As California Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a recall election, is he managing the COVID-19 pandemic scientifically or politically?
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With the nation at war in 1944, tunesmiths Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer wrote an uplifting song for a morale-building movie, “Here Come the Waves.”
“You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative,” Bing Crosby crooned. “Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”
It’s doubtful that Gov. Gavin Newsom, born in 1967, ever saw the movie or heard the song, but he was humming it last week in an elaborately staged State of the State address in an empty Dodger Stadium.
Newsom boasted that California, with himself at the helm, has survived the COVID-19 pandemic and “so now, we look ahead to better days with the California can-do spirit — with the energy and optimism that defines us — we will beat this virus and realize our dream of a California for All.”
It was clearly a campaign speech by a politician who faces the likelihood of a recall election later this year, using his official pulpit to persuade voters that he’s been working hard for them and thus deserves to remain in office.
Newsom overstated the positive — a half-truth, for instance, that “California’s death rate has remained one of the lowest per capita in the nation” — and downplayed the negative. He glossed over the complete meltdown at the Employment Development Department, an erratic vaccination program and his passive attitude toward reopening schools until the recall was on the verge of qualifying.
Newsom dismissed the negatives in one brief passage: “And look, we’ve made mistakes. I’ve made mistakes. But we own them, learn from them, and never stop trying.”
And he referred to the recall only obliquely, saying, “We won’t change course just because of a few naysayers and doomsdayers. So to the California critics, who are promoting partisan power grabs and outdated prejudices, and rejecting everything that makes California great, we say this: we will not be distracted from getting shots in arms and our economy booming again.”
There is a larger issue — whether in his obvious desire to persuade Californians that he’s managing the pandemic well, he’s allowed political factors to influence it.
Newsom insisted last week that “we listened to the experts and were guided by the evidence” in managing COVID-19, but which activities were shut down and which were allowed to continue had tinges of politics from the earliest days of the crisis a year ago.
“We were the first state to issue a stay-at-home order, which helped us avoid early spikes in cases,” Newsom boasted, and that’s true. But he also eased up a few weeks later in response, as he acknowledged at the time, to complaints about millions of jobs being erased, and then cracked down again when infection rates spiked upward.
Thus began a rollercoaster ride of openings and closures that seemed to coincide with the political influence various interest groups wielded, leaving many Californians confused and eventually angered about the seemingly arbitrary nature of Newsom’s decrees.
Overtly political aspects became especially evident in recent weeks when the recall movement neared the threshold of 1.5 million signatures on petitions to force an election. Suddenly, the state eased up on restrictions by redefining its county-by-county “tiers” and Newsom, after months of passivity, pushed hard to reopen schools.
Newsom cited lower infection rates as his rationale, but he had done that previously in easing up on restrictions only to reimpose them when infections spiked upward. He’s betting that easements will continue and that as children return to classrooms, businesses reopen, unemployment rates drop and Californians’ mood brightens, he can accentuate the positive and beat the recall.