A recent survey conducted for the New York Times by Morning Consult found that, when looking back at the pandemic, American adults are more inclined to credit Democrats for their response to Covid-19 than Republicans. “A good issue for Democrats,” reads the headline that graces Times’ analyst David Leonhardt’s write-up of this survey. Republicans must hope that their opponents take this advice.
By 45 to just 32 percent, “Americans give the Democrats significantly higher marks,” Leonhardt writes of a poll that asked respondents to rate both parties’ “overall” handling of the pandemic. More Americans describe Republicans’ approach to managing the virus as “self-righteous,” “irresponsible,” and “divisive” than they do that of Democrats. Poll respondents deemed Democrats more “practical,” “trustworthy,” and “decisive.” The only pejorative that these adults assigned to Democrats more than Republicans was “overbearing,” which also describes the progressive approach to governance in general.
“Covid is one more issue on which many voters, including swing voters, view today’s Republican Party as out of touch,” Leonhardt observes. By contrast, “Biden’s balanced approach” to managing the pandemic’s competing priorities “is in tune with public opinion, as well as the bulk of scientific evidence.” This, the poll and its accompanying analysis suggest, is a good story to tell in an election year.
That is a proposition Republicans should be eager to test.
The assumption in voters’ minds that Democrats managed the pandemic adroitly while Republicans downplayed the threat is generally impressionistic. It can’t survive much scrutiny, so Democrats are likely to discourage retrospection when it comes to the pandemic. Indeed, the obvious political incentive to avoid a full reckoning with what we did in those dark days is what makes a reckoning so necessary.
At the outset of the pandemic, both parties were committed to the same objectives and pursued them in largely the same ways. Florida and Georgia imposed severe limitations on public life, just as California and New York did. Republicans in control of the White House and the Senate worked with Democrats to rush relief funds out the door to stave off Depression-era levels of unemployment. As Leonhardt notes, then-President Donald Trump made a number of false predictions in the early days of the pandemic, many of which can be attributed to the wish fathering the thought. But as the Leonhardt also notes, much of Trump’s rhetorical recklessness (promoting vaccine skepticism, for example) escaped his mouth after he left office. And Joe Biden, too, issued his share of reckless comments and bad predictions about the trajectory this unpredictable outbreak would follow.
The public’s impressions of how “Republicans” writ large governed during the pandemic is likely influenced by the ways in which GOP lawmakers at the state level began experimenting with re-opening strategies. Those experimental policies, while informed by data that wasn’t available until the late spring of 2020, were lampooned in the press. But the blood orgy over which figures such as Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemp were supposed to have presided never materialized.
Do Americans resent the fact that early on these Republican governors struck the proper balance between preserving life and ensuring that it’s still worth living? Consider the many states that followed their leads. Both governors are on the ballot this November, and neither one has shied away from his record during the pandemic. On those rare occasion when the pandemic is a live political issue, it’s usually Republicans making it one. What’s preventing their opponents from relitigating the Covid era if this is such a winning issue for Democrats?
Of course, voters might resent the idea that their lives were the subject of experimentation at all, but they were. And not just in red America.
Children were the subjects of experimental educational theories, few of which have much to say for them. We experimented with race-based medical-care rationing. We experimented with the criminal-justice system, curtailing bail requirements and emptying cells at a dizzying rate. We experimented with programs that were designed to flood the economy with liquidity, only to discover that these programs were perhaps the nation’s biggest ever bonanza for fraudsters. We experimented with violating the rights of property owners and business owners—without any constitutional basis, as it turned out—to meet the measure of the moment even when that moment had long passed.
At the time, however, it was hard to see that the justification for extraordinary pandemic-related interventions was behind us. This was partly because of polls like this one published in the Times. It wasn’t until early 2022 that a plurality of Americans began to tell pollsters that the worst of the pandemic was finally behind us. Even then, Americans remained warm to Covid-vaccine mandates in schools and workplaces. According to CNN’s polling, 45 percent—a plurality of poll takers—said only that they “felt safe enough” to resume pre-pandemic life by December 2021, up from just 36 percent that September.
At least, that’s what they were telling pollsters. In survey after survey, Americans repeatedly registered their pandemic-induced depression, anxiety, and pessimism. But even before the advent and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, Americans did not evince the kind of apprehension in their daily lives they were sharing with pollsters. By mid-2021, for example, University of Maryland researchers tracked movement data captured by cellphones and found that Americans were regularly traveling away from their homes—defined as a mile or more—more often than they did even before the onset of the pandemic.
Not all, but some Americans were telling pollsters what they knew they were supposed to say. Covid anxiety was encouraged and promoted as best practice, and Americans dutifully obliged. That raises an interesting question: Are Americans grateful for the heavy-handed paternalism they experienced in the pandemic? Will they go to the polls to reward the party that saddled them with socially destabilizing policies and forced them to observe obviously talismanic hygiene protocols? Or more to the point, are there more voters who are thankful for all that than there are voters who remain bitter over it? Which party do you think would be more comfortable with the outcome of that contest?
Plenty of Republicans will see this poll, accept its premise, and conclude that Covid isn’t a winning issue for the GOP. Best to just forget the whole soul-crushing experience. That would be a crime against posterity, but it would also be an act of political malpractice. America needs a clear-eyed retrospective on the pandemic—both what we got right and what we got wrong—and only one political party is going to give it to them. Republicans should be eager to correct the record. It’s hard to imagine Democrats will be as enthusiastic.