Opinion - Politics

Op-Ed: Coronavirus sniping proves politics is the real problem

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Key Points
  • There is no longer any doubt that the global coronavirus outbreak is extremely serious and possibly the greatest health crisis the world has seen in many decades.
  • It's also what might be our government's last chance to prove it's something other than the scene of a partisan mud wrestling match.
  • So far, it's not looking so good.
President Donald Trump talks with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) as he meets with the Senate and House Democratic leadership at the White House in Washington, December 11, 2018.
Kevin Lemarque | Reuters

There is no longer any doubt that the global coronavirus outbreak is extremely serious and possibly the greatest health crisis the world has seen in many decades.

It's also what might be our government's last chance to prove it's something other than the scene of a partisan mud wrestling match.

So far, it's not looking so good.

Our leading politicians on both sides of the aisle seem more interested in playing the blame game as this threat grows. President Donald Trump continued that trend and kicked it up a notch Wednesday morning by blaming Democrats and the news media for sowing panic:

Trump tweet

Trump's pushback came after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, spent the last few days attacking Trump's response as inadequate.

Schumer on Wednesday requested $8.5 billion to respond to the growing crisis. Trump on Tuesday had asked Congress to approve up to $2.5 billion, with some of that money coming out of funds originally earmarked to fight Ebola.

Schumer tweet

Schumer's alarmism stands in contrast to criticism Trump received from other bureaucrats and diplomats as recently as January 31 when he declared a "public health emergency."

That declaration included not allowing foreign nationals who recently visited China to enter the U.S., and subjecting American citizens returning from mainland China to 14-day quarantines. At the time, a former head of the CDC's Public Health Preparedness and Response team called the travel ban an extraordinary measure. China blasted the travel ban as excessive and questioned America's empathy.

Schumer didn't defend Trump then. It would have been nice if he had, but that wasn't likely since Schumer's Twitter feed and public appearances were dominated during that period by the Senate impeachment trial and his complaints about the lack of witnesses being called.

Trump predictably pushed back on Schumer earlier this week, and now he's lumped the Democrats and the news media into his line of fire. So here we are, back at nasty politics as usual even as this deadly virus is still spreading across the world.

Trump may still have an opportunity to set a more positive tone at the White House news conference scheduled for Wednesday evening. He is clearly trying to reduce the likelihood that some kind of national panic arises, making dealing with the virus all the harder to achieve.

But chances seem slimmer now that he will take this opportunity to extend an olive branch to his opponents and ask them to help come up with new ideas to protect the country.

Trump must do more than try to make nice with the Democrats. Rather than overly assuring comments, we need more details about what steps the administration is taking beyond the travel ban and the quarantines.

Now would be a good time to do at least some of what Schumer and others are calling for, and name someone to take a very public lead on dealing with the crisis. It needn't be a new appointee, as Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar would be a fine choice.

The simple fact is someone other than Trump should be making the administration's official comments about the virus every day. That's even though it's understood that Trump ultimately bears responsibility for what the administration does.

Of course the more Schumer and Trump bait each other about it, the slimmer the chances are that the president will hand off that particular part of the job to Azar or anyone else.

As for Trump, this would be a good time for him to figure out that he doesn't need to punch back at all of his critics all the time.

Speaking of scoring points and punching back, at Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate the candidates didn't offer many real solutions to the burning coronavirus threat. It was more than an hour into the two-hour affair before the virus was even mentioned. Only Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) took the high road and didn't try to score partisan points on the issue.

For those of us who prefer less government activity, partisan gridlock has often been a blessing in disguise. But this is the kind of public health threat that even most hardcore libertarians consider to be the responsibility of governments to handle.

What we've seen so far is not just disappointing when it comes to addressing this coronavirus threat. But there's a chance that permanent damage to the country's political institutions will be the result of this continued bickering in the face of a very serious pandemic.

If we can't trust the nation's top leaders to stop sniping at each other now, do we have to wait until we see thousands of Americans die before they do?

Jake Novak is a political and economic analyst at Jake Novak News and former CNBC TV producer. You can follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

CORRECTION: This story was updated to reflect the proper spelling of coronavirus.