Danger ahead, rudder right

National crises have often served to unite this country against the common enemy. But that’s not how things have been working of late, as leaders of both parties have sought to play the coronavirus pandemic for their own political advantage. The partisan divide keeps getting deeper, 4/20/20.

Perhaps George W. Bush hoped to help recapture the eerily cooperative mood that prevailed in DC for about six months after the 9/11 attack. In any case, he recently fronted an appeal for national solidarity. Video (2:47),
5/3/20.

The opening screen read “A message from President George W. Bush,” and ensuing scenes of the coronavirus pandemic (narrated by Bush) were supplemented with flashbacks of the former president comforting the grieving in 2001. No current political leaders were mentioned, and the video ended on a lofty note.

“In the final analysis, we are not partisan combatants. We are all human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together, and we are determined to rise. God bless you all.”

President Trump slammed the video, which garnered over 4 million views, but there wasn’t much said about it by others.

Perceptions of the coronavirus pandemic have been thoroughly politicized, and will predictably endure in coming months. Republicans expect to be at a major disadvantage in November if the nation isn’t on the path to recovery by then, whereas Democrats secretly hope that the pandemic will drag on a bit longer.

The president made his case for recovery in a virtual townhall, which was broadcast by Fox News (Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum) on the evening of May 3. Some of the points seemed dubious, but the overall thrust (Section I) struck us as about right and the opposition’s plan (Section II) doesn’t seem any better. Here’s our report.

I. America Together: Returning to Work – This virtual townhall attracted an estimated 3.8 million viewers, handily besting CNN and MSNBC in the time slot. The audience only amounted to 2% of eligible US voters, however, and was dwarfed by on-line viewership (34 million, all channels) for the 2/4/20 State of the Union address. Perhaps Americans weren’t anxious to hear the president’s thoughts about the pandemic or, after numerous coronavirus briefings, thought they knew what he would say.

President Trump was sitting by himself in the massive chamber, facing Brett Baier & Martha MacCallum, with the seated statute of Abraham Lincoln towering above them. He would be joined by the vice president and Treasury secretary towards the end.

The president fielded a series of questions, some from the hosts and others from Americans around the country (via previously recorded videos). The questions were diverse, but there was an overarching theme: expressing concerns or finding fault versus seeking enlightenment. Transcript, rev.com,
5/3/20.

#Brett Baier asked the first question, a double-barreled one: “What do you say (a Fox News catch phrase) to people “who are scared to go back to work,” and to other people “who are really angry about these lingering closures.”

The president’s answer threaded the needle. People who were scared could get back in the swing of things gradually, especially if they were 60+, while people who wanted to resume their normal routines could get on with it. Look at all those demonstrations, big stuff! But everyone was a bit scared, and it was terrible what had happened to our country.

OK, good start, but no one could reasonably have expected the president to offer coherent and logical answers to all of the questions (about four dozen) that were asked. With apologies to Abraham Lincoln, it was almost as though Fox News was out to prove the truth of this proposition:

You can please some of the people all of the time; you can please all of the
people some of the time; but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.


#A single mother in Coleman, Alabama had lost her job and was accepting charity to feed her children. No “stimulus payment” or unemployment compensation had been received yet. What advice did the president have for her and others in the same situation?

Trump: This wasn’t her fault, and there would be help coming. “We're going to do more, and everybody wants to do more,” and she would not only get her job back but get a better job. The president went on to say shutdown policies had saved “millions of lives,” but now it was time to reopen the economy, acting safely but moving quickly.

#MacCallum said Japan had not imposed as broad a shutdown as the US, yet had only suffered 500 deaths from the coronavirus. Did the president ever look back and wonder whether our shutdown had been carried too far?

Trump demurred, saying that without the shutdown the loss of US lives would have been in the 1-2 million range whereas as matters stood the death toll would hopefully be less than 100,000. He also expressed personal feelings about the deaths of three friends.

“So you think you've learned from this,” Baier chimed in. “How you've dealt with it now, if it comes up in the fall, you'll do something different?”

The president hedged, saying “we'll put out the embers, we'll put out whatever it may be.”

#A small business owner (Soupergirl, Washington, DC) was hoping for federal protocols for testing programs – Baier asked whether the federal response to the coronavirus was really a great success story as son-in-law Jared Kushner had claimed – Baier asked about a statement Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan had made on a talk show that morning re her state not receiving enough testing supplies – a man from Grand Island, Nebraska who had recovered from COVID-19 after taking remdesivir asked what would be “put in place to make sure there’s enough of this drug available for everybody” – an algebra teacher in Virginia was anxious to have her students back in a physical classroom – a middle school student was worried about a second wave of the disease if the schools reopened.

#Another big goal was reopening colleges and universities in the fall. The president cited the head of Purdue [Mitch Daniels], who is currently planning a fall reopening. Of course, it would be great to come up with therapeutics and a vaccine first, but that shouldn’t be a prerequisite.

#Baier reminded the president about his former touting of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) as a therapeutic. Then some studies had come out “questioning the cardiac tie,” after which “you stopped talking about it.”

Trump declined to disavow HCQ, and indicated disappointment with medical professionals who had sought to limit its use. “They don't want to see a good result, and that's very sad.”

#A woman from New Jersey wanted to know why the president hadn’t acted sooner when the threat of the coronavirus was included in his daily intelligence briefings for weeks before the first confirmed case in the US - MacCallum asked why 40,000 people from Wuhan, China were admitted after the Chinese travel ban was ordered, and if these people were tested on entry, “who tested them, and where?”

#Baier quoted a line from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address (in 1864), which was engraved on the wall. Now the nation was divided again, and “your choice, even, of this hallowed place for this virtual townhall is creating controversy, criticism. What do you say to people who say this is not the right venue for this?”

Trump: He didn’t know about controversy, why should there be any? [Baier didn’t elaborate.] As he recalled, Fox News had suggested the site although he had willingly agreed. And everybody seemed out to get him, from the impeachment hoax earlier to the situation now where “we haven't even started [the economic relief effort], and they [House Democrats] have all these committees looking for trouble.”

#MacCallum asked about the ethics or risk involved in attempting to develop a COVID-19 vaccine – a restaurant co-manager in West Palm Beach, Florida asked how restaurants were expected to cope with meat shortages, rising prices, and reduced seating capacity – MacCallum asked about concerns of immigrant workers at an Ohio meat plant that had been kept open by executive order – a retired teacher in Bluffton, South Carolina asked what was being done to protect the vulnerable in nursing homes and senior housing – Baier asked about curtailment of elective surgery (non-coronavirus).

#Small business (golf grips) owner from Clearwater, Florida: She and her husband weren’t able to borrow from the payroll protection program because they didn’t have any paid employees, but they still had “numerous bills” to pay. Was there “something in the works” that would help them?

“I love your business,” said Trump, and even though he hadn’t played much golf lately he felt sure that courses around the country would soon be reopening.

#Baier: Evidently, the owners of this business had fallen through the crack. “We got a lot of questions like this, that either the bank didn't give it to them or they didn't qualify. What do you tell them?”

Trump reiterated his initial response, but ending by saying “I’m going to take a look at that. Maybe there is something we can do.”

#Switching gears, Baier generalized that “all the stimulus in the world” can’t solve the problem of demand in a country. “How do you stimulate demand?” [
Seriously? In our view, current economic problems reflect a shortage of supply.]

Trump: The biggest thing would be to get rid of the virus so stimulus wouldn’t be needed, but in the meantime, we’re talking about three trillion dollars, which could even go to six, and we're going to have a tremendous year next year because of what we're doing and laying the seeds.” And the financial markets were holding up too, look how Boeing had just been able to float a $[25] billion bond issue.

#A retired nurse and elementary school guidance counselor thought the president should tone down his rhetoric – Baier asked whether the election would come down to a referendum on the handling of the coronavirus - a Columbus, Ohio man said the coronavirus was disproportionately affecting communities of color.

#Baier: What about this recent tweet by Joe Biden? "We left a playbook. He ignored it. We created an office to prepare for pandemics. He gutted it. We had CDC officials in China to detect and contain the outbreaks. He pulled them out. Trump can try and shift blame all he wants, but the fact is his actions left us unprepared."

Trump: Joe Biden didn’t write that, must have been some bright young staffer. And by the way, Biden initially criticized my Chinese travel ban and only recently admitted that he had been wrong. Also, the Obama administration bungled the swine flu epidemic, which happened on their watch, and before that Biden voted for the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

#College freshman from Madison, Wisconsin: Did the president have a plan, if reelected, “to be more fiscally responsible to either reduce or eliminate the deficit in response to increased federal spending for the coronavirus stimulus packages?”

Comment: No, SAFE did not plant this question – but we were pleased to hear it asked.

Trump said billions of dollars were taken in from China vis tariffs because he wasn’t going to allow this country to be ripped off in trade deals anymore. Also, other countries were being pressed to pay an equitable share for their defense.

#Baier noted that the national debt was now up to $25 trillion “with more on the burner and coming down the pipe.”

Trump reiterated his previous points, and added that “we’re going to cutback very substantially, plus which we’re going to have great growth.” Nothing was said about what spending
(?) he would propose to cut, however, nor whether Congress would go along.

#MacCallum: “When will we get [100%] of antibiotics made in this country? Do you have a target date for that?”

Trump said the transition would take about two years, but complained that public discussion of such issues compromised his negotiating position. Baier acknowledged this point and the subject was dropped.

#Director of economic inclusion at Johns Hopkins University: Did the president support investing in infrastructure to put Americans back to work.

Trump: Yes, infrastructure was very important to both him and the Democrats. He also wanted a payroll tax cut on both sides [employers and employees], while Democrats wanted bailouts for the states including a number of states that were under their control and weren’t doing very well. Caution was needed on the state bailouts, everything else was fine.

#Baier asked Vice President Mike Pence (who had arrived with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin during the last break) whether a payroll tax cut was perceived as the key to stimulating demand.

Pence: Yes, but let’s not forget the need to safely reopen the country and start recouping some of the jobs that have been lost.

#Baier referenced earlier questions (from the golf grip business) about falling through the cracks on the small business loan program, and asked the Treasury secretary what he was “looking at for the next thing?”

Mnuchin described several initiatives that were already in motion; he assured “Americans who haven't received their money yet [that] they will over the next few weeks.” As for the next round, the administration would work with Congress as it had done previously.

#The head of a family-owned food products business: Tariffs on Chinese imports were costing the business about $60,000 per month, which would limit their ability to ramp up their operations. Could the tariffs be reduced or eliminated, at least temporarily?

Trump’s answer was a diplomatic “no.” It seemed that much of the tariff money was being distributed to our great farmers and the rest was needed by the US Treasury.

#Baier: Was the administration considering new tariffs on China as punishment for their irresponsible handling of the coronavirus.

Trump didn’t say yes, but he did refer to tariffs as “the greatest negotiating tool that we have ever devised.”

#A man from “Crawford” asked if there was compelling evidence of Chinese misinformation about the coronavirus, and if so how should the global community respond – Baier asked whether evidence about the origin of the coronavirus that the president had mentioned in a recent exchange with John Roberts of Fox News would be made public – MacCallum asked if China had been careless or malicious and whether Trump’s relationship with President Xi was still strong – an aircraft technician in Texas wondered how the health safety of his employer’s passengers could be ensured – MacCallum asked about the advisability of bailing out mismanaged state pension plans – a woman in Merritt Island, Florida said she and her husband would like to know when it would be possible to resume attending live church services – Baier cited mixed opinions about Attorney General Bill Barr’s statement that the Department of Justice would be on the lookout for unreasonable restrictions on religious observance.

#MacCallum: What kind of employment numbers do you think you will need to get the support of the American people in November?

Trump didn’t offer a jobs target, but said recovery should proceed quickly if payroll taxes were cut. Transition 3rd quarter – good 4th quarter – great next year.

#Baier: It was exactly six months to election day. When did the president expect to hold his first campaign rally, and would he wear a mask?

Trump: Rallies might be possible in the last couple of months (Sept.-Oct.), at least in some states. He ignored the mask part, even after Baier repeated it.

#Baier asked the vice president about his recent appearance at the Mayo Clinic without a mask, which breach of the standard protocol had been criticized, followed by an appearance at the GM plant wearing a mask.

Pence said the mask protocol served to protect other people, not the wearer, and both he and the president were tested frequently for the coronavirus. Nevertheless, observance of social distancing guidelines, wearing masks, etc. was saving lives, thanks to the American people for cooperating, and “I should have worn a mask at the Mayo Clinic.”

#MacCallum asked about the wisdom of the president’s decision to speak at the West Point graduation; Senator Tammy Duckworth, a veteran, had said “it would be reckless.”

Trump: Duckworth is a Democrat, the generals asked me to speak, and there was no risk involved for cadets or their families.

#Baier asked the president what he told his children (Barron) and grandchildren about the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump: That a terrible thing has happened, but we're going to be strong and we're going to get out of it, and our country is going to be bigger and better and stronger than ever before."

Overall, did the president make a persuasive case for reopening the economy sooner rather than later. In our opinion, yes, but some critics complained that he had underplayed the health risks of the coronavirus and exaggerated his own accomplishments. See, e.g., Trump uses virtual townhall as an appeal for reelection, Nolan McCaskill, politico.com,
5/4/20.

President Donald Trump on Sunday turned a town hall that was centered on the coronavirus pandemic into an appeal for his reelection, leveraging the two-hour time slot on Fox News at the Lincoln Memorial to tout himself as an unrivaled American leader.

OK, but the questions asked were stacked against reopening the country – one teacher who wanted to get pupils back in a physical classroom, one couple concerned about attending church services, and over 40 questions about health risks and concerns, requests for more government handouts, etc.

In our view, it was refreshing to hear the president saying Americans need to get the country reopened while we still have a country left. And MacCallum was right in asking whether the lockdown may have been carried too far in the first place, even if the president – and almost every other political leader in this country – says otherwise.

Our biggest disagreement with the views expressed was the assumption that trillions of more dollars in “economic relief” can be safely provided. See SAFE’s recent letters to the president and congressional leaders,
Coronavirus update on the fiscal problem (scroll down to 4/10/20 & 4/11/20).

Soaring deficits & debt were already a threat; the coronavirus crisis is making matters worse. Solution: limit the damage currently and commit to a major course correction starting in January 2021.

There was a question about fiscal responsibility asked at the townhall, as reported earlier, and the president’s answer didn’t satisfy us one bit. However, his political opponents have yet to offer any plans on this score that demonstrate they would be more fiscally responsible than Republicans. Unless and until this changes, we propose to consider the debate on that particular point a draw.

II. An alternative view – To the extent that the May 3 townhall provided counterpoint or drama, it came from the generally skeptical questioning of the president rather than from the statements of a political opponent. This being the case, what sources can be cited that are representative of the opposition’s proposed solutions for addressing the coronavirus pandemic and associated economic woes?

We found an
“Emergency Plan to Save the Economy” on the Biden campaign website, which promises “bold action” to “end this epidemic and get our economy back on track.” Judging from some of the details, it was written around the time (late March) that the CARES Act was headed towards passage.

STEP ONE, fight the virus, following the advice of public health experts, to include providing real testing capacity, the ability to trace contacts if someone tests positive, and the ability to surge equipment and supplies to any new hotspots. [
Comment: Contract tracking is still being perfected, but otherwise these points have been pretty well addressed.]

STEP TWO, launch a task force to make sure “every dollar” of appropriated funds goes to the intended recipients.
[Comment: Fine in principle, but given the amounts involved and demand for quick action there will inevitably be some slippage in the results.]

STEP THREE, work with Congress to “build the next deal,” which would involve authorizing massive amounts of additional spending: Additional checks to families should conditions require – forgive a minimum of $10,000 per person of federal student loans – increase monthly Social Security checks by $200/month – “emergency paid sick leave to everyone who needs it” – exempt everyone from paying anything for COVID-19 testing, treatment, or an eventual vaccine.

Bottom line, the essence of this plan seems to be throwing money at the problem and empowering government bureaucrats to take over the economy. Or as the plan states: “Congress will have to keep acting” and “Joe Biden would do whatever it takes, spend whatever it takes, move heaven and earth to help all the people harmed by this crisis.”

As another reference point, consider this column about the president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis: Republicans need to rise above Trump in pandemic, Senator Chris Coons & William Kristol, News Journal,
May 8, 2020.

Slamming the president’s approach as “coronavirus denialism,” the writers urge a different approach based on Democratic priorities, some of which weren’t mentioned in the Biden position paper: massive aid to states, which are in fiscal hot water due to the pandemic; no legal liability for businesses; continue unemployment compensation for workers who don’t want to come back to work; bailout of the US Postal Service; federalization of election laws.

In short, “responsible Republicans” should join with Democrats in this crisis in advancing legislation that’s good for our country.”

Comment: OK, we give up. What exactly are Sen. Coons & Mr. Kristol proposing to bring about “an economic recovery as soon as possible,” aside from staying home and enacting more spending programs that will cause the national debt to skyrocket? This is basically a recipe for disaster.

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