Since the coronavirus’ serious threat to Americans’ health and their economy became clear, a blizzard of charges has accused President Trump of being caught flat-footed by the pandemic. I agree that the President didn’t expect a dangerous plague to break out overseas and swiftly cross America’s borders. I’ve also written that Mr. Trump made a big mistake in cutting funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – but mainly for political reasons. For the amounts of money involved are so small that they couldn’t possibly even move the needle in terms of reining in federal spending and cutting deficits.
In fact, given the tiny sums, the picture looks pretty good when it comes to the latest Trump budget request for the CDC programs that actually deal with coronavirus-type threats. Check out the line items for “Emerging Infectious Diseases” and “Global Disease Detection and Other Programs.” The former is down only marginally from actual spending levels previously agreed to by Congress (including of course its Democrats) and the latter is up significantly.
But more important, the allegations seem to assume that the American political system has been chock full of leaders who can boast the foresight the President lacked, and that the nation’s response would have been much more effective had one of them occupied the Oval Office. Is there any actual evidence for this proposition?
One crucial test is whether well before the virus became front-page news any of the leading recent and current Democratic candidates for President rolled out plans for beefing up American capabilities to respond to pandemics before the virus’ breakout in China. And do you know how many did? None – with the possible exception of former New York City Mayor and media magnate Michael Bloomberg.
That’s based on checking the polcy sections of the websites of former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and drop-out Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Drop-outs Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg have taken all the content down from their sites. But a wide-ranging media survey of their positions reveals no attention paid to pandemics, either.
I describe drop-out Bloomberg as a possible exception because his site did Mr. Trump’s “erratic leadership, go-it-alone approach, and distrust of science” for putting the country “in a vulnerable position should a major public health emergency, such as the novel coronavirus…materialize.” And he outlined what can fairly be called a plan.
Yet it’s not clear when these Bloomberg proposals were unveiled, and there’s no evidence that he was thinking about such matters before COVID 19’s appearance.
The same goes for Warren and Klobuchar, whose plans only dated from late January. Biden published an op-ed detailing his own ideas at about the same time. (See this post for links.)
I don’t believe that any of these politicians (including those with long years of public service) deserve any blame for failing to anticipate the virus threat on a timely basis – and for the same fundamental reason I don’t believe Mr. Trump should be pilloried. Because this kind of pandemic (coming from a country with extensive ties with the U.S. and global economies, like China, as opposed to regions like Central and West Africa, with almost no such ties) really couldn’t be anticipated adequately.
And incidentally, this point is also relevant to the charge made by Biden and others that the President not only cut the budget for the CDC, but for the country’s foreign aid agency, and also dismantled the White House global health security team created during the Obama years.
But anyone honestly believing that a little office somewhere in the Executive Office of the President would have made a meaningful difference in preventing or fighting the virus is guilty of drinking the policy wonk kool-aid claiming that augmenting bureaucratic flow-charts in any way amounts to solving problems – even those that emerge suddenly. As for the foreign aid cuts, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has been working on helping prevent the spread of infectious diseases like the coronavirus, but Beijing made clear early on that American government help wasn’t wanted. (Nor was World Health Organization help.)
In other words, life is full of unpleasant surprises and shocks, and from time to time they’re big. Human beings don’t come with perfectly functioning crystal balls in their heads, and learning curves are rarely as steep as we’d like because lessons from experience and history tend to be excruciatingly difficult to draw. Hindsight can be superb, but says nothing about clairvoyance. Governments, moreover, although indispensable in such situations, are often not the most efficient actors, and in crises, they’re often forced to scramble.
That’s not to say that the President may not pay a political price for his coronavirus record, or that Americans don’t have a right to be frustrated with his actions to date, much less that he deserves reelection on any grounds. Indeed, here’s a great suggestion for the kind of speech Mr. Trump should have made by now, and still should make – which urges him to use the virus crisis as an opportunity both to stimulate the economy and prepare better for future pandemics with major spending and other measures to bolster national health security.
But it is is to warn that none of President Trump’s critics or challengers can legitimately claim to have done better, let alone that they’ll act more effectively when the next black swan – biological or not -flies into our lives.