Politics and the pandemic — Republicans are rightly worried

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Martha McSally complained it was “inexcusable” the president was so “unprepared” for the virus epidemic: “Real leadership means taking action before there’s a crisis.”

No, the Arizona Republican — then a Congresswoman — wasn’t talking about President Trump’s tragic failure to respond early to the Coronavirus pandemic: It was 2014, and she was assailing Barack Obama on the Ebola scare.

On the infinitely more serious current crisis, McSally — now a Senator — gushes about Trump’s “decisive” leadership.

The politics of Coronavirus, which is shutting down much of the country, throwing the economy into a tailspin and threatening the health of perhaps millions of Americans, will play out in the weeks and months ahead. The downside is with Trump and Republicans.

This may be especially troublesome for a half dozen embattled incumbent Republican senators who savaged Obama for his handling of the Ebola health scare six years ago. Today, they are rallying behind the president.

That’s not easy.

Few presidents have botched a crisis the way Trump did for almost two months. The administration already had downgraded resources for addressing a pandemic, an issue of little interest to Trump until it finally dawned on him that the United States faces the most severe health crisis since the Influenza of 1918 which killed 675,000 Americans.

As enumerated by David Leonhardt for the New York Times, Trump repeatedly and recklessly dismissed this pandemic as a nothingburger. On Jan. 22, he declared it was “totally under control.” Over the next few weeks he insisted only a handful of Americans would be affected by the virus, that when spring arrives it “miraculously goes away,” that it was a fiction of fake news and a Democratic “hoax,” like impeachment.

Only two weeks ago, he falsely claimed there was sufficient testing for everyone.

Eleven days ago — finally — he gave an address to a nervous country. The speech, apparently crafted by his often-clueless son-in-law Jared Kushner, lacked a sense of crisis and made misrepresentations which had to be corrected.

As our American Nero calculated the political impact on his reelection, here’s what transpired: The first reported case in the U.S. was on Jan. 20 — in two months, this has soared to more than 26,000 cases with 340 deaths. These numbers are expected to climb sharply over the next few months. Worldwide, the total now over 316,000 cases.

Let’s contrast that with the Republican uproar over the Ebola scare in 2014. That was chiefly an African plague affecting 28,000 people, a fraction of the toll Coronavirus already has taken. In the United States there were a grand total of 11 people infected and four deaths.

Yet in mid-October of that year, I was in North Carolina covering a Senate race at an event dominated by Republican Thom Tillis’s denunciation of Obama’s dangerous dereliction on the Ebola crisis, putting — he claimed — a political hack in charge of meeting the challenge. The so-called hack was Ron Klain, a business executive and former Supreme Court clerk as well as political counselor; he’s widely credited with successfully marshaling a multi-billion effort to stem the epidemic.

Six years later, Tillis is singing a different tune for an infinitely more serious matter; running for reelection, he praises Trump’s “decisive leadership,” and calls for the country’s leaders “to set aside our partisan differences.”

Tillis and McSally aren’t the only two-faced politicians on this score. In 2014, Iowa Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst was outraged at Obama being “apathetic” and merely “reactive” — and questioned whether he really cared about the safety of the American people. She has been silent on Trump’s dawdling and denying and wants a bi-partisan partnership. Georgia Republican Sen. David Purdue six years ago bemoaned a “lack of leadership.” Now he says Vice President Pence, who is in charge of the administration’s policies, is doing a “fantastic job.”

Republicans enjoy a 53-47 Senate advantage, and the conventional wisdom is they’ll lose no more than a net of one or two seats and retain control. Those odds changed a few weeks ago when Montana’s popular Democratic Governor, Steve Bullock, after resisting for a year, jumped in the Senate race to face a colorless Republican incumbent.

Now the terrible pandemic crisis will complicate the election prospects for the likes of Tillis, McSally and Ernst, maybe others.

Their only hope on this issue is voters have a short memory.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags 2020 election Barack Obama China Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic Coronavirus response COVID-19 Donald Trump Jared Kushner Joni Ernst Martha McSally Republican Party Steve Bullock Thom Tillis

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