Kristi Noem and the Republicans Would Rather Kill Their Own Constituents Than See Biden Heal the Country
Having embraced an ideology that sees government as useless when it’s not evil, the GOP can’t afford to let Biden show government can solve a health crisis and revive the economy.
As the Biden administration moves inexorably toward ending the year-long pandemic, Republican lawmakers in Washington have been voting uniformly against the COVID relief bill while the party’s governors, starting with South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, have raced to recklessly endanger their constituents before they have been vaccinated.
That’s because a successful effort by Biden to solve such a grave national problem would challenge the GOP’s foundational claim: that government is hopelessly incompetent, if not evil.
"My administration resisted the call for virus control at the expense of everything else," Noem boasted last month at CPAC. In a speech larded with lies, this claim was true. Throughout the past year, as the bodies piled up in her state, Noem resolutely refused to require mask-wearing or indeed nearly any coronavirus mitigation measures. As a result, South Dakota, one of the nation’s most rural and least densely populated states, became a center of avoidable carnage, with the eight highest death rate in the nation to date.
But despite, or rather because of, that record of governance, Noem received a rapturous reception from the CPAC crowd. Furthermore, over the past week, in rapid succession, other Republican governors—including those of Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas—began trying to catch up with Noem’s nihilistic stewardship by announcing their own plans to eliminate—and in some cases, immediately end—a range of public health measures that have successfully mitigated transmission.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott tried to one-up Noem in the irresponsibility department—and distract attention from his utter failure to prevent or competently manage the consequences of the catastrophic failure of his state’s power grid—by immediately ending all mask mandates and all capacity limitations on business and other establishments. Abbott thereby turned the nation’s second most populous state, proud of its record for doing everything big, into a potentially massive production center for viral transmission throughout the nation.
When examined from a public health, or economic, perspective, the efforts of these and other GOP officeholders to reduce or eliminate pandemic mitigation measures are hard to understand, let alone explain. As the experiences of states like Texas have already demonstrated, the elimination of, or refusal to implement, social distancing practices inevitably and rapidly results in increased infections and deaths. Hospital systems are rapidly overwhelmed and deaths are compounded soon after mitigation measures that have been proven to work are discarded. Such a risk of medical infrastructure collapse is all the greater because of the increasing spread of more virulent variants, as Brazil’s recent experience demonstrates.
Furthermore, the same week that GOP governors began stampeding to eliminate mask mandates, the CDC announced the result of a study concluding that widespread mask-wearing mandates, as well as indoor dining bans, do reduce deaths.
The GOP’s irrationality, indeed nihilism, regarding the pandemic is not limited to the nation’s statehouses. In D.C., every Republican lawmaker has voted against the COVID relief bill, which will provide $1.9 trillion to prevent unnecessary deaths and hasten the reopening of schools, including by funding rapid vaccine production and distribution, as well as provide local school systems and health departments with the money they need to bring the pandemic to an end and return the nation to normalcy.
The absurdly irresponsible conduct of Republican public servants is not the product of ignorance. These officeholders know that investments in public health will pay off. During debate of the COVID relief bill, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell repeatedly acknowledged as much, stating that he expects the country to come "roaring back" after the legislation is implemented—that is, as a result of the expedited end of the pandemic and an economic recovery.
McConnell accompanied his admissions with half-hearted, preemptive, denials that the bill that is poised to fund the Biden administration’s massive public health and economic recovery efforts will have anything to do with the expected recovery.
The American people, however, see through such nonsensical claims. Recent polling indicates that well 70 percent of the nation, and 44 percent of Republicans, favor Biden’s pandemic response, including the president’s advocacy for mask-wearing and all of the other mitigation measures that Republican governors are rapidly seeking to terminate. Far from rebelling against inconveniences like mask-wearing, the vast majority of the public now recognizes from hard experience—often involving the deaths of loved ones—the importance of such steps. Likewise, the public favors spending the federal dollars required to expedite both the end of the pandemic and the recovery of the economy.
On this background, the question arises why Republican Party officeholders are so broadly opposed to such demonstrably necessary steps and investments, and indeed in some cases are competing to see who can endanger more constituents.
Until recently, many observers would answer the question by pointing to Donald Trump, and contend that Republican politicians were endangering the public out of deference to, if not fear of, the then-president who was so dismissive of public health measures that he likely infected himself at one of his own superspreader events, and then hid the fact that he had received a vaccine from the public.
But Trump has exited from office, and has not been giving regular public pronouncements about the importance of disregarding science. If anything, though, the GOP’s repudiation of public health measures has accelerated since Biden became president and he and the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress began to rapidly marshal every available economic and public health resource of the federal government to battle the pandemic.
In fact, it is the very high likelihood that the Democratic initiatives will succeed, and that, in McConnell’s words, the nation will come “roaring back,” that has induced Republicans’ single-minded efforts to oppose Biden’s initiatives—even at the risk of causing a potentially catastrophic loss of human life at the cusp of the end of the pandemic.
And the reason for the GOP’s desperate opposition to what could well be a historically successful federal government effort to lead a national recovery effort has roots that extend far before the rise of Trump. Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and indeed commencing with the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party has embraced the idea that the federal government is incompetent, if not evil. With no small success, the GOP has contended that FDR’s use of federal government resources to save the nation from the Depression was an anomaly (if not a fraud) and that it is futile to look to the government to solve big problems.
If the Biden administration and a Democratic Congress actually succeed where Trump’s absentee management of the pandemic catastrophically failed, and manage to oversee a relatively rapid end to the greatest health crisis of the last 100 years, together with an accompanying economic recovery, then the entire premise of the GOP’s decades-long war on government will be called into question
Greg Sargent and others contend that GOP politicians like McConnell are all but resigned to suffering such a foundational crack in the Republican Party’s anti-government appeal, and are now entirely focused on increasing gerrymandering and other schemes to dilute and suppress Democratic votes—so as to position their candidates to win with an increasingly small number of voters. If such anti-democracy strategies are effectively and comprehensively implemented, they could well allow the Republican Party to retain control of state and federal legislatures even if the party’s popularity among voters erodes catastrophically. Certainly, the frantic rush in state after Republican-controlled state to enact voter suppression laws as quickly as possible strongly supports that theory.
Accordingly, even if the Biden administration’s governance of the nation succeeds as well as McConnell and other GOP leaders expect—and fear—the Democrats could well suffer serial losses in state and federal elections in future years, particularly after the upcoming, and inevitably heavily gerrymandered, redrawing of legislative districts by GOP state legislatures. The only way to avoid such a result is for the Senate to void (or permit an exception) to the filibuster, and follow its passage of the COVID bill with enactment of the several voting rights bills (including H.R.1) now pending before Congress, as well as the admission of D.C. and Puerto Rico as states.
In the absence of such legislative action, a future President Noem and Republican Congress could well choose to do nothing the next time a deadly pandemic menaces the nation, inevitably resulting in more catastrophic and needless loss of life.