COVID-19 pandemic entirely at the feet of Donald Trump should not get in the way of recognizing and acknowledging how the very structure of the United States doomed it anyway. There was never going to be any nationwide consensus and cooperation on a strategy to suppress the virus and eradicate it, and there never will be.
This week, DailyKos, a well-known liberal blog, featured a front page article by writer Mark Sumner, who engaged in a bit of Harry Turtledove-esque historical fiction. In the post, he outlines what a potential response under Hillary Clinton would have looked like. In this parallel universe, the pandemic ended with just about 100,000 people infected and around 12,000 dead (verses the 3 million+ and 130,000 respectively and growing we are at now). By July, Hillary’s America is COVID-free and the economy is roaring back and she’s on a path to reelection. You can read his piece here.
But because that’s how it COULD have been is exactly why it WOULD NOT have been.
Summer’s storyline suggests that President Clinton would have tasked the Internal Revenue Service with contact tracing back in January. Does anyone really believe the conspiracy theory-ladened American public, both left and right, would cooperate with contact tracers from the IRS authorized by Hillary Clinton? A significant portion of this country believed she ran a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizzeria!
Sumner suggests that she would have “worked with Congress” to stockpile PPE and testing equipment. On what planet does anyone think a Republican Congress would cooperate with her on anything? Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy and Republican leaders have all to gain for tying her hands and letting it all go to crap. Sumner also suggests that Clinton would have called for a nationwide shutdown. Sure, but as we learned already, that’s the call of the governors. Does anyone really believe Republican governors would willing follow her call to shutdown? Further, why would Republican governors in Michigan and Louisiana (both early hotspots) follow her orders when they benefit politically from letting people in Detroit and New Orleans die? What’s a few thousand less Democratic voters? Especially in competitive Michigan.
As we saw in the early 2010s, there is no length Republicans won’t go to hurt people, even their own voters, to gain and retain power.
Put all that up against the reality that a defeated Donald Trump would not have gone away. He’d be just as much the media magnet as he had been in office. His hysterics and Tweets would still make headlines. His new television and internet network would run 24/7 with conspiracy theories and crackpot arguments that would rile 30 to 40 percent of the population against the president’s measures. You think the protests against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer were bad, wait until you see nationwide protests against President Hillary Clinton with no masks and no social distancing. Could Hillary respond with brute force?
And therein lies our next problem. Lockdowns in other parts of the world were strict. In Italy and France, people couldn’t leave the house without permission. In China, apartment doors were welded shut. Peru, the Philippines and Panama had armed soldiers roaming the street threatening to shoot anyone violating curfew. Most notably, several nations, including Italy, Canada, Australia and China, cut off travel into and out of hotspots, or in some cases, completely. Canada’s provincial borders are still closed.
American courts have ruled several times going back to 1823 that Americans have a Constitutional right to travel, meaning there was no way for the federal government to close state borders and limit domestic travel. This precedent was set by the Supreme Court as far back as 1869. They could shut down the airspace, but not land borders. We also couldn’t require people stay in their homes and enforce it legally – New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said as much in March. Martial law, as defined by the Posse Comitatus Act, is limited to only when law enforcement is unable to function and lawlessness and anarchy are at risk; such as when a natural disaster, riot or act of war has destroyed police precincts and jails. But martial law comes at a price – namely the suspension of habeas corpus and basic civil rights. In this situation, the virus was not preventing police from doing their jobs and any use of martial law would have had to be approved by Congress and authorized by the federal government. Would Mitch McConnell be willing to make Hillary Clinton a temporary dictator? Not a chance
As it is, Democratic Governors Tony Evers of Wisconsin and Andy Beshear of Kentucky have seen courts roll back some of their strictest mitigation regulations already, signaling that it is likely any stricter lockdown would meet judicial opposition.
And even if we could do a European- or Chinese-style lockdown here, would we really want to considering the state of law enforcement in this country? Imagine our police and military with the free range to stop and brutalize anyone they wish? Especially during a pandemic that is hitting black and brown communities the hardest. It would have been a green light for excessive force and police brutality. Look how badly police abused the curfews during the post-George Floyd protests and unrest in early June. Imagine that, but nationally and for months. Imagine how many black men and women would be arrested – or worse – just for going to the store or pharmacy and crossing a power-hungry cop in an election year? How many would contract and die of COVID-19 anyway in holding cells?
It’s worth noting that few countries anywhere in the world have handled this “well.” South Korea, Australia, Germany, Hong Kong and New Zealand get kudos, but all are playing whack-a-mole with small outbreaks. Australia has gone so far as to reinstitute local lockdown measures – including putting poor immigrants in public housing under a two-week house arrest. Iceland and Taiwan have so far avoided any resurgence, but both are islands with few points of entry and both have had to shut down their borders for a long period of time.
We are not Iceland or Taiwan. We aren’t any of the other countries either. Our confusing patchwork of federal, state and local governments, and incoherent rules over who controls what, isn’t set up to handle something like a pandemic. That requires a steady, focus, centralized response and willingness to give up individual rights and privileges that are safeguarded in our Constitution. That, melded with our inability to come to a national consensus, even on basic facts, and because the pandemic would be occurring in a presidential election year where Republicans would be trying to break their longest losing streak in 75 years, makes it impossible for me to fathom we’d summon the will, or even the sheer ability, to tackle the virus; even if Hillary Clinton, or another individual who actually did the job, was president.
Now none of this means Donald Trump is exonerated. No way. In fact, Trump would have been in a better position than Hillary to forge a national consensus because the Democrats were more interested in proactive action than Republicans, and the latter would have to do whatever he says out of party loyalty. Trump would not have faced any serious opposition to contact tracing or a national shutdown. He did neither, or really anything else at all.
There are many things about America that are great. One of them is the extent of our freedoms and the Constitution that puts it all into writing – when it is correctly and equally applied of course – but there are drawbacks to that. Among them is our ability to control a disease easily transmittable by, well, humans being free.