In this time of crisis as Donald Trump flails away and mixes baseless boasting with misleading information, it is the nation’s governors who have had to step into the leadership vacuum thus created. Mike DeWine is the Republican governor of Ohio, the state I used to live in until last year. He has been in politics for almost all his adult life and became governor last year at the age of 72 but he really did not have much to show for that long career. He is a traditional Republican and an ardent opponent of abortion who signed into law the controversial “heartbeat” measure that was so extreme that his Republican predecessor John Kasich had repeatedly vetoed it.
But in the current crisis, he has shown the kind of leadership that Trump is incapable of. Key to his approach is the deference he gives to health experts in setting policy, and this has drawn praise from Democrats in the state as well.
In the middle of intense partisanship and frustration over how Trump has handled the coronavirus response so far, Democrats have been exuberant in their praise for DeWine. David Pepper, who failed in a bid to unseat DeWine as attorney general in 2014 and now chairs the Ohio Democratic Party, has cheered DeWine’s response. Emilia Sykes, the Democratic leader in the Ohio House of Representatives, told me she has largely positive views of DeWine’s efforts. “What DeWine is showing us is what happens when you have someone experienced in this role,” she said. “The reach goes far, the relationships are long.”
Sykes has been especially impressed with DeWine’s empowerment of Amy Acton, the health director who’s been a major presence at the daily press conferences. Acton has built up her own devoted following: An Ohio T-shirt company printed a tribute to her this week; a TV reporter presented her with flowers Thursday.
DeWine allies point to Acton’s appointment last year as a testament to good judgment. The top spot at the Ohio Department of Health can be a soft landing for patronage hires or career bureaucrats. It was the last Cabinet post DeWine filled, at least in part because he took time to find someone with both experience in public health and strong communication skills.
“A lot of times people hire administrators,” Husted, DeWine’s lieutenant governor, observed. “He wanted to hire a doctor that really understood how public health worked. It was that decision that put Amy Acton in that place. Who better could you have in that position at this moment?”
Acton “has been both that voice of confidence and authority but also reassurance,” Frank LaRose, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, told me. “She’s been reassuring to Ohioans while at the same time not sugarcoating things. He’s been right there by her side saying, ‘I’m the governor, the buck stops here, and what my health director says is law.’”
Even Democratic New York governor Andrew Cuomo, whom I have excoriated many times on this blog for his regressive machine politics, has earned plaudits all round for providing the kind of leadership in this crisis that people need.
Contrast that with Trump who refuses to accept any responsibility for anything, blames others for any and all failings, and even suggested that the anti-malarial drug chloroquine would be effective against the coronavirus, contradicting how own health expert as well as the WHO who have said there is no evidence for this and that it could be dangerous.
Earlier in the week, Trump had said he had a good feeling about the use of anti-malaria drugs for COVID-19. “I feel good about it. That’s all it is. Just a feeling,” he said. “You know, I’m a smart guy. I feel good about it. And we’re going to see. You’re going to see soon enough.” Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, pushed back against the claim emphasizing that it was all based on anecdotal evidence.
Trump cheerleading of the unproven treatment has led to concerns about possible shortages among doctors and patients with diseases, including lupus, that rely on the drugs. “Rheumatologists are furious about the hype going on over this drug,” Dr. Michael Lockshin, of the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, tells the New York Times. “There is a run on it and we’re getting calls every few minutes, literally, from patients who are trying to stay on the drug and finding it in short supply.”
Trump is a positive danger to public health. The best leadership he could provide is shut the hell up.