Swing State Pres

Sunday, April 26, 2020

BTRTN: Operation Gambit....Kemp Offers Georgia as a Test for What Happens When We Ignore Science

Steve reflects on the actions of Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, and suggests that when George Santayana said “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it,” the great philosopher probably didn’t think there were people dumb enough to ignore the history that happened last month. 

It is part of the lore of D-Day: mini-submarines arrived at the Normandy beaches in advance of the main landing forces to place navigational markers that would guide incoming vessels. The mission was code-named “Operation Gambit,” using a word whose literal meaning is “a device, action, or opening remark, typically one entailing a degree of risk, that is calculated to gain an advantage.” 

In chess, however, it has a far more specific meaning.  A “gambit” in chess is “an opening in which a player makes a sacrifice, typically of a pawn, for the sake of some compensating advantage.” I suppose "Operation Gambit" is a marginally better name than "Operation Some of You Are Going to Die For the Greater Good," but the point was made nonetheless.

Thank you, Governor Brian Kemp, for offering up your state as America’s “Operation Gambit.” We are grateful that you are willing to risk sacrificing an unknown number of your citizens in order to test the validity of sheltering-in-place and social distancing. 

If only we could wall off your state and limit the carnage to the Republican voters who were stupid enough to vote you in. 

When the history of the coronavirus is written by those who survive, there will be heroes, there will be villains, and there will be fools. Surely, Donald Trump will take the grand prizes in the latter two categories, but in his acceptance speech, he will want to mention the enablers, sycophants, and dolts in his supporting cast.

Governor Kemp has taken an early but commanding lead in the race to be Trump’s ranking idiot-de-camp.

It was on April 2 that Kemp stood at a podium in Atlanta and made this astounding proclamation:

“Finding out that this virus is now transmitting before people see signs, so what we've been telling people from directives from the CDC for weeks now that if you start feeling bad, stay home... those individuals could've been infecting people before they ever felt bad. But we didn't know that until the last 24 hours. And as Dr. Toomey told me, this is a game changer for us."

Translated from the Governor’s clumsy, meandering English: he did not know that COVID-19 was being transmitted by “asymptomatic spread” – by people who were carrying the virus but experienced no symptoms whatsoever.

Dr. Anthony Fauci made this absolutely unqualified declaration about the asymptomatic transmission of the coronavirus on February 3, a full two months earlier:

“There’s no doubt after reading (the New England Journal of Medicine) paper that asymptomatic transmission is occurring. This study lays the question to rest.”  

For the next two months, the meaning of “asymptomatic spread” itself spread through the population, helping people understand that they were vulnerable to this virus when in the company of seemingly healthy friends and neighbors. Even more terrifying: it made people realize that they, themselves, could be carrying the virus, unknowingly infecting loved ones, grandparents, neighbors, and strangers at the Rite-Aid. It was this concept that helped make people understand the need for sheltering-in-place. 

So the Governor of the State that is the home to the Center for Disease Control remained ignorant about one of the most crucial facts about this virus spreads a full two months. This is a such a ruthless, primal ignorance of such basic fact that one assumes Kemp had been, Trump style, practicing social distancing from reality itself. 
 
Now Governor Kemp is galloping ahead in the race to be our nation’s Guinea-Pig-in-Chief, acting on what Donald Trump says on a Monday, oblivious to the high odds that Trump would pull a one-eighty by Wednesday. 

This is indeed precisely what happened this past week. Kemp jumped on what he perceived to be Trump’s desire that states re-open as soon as possible. Picking up on the cues in Trump’s “Liberate Michigan,” “Liberate Minnesota,” and “Liberate Virginia  tweets of Friday, April 17, Kemp raced to announce that his state would be open for business even before May 1, which had been the earliest possible date offered up by the Dr. Fauci’s team as even remotely possible. Indeed, by this past Friday, Georgia had already given the green light to certain categories of business to resume operations. 

Kemp apparently felt validated by phone calls from Trump and Pence that happened on Tuesday, April 21. The Atlanta Constitution reported as follows:

”Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had called Kemp, reportedly in support of his plan to reopen Georgia’s economy this week. Earlier Wednesday, Kemp’s spokeswoman, Candice Broce, said only that the calls ‘went well.”

The Trump endorsement was not merely behind closed doors.  On Tuesday, Trump had stated publicly that Kemp was “a capable man who knows what he’s doing.”

However, Trump’s intent in the three “liberate” tweets was to create civil unrest in three states with Democratic governors. That was going to be a win-win. If Trump could pressure those states to open too soon, he could blame the Democratic governors for upticks in sickness and death. If the economies surged, he could take credit for pushing them to re-open. 

But Kemp had foiled his plan by offering up a state with a Republican governor to be the petri dish for an aggressive timetable for restarting commerce. 

By Wednesday’s “Combined COVID-19 Task Force Briefing and Mega MAGA Mojo Rally,” Trump attempted to socially distance himself from Governor Kemp. “I want him to do what he thinks is right, but I disagree with him on what he is doing… I think it’s too soon.”

The notion of being “thrown under the bus” somehow does not do justice to Trump’s triple-axle flip, which climaxed with Trump sticking the landing on Kemp’s face on national television. In order to protect his own reputation should Kemp’s experiment go sour, Trump humiliated the guy who was trying to dislodge Mike Pence as Trump’s ranking sycophant.

Hey, maybe I was a bit harsh in implying that Governor Kemp was a 30 watt light bulb because he did not understand the concept of viral asymptomatic spread, but when you throw in the fact that he actually trusted Donald Trump, you conclude that Kemp is a First Team All-Pro imbecile.

And now the good governor has unleashed his “Let My Corona Free” campaign upon the good citizens of Georgia, overriding the desperate pleas of the mayors of Atlanta and Savannah. Add this fact to the mix, and I suspect that if you look up “moron” in the dictionary, it says “a stupid person, but not quite as stupid as Brian Kemp.

O.k, America! Let’s watch! Let’s see what happens when a major state which has not met the key criteria established by the Trump administration for considering reopening for business decides to roll the dice. We are going to find out once and for all if the elder folks in Georgia are as willing as Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick to give up those last few golden years so that we see an uptick in mani-pedis. Apparently the tattoo parlors will be offering a special on the tat that reads “God Bless My Grandma Who Went to Her Heavenly Reward So I Could Get This Rad Ink.”

It’s a pity that Brian Kemp so thoroughly sheltered-in-place from fact, information, and knowledge over this past two months. Too bad he has not seen the videos of overmanned medical workers in New York City hospitals frantically trying to keep up with the flow of desperately ill patients waiting to be treated in an ICU. Kemp had a chance to learn, observe, and make reasoned inferences about what a premature re-opening for business might look like in his own state. 

He had a choice between pursuing a conservative, prudent course, and sticking his finger in the air and saying “WTF.” He opted for the latter. 

As he sends his implicit signal to the vast army of Georgia Trump supporters that you really don’t have to take those social distancing guidelines seriously, and all those vigilantes with “Liberate Georgia” signs gather in close quarters on public squares, we may finally learn what the unchecked contagion rate for COVID-19 really looks like.

Maybe Brian Kemp is right and everything will be just fine. For the sake of the souls who do not deserve to have this fool toying with their mortality, I pray things do go far better than I fear will be the case. 

You know what the worst part is? 

For at least a month -- probably longer -- it is going to seem as if things are indeed just fine. It’s going to seem like Trump and Kemp were right. 

Why? Two reasons. 

The first is that the citizens of the United States don’t buy what Kemp and Trump are selling. A Politico/Morning Consult Poll conducted on April 18-19  shows that 76% Americans – Republican and Democrat alike – believe that social distancing should continue “as long as necessary.” Only 14% of the population agreed that social distancing should be relaxed in order to restart the economy. Just because Georgia is “open for business” does not mean that its residents are going to race out to bars and restaurants simply because they are open.

Ironically, the very behavior of informed, educated citizens is likely to considerably offset the negative impact of Kemp’s ignorance. Many of the shops that were eligible to open in Georgia on Friday opted not to. Many people elected to continue sheltering-in-place. 

Who knows? When your President, your Governor, and your Mayor are saying three entirely different things, small wonder that many Georgians simply want to bury their heads under their pillows and wait for some semblance of clarity. 

The second reason, however, is the nature of how this virus spreads through the population.

Georgia, like everywhere else, ramped up slowly, from dozens of new cases a day in mid-March, to hundreds a day by late March, to thousands a day in early April, peaking at 1,500 new case on a single day, April 7. Of late Georgia has gone down a bit, but it still has had between 600 and 1,000 new cases per day over the last five days, is still growing at about 4% per day cumulatively, which is right on the national average. Georgia is hardly a model for "first to open." It is, at best, middle of the pack.   

And it is easy to see that as this first wave continues to slowly wind down to 500 cases per day -- still a ton -- a new "second wave" will emerge slowly but soon enough, additive to the first. The second wave could build the same way as the first, thought not as fast, given the caution of the populace and the fact that not every business is open. Without testing and proper contact tracing in place, slowly, inexorably, the dozens of new "second wave" cases that emerge in the next few months will turn into hundreds and then thousands yet again. With a more cautious re-opening policy, Georgia's 20,000 cases today might have ended at, say, 60,000, but the new cases that emerge could ultimately drive it well beyond that. 

The distressing implication is that the first month may lull Georgians themselves into a false sense of security and they become more casual about social distancing.  As attitudes become more relaxed, and Republican leaders eagerly jump to the desired conclusion that “all is well” – the geometry of contagion may re-ignite.  Will this take two months? Longer? Will it happen at all? Who knows?

Which brings us to our final topic: why the “science-based” portion of our population is so intensely focused on testing programs

Governor Kemp is turning the engine of commerce back on in Georgia without having an adequate testing program in place to know whether it is working according to plan – or not. 

Kemp’s adventure would be something else altogether if he actually had a world-class testing program in place, and was able to say “we are going to test a projectable sample of Georgians in every region of the state every single day so that we can instantly understand if community spread is rising to greater levels than we anticipate. If so, we will re-institute sheltering-in-place.”

But he is not. He is flying blind. He will have no idea what his experiment has triggered until it starts to show up in hospital visits, ICU patients, and morgues. 

One of the biggest failures of Donald Trump’s leadership is that he has essentially squandered the 40 days and nights that we have all been wandering in the desert of sheltering-in-place by failing to use this time to radically ramp up our national strategy for testing. We should have used the last six weeks to commandeer manufacturing capabilities and build the supply chain to implement a national testing strategy. Instead, Trump publicly questioned the importance of testing and attempted to off-load implementation to the states.  We have all stayed at home for six weeks, and Donald Trump’s White House utterly failed to use that time to figure out the plan for testing that actually could enable us to safely emerge from our homes.

That is the final irony of Governor Kemp’s “experiment.” It is not an experiment at all. Experiments are designed with metrics against which to measure the outcome, and a testing methodology that enables measurement to occur. 

But go for it, Governor Kemp. Let Trump bully you into re-opening your state, then disown you a day later, leaving you to hold the bag for whatever carnage ensues. 

While you’re at it, why not inhale some Lysol and shine some ultraviolet light down your esophagus. Wait 24 hours, and then listen as Trump tries to tell you he was only kidding. White mice in a B.F. Skinner Psych 101 maze experiment learn faster than you.

Those of us who have actually been paying attention, listening, and learning about the science and math of COVID-19 hope and pray that we will not see Georgia ablaze with the swamped ICUs, nursing home carnage, and out-of-control daily contagion rates. The sad truth is that only time will tell… and by the time it tells, it will be too late to avoid yet another needless tragedy. 

And yes… let’s talk about that super-important goal of getting the economy rolling again… that’s the whole reason you are doing this, right, Governor? If Atlanta’s office towers become mini-Wuhans that flood the transit system with raging communal spread, the good Governor may find that he has crushed commerce in Georgia for years.

But – again – all of this carnage may not materialize for months… and it may not materialize at all. No one – not Kemp, not Trump, not me – no one knows. But by then, Trump could have pressured a bunch of the governors who live in the darkness under his thumb into re-opening their states based on the wonderful example set by Governor Kemp and the great state of Georgia. Yes, other states may open up based on weeks of Georgia evidence – the exact period when the viral spread will be invisible. 

So, thanks, Governor. 

Nice of you to be willing to sacrifice your state so we all can finally learn that we must listen to the doctors, the scientists, and the competent, experienced governors. 

Give one up for team USA. 

But Governor, if you do set Atlanta aflame, we hope your citizens realize that this time, it was one of their own who lit the match. 



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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

BTRTN: Trump Leading From (His) Behind

Tom takes a look at how Trump is faring, by the numbers, in his handling of the coronavirus crisis.    

You may recall back in the midst of the crisis in Libya in 2011, an unfortunate phrase was used by an Obama aid to describe American efforts to orchestrate a proper response.  At that time, there was a need for action, but also a strong strategic desire to have that action perceived as being led by others, not by America.  So Hillary Clinton worked to cajole others to step up, and “leading from behind” was born.

Well, not exactly “born.”  As Ryan Lizza pointed out in a New Yorker piece on the subject back then (and he cited another author in finding the quote), Nelson Mandela used the phrase to describe a selfless leadership style.

“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

But gleeful conservatives made fun of the rather dubious phrase, charging Obama with weakness, and essentially claiming that he was showing no leadership at all.

Who has the real power in the United States: behind the dispute ...Donald Trump, in the coronavirus crisis, is certainly not “leading from behind” in the Obama/Mandela sense.  Not at all.  In his endless quest to claim credit and avoid blame in a highly uncertain and volatile crisis, he has veered between claiming absolute authority to ducking the powers he could rightfully wield.   He is not looking to “take the front line where there is danger.”  Indeed, he has truly attempted to do just the opposite – stick the governors with making the hard decisions on when to close down their states, while trying initially to take full credit for the presumably welcome decision to open them up again.  Of course, once he realized the political realities of re-opening – that he could not constitutionally effect unilateral openings under the U.S. Constitution, and that it was a decision in and of itself fraught with peril – he backed off once again.

This is not even “leading from behind.”  This is leading from his behind.  The muddled mishmash of “I’m in charge” and “it’s their show,” the equivocation of the seriousness of the crisis, the slowness to act, the distortion of facts around testing and supplies, the evasion of responsibility, the endless search for someone, some entity, some country to blame, the neediness for praise, the unwillingness to use the powers of the office, the failure to set a good example, and the ultimate failure to rally and unify America in the cause to overcome the threat – this is all about as far from “leadership” as you could possibly conceive. 

Almost anyone who has witnessed real leadership in any setting, large or small, can readily see this.  Anyone who has read a paragraph about Lincoln during the Civil War, Churchill and the Blitz, FDR and the Depression and World War II, JFK and the Cuban missile crisis, knows well that the judgment of history hangs heavily on the navigation of these crises.  To even attempt to compare Trump’s pathetically underwhelming “leadership” to those titans is not worthy of the very few brainwaves it would take to reach a conclusion.

Lives have been lost.  There can be little doubt that if Trump had acted decisively in February to rally the nation to the magnitude of the crisis, endlessly exhorted proper hygiene and social distancing, worked hard to convince the governors to take aggressive shutdown steps, and commandeered those segments of industry required to meet the materials and testing shortfalls, tens of thousands of lives would have been saved.  Not to mention those famous federal stockpiles had been filled to capacity at some point in his three years at the helm.  Closing China, his favorite talking point, hardly amounts to an integrated strategy to fend off and control the obvious threat.

But the court of public opinion is never straightforward.  Nothing in Trump’s entire presidency has truly broken through to either convince his followers that he is wrong, nor his opponents that he is right.  Is there any sign of that now, now that the stakes are so high, the life and death nature of the battle so clear, now that this scourge has affected nearly everyone in the entire country in meaningful way?

Let’s take a look at the numbers.  The short answer is this:  he’s holding up on the broadest of gauges, not flying as he should be in a time of crisis (plenty of precedents) but holding ground.  But…there are clear cracks in the wall of support.

On the most basic measures, the evaluations of Trump’s performance are falling along standard partisan lines.  On the direct question of how he is handling of coronavirus crisis, Trump, from a starting point in the low 40% range when he was in his “denial” phase, enjoyed a brief when he period of improvement in mid-March.  This positive bump coincided with his March 17 press conference appeared to be taking the virus seriously for the first time, somberly announcing social distancing guidelines.  It almost immediately evaporated when Trump reversed course just days later and began talking about opening up the country according to his “beautiful” timeline, with the “pews filled” on Easter Sunday and the U.S. economy “rarin’ to go.”

TRUMP HANDLING OF CORONAVIRUS
Week ending
3/7
3/14
3/21
3/28
4/4
4/11
4/18
Approve
41
44
50
51
45
46
47
Disapprove
48
51
45
45
47
51
51
Net
-7
-7
5
6
-2
-5
-4

Morning Consult has a nice chart that captures this rise and fall quite clearly, and their data tracks reasonably well with the aggregated polls.

Image

Note that Trump did not get the same bump in his actual approval rating (below), at least not to the same degree and on the same timeframe.  It has lifted by a few points, to over 45% for the very first time since the earliest days of his presidency. 

TRUMP APPROVAL RATING
Week ending
3/7
3/14
3/21
3/28
4/4
4/11
4/18
Approve
44
44
44
46
47
44
46
Disapprove
54
53
54
52
51
54
52
Net
-10
-9
-10
-6
-4
-10
-6

So, he received a little bump and has not taken any dives.  But it has to be clear that it is far more typical for a nation to rally behind a president, with near universal support in a crisis, assuming the president makes the right leadership moves.  You don’t have to be Lincoln or FDR to meet this standard.  George H.W. Bush’s approval rating improved from the mid-50’s to as high as 86% (according to Gallup) in the run up and aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991.  George W. Bush’s approval rating rose from 51% to 86% (also Gallup) from the week before to the week after 9/11 in 2001.  JFK’s jumped from the low 60’s to 76% after his performance in averting a nuclear showdown in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  Barack Obama came into office in the midst of the Great Recession, and instantly converted Bush 43’s low approval rating (mid-30’s) into the 65% level he held in the early months of his presidency as he saved the country from potential economic ruin.

These were surely our country’s most threatening crises since World War II (the Vietnam War did not really have a single crisis flash point).  One might argue that these presidents operated in less polarized times, and that would be accurate, enabling higher levels of support.  On the other hand, each president received substantial bi-partisan praise for their handling of these events (in Bush 43’s case, at least until he shifted gears with the Iraq War).  And, to be clear, none of them were as divisive as Trump, and each, as noted, had a well of cross-party support to draw on as their crisis unfolded, as each came to their crisis with approval ratings over 50%.

Based on the data, one can reasonably (and easily) conclude that Trump – by virtue of both his underwhelming performance and his divisive approach to the crisis – has not done the same.  The paltry bump he has managed has not even taken him to the 50% mark.  He hasn’t lost ground – it appears – but he has certainly squandered an opportunity.   

But the actual picture is somewhat worse than that for Trump, when you dig a bit deeper.  Here are a few data points worth noting.

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll reveals that Trump is essentially last on the list of trusted sources for coronavirus information, well behind the CDC, their own state governors, Dr. Anthony Fauci and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo.  What is striking here is the 36% number, which is well below the 44% approval rating NBC/WSJ found in this same poll.  Trump may have retained the support of his base, but a portion of them no longer believe him when discussing the epochal crisis of our time.  They are getting their direction from others, and that is eye-opening. 

TRUST FOR CORONAVIRUS INFORMATION

Trust
Don't Trust
Net
CDC
69%
13%
+ 56 pp
Fauci
60%
8%
+ 52 pp
Your state governor
66%
20%
+ 46 pp
Cuomo
46%
18%
+ 28 pp
Pence
35%
41%
 - 6 pp
Trump
36%
52%
- 16 pp

Also of considerable note is an even more damning finding from a Pew survey.  Trump has been desperately fighting to re-shape the perception (and reality) that he was late to take the coronavirus seriously.  In press conference after press conference, he relies on a single action – stopping in-bound flights from China on January 30 – as evidence of his quick response.  But the lack of an overall strategy, the testing and materials shortages, the lack of leadership on social distancing or shutdown throughout February and into March are all clearly hurting him.  His efforts to rewrite history are simply not working, as evidenced by this Pew poll.

According to the poll, conducted last week, 65% of Americans believe Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis was “too slow.”  This is a damning figure that shows evidence of deep cracks among his base on a crucial measure.  One-third of all Republicans believe he was too slow.  On most measures regarding Trump, more like 90% of the GOP is behind him.  Here, only 66%.  (This echoed a similar question from the NBC/WSJ poll).

Most Americans say Trump’s early response to coronavirus was too slow

Once this devastating perception is married with estimates of how many lives could have been saved with a more urgent response – sure to be calculated in due course, before the election – this will be the cudgel Biden and the Democrats will wield against Trump down the stretch, with plenty of supportive facts and clips.

Finally, the American voter has been introduced far more broadly to a powerful set of politicians that do not normally see the national spotlight – our nation’s governors.  Trump himself has perhaps unwittingly elevated the governors to the limelight by his on again/off again assertions about their relative power to his; Andrew Cuomo’s masterful daily press conferences have been must-see-TV for many across the country; and Trump has decided at various times to attack governors he perceives as not paying him enough homage for his efforts.  Notable among the latter has been first-term Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who has faced a serious coronavirus outbreak in Detroit and has responded in winning fashion.  So winning, in fact, that she has quickly ascended to Joe Biden’s short list of potential vice-presidents.

Michigan is, of course, the ultimate battleground state, a reliably blue state for decades (since 1988) until Trump flipped it in 2016, one of the six flips that gave him upset victory (the others were Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.)  These are, of course, the states Joe Biden will target to flip back in November.  This is not a state to fumble away.

And yet, the polls show that Michigan residents approve of Whitmer’s handling of the coronavirus far more than Trump’s.  Attacking a popular governor (she has a 60% approval rating in her state) may not be the smartest idea. 

APPROVAL OF HANDLING CORONAVIRUS CRISIS

Approve
Disapprove
Whitmer
57%
37%
Trump
44%
50%

Finally, Trump, of course, has been encouraging states to re-open for business quickly, even supporting protesters chafing against self-quarantining.  But the American people are not with him.

According to a recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll from last week, Americans support statewide stay-at-home orders by a whopping 81%/8% margin.  And another recent poll, from YouGov/Yahoo, finds that only 22% of Americans support the protesters (while 60% oppose).  Even Republicans oppose those protester by a 47/36 margin.

In short, Trump has not managed to get America behind him on the crisis.  And while he has held his ground (albeit, in the unenviable 45% range) on overall job approval, his handling of the coronavirus crisis reveals a number of crucial areas in handling the crisis where he has sunk below the 40% “floor” that has characterized his presidency.