But being an outsider is overrated, and nothing makes that clearer than the deadly pandemic sweeping the nation and the world. Trump is mishandling every aspect of the crisis — misinforming the public about the disease, playing down the gravity of the threat and refusing to send equipment where it is desperately needed. It turns out that experience and skill in government matter, as is evident from the contrast between the president’s performance and that of governors who often have spent their careers in public service. Crisis leadership is no place for a dilettante.
The outbreak in New York has been clearly explained because a career politician, Gov. Andrew Cuomo — who also served as U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development and his state’s attorney general — has risen to the occasion, working urgently but methodically to meet New York’s needs and giving informative daily news conferences with a serious but calm demeanor. New Yorkers find Cuomo so reassuring that the 62-year-old has become an unlikely sex symbol.
The other states with the most coronavirus cases, Washington and California, have been guided by the steady hands of longtime politicians Jay Inslee and Gavin Newsom, respectively. Both governors, like Cuomo, moved to slow the spread of the contagion by first prohibiting large gatherings, then closing nonessential businesses and issuing orders to stay at home. All three Democrats have eschewed the president’s penchant for making false promises about when the infection rate will peak and when things will get back to normal. Arguably, all three should have instituted more draconian measures earlier. But they were in the difficult position of leading, rather than following the federal government.
Both Inslee and Newsom embody certain political archetypes that outsiders and disaffected voters often mock. Inslee is the bland technocrat who methodically worked his way up from the Washington legislature to Congress to the governor’s mansion, with a stop along the way as a regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Newsom is a different model: the handsome, carefully coifed wunderkind who was, upon his appointment in 1996, the youngest member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He became mayor before he turned 40 and then served as California’s lieutenant governor. Newsom made a fortune running a winery before entering politics, but he still began his trajectory as a local legislator, rising along with his knowledge base, rather than starting at the highest point.
Republican governors, too, have led ably. Mike DeWine of Ohio was the first to close schools, doing so when there were only five confirmed cases in his state. DeWine, a former U.S. senator and lieutenant governor, undoubtedly saved lives by taking swift and decisive action. Larry Hogan of Maryland also shut schools early and has won bipartisan applause for his unequivocal, nonpartisan messaging about the dangers of public gatherings. Although he spent years in the private sector, Hogan also spent weekends in his dad’s office when the elder Hogan served in Congress and worked for his father when the elder Hogan was Prince George’s County executive, and he served as Maryland’s secretary of appointments.
Trump is not the only political newcomer to mishandle the coronavirus pandemic. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who was a coal mining executive before running for office in 2016, “has rambled through mixed messages on the virus, diminishing his credibility with some West Virginians who have said it’s been a struggle to discern exactly what he wants them to do,” as the Associated Press reported Monday. Last weekend he gave a speech in which, the Charleston Gazette-Mail observed, he urged action but didn’t take any himself. Days earlier, he said people should feel free to go to Bob Evans, a restaurant chain.
Similarly, Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, another businessman turned political novice, tweeted a picture of himself and his family at a packed restaurant earlier this month and gushed over the crowd behind him. Even Trump, when asked about Stitt’s now-deleted tweet, said restaurants were probably best avoided. Stitt’s spokesman responded that the governor would “continue to take his family out to dinner and to the grocery store without living in fear and encourages Oklahomans to do the same.”
Of course, not every experienced politician has handled the coronavirus perfectly. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a former city councilman, was slow to implement strict social distancing measures and encouraged New Yorkers to hit their favorite bars just hours before the city closed them. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a former member of Congress, has been criticized for his refusal to close some beaches and businesses because he fears the economic impact. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who served as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court and as state attorney general, was reluctant to order statewide business shutdowns. As a conservative committed to minimal government and local control, Abbott has preferred to leave public health decisions up to localities. (He eventually limited the size of gatherings and closed bars, restaurants and gyms; he suggested Tuesday that he may go further.)
One explanation for the varied performances among politicians is that those who, like Trump, seem less interested in the managerial aspects of politics are less likely to handle a crisis capably. De Blasio’s, Abbott’s and DeSantis’s errors, like some of Trump’s, stemmed from an apparent reluctance to sacrifice their ideological commitments or political allies. Trump, a former business executive, has refused to use the Defense Production Act to produce medical equipment after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and corporate executives lobbied him against it. De Blasio, whose failed run for president centered on big-government progressive slogans, justified delaying business and school closures because he feared the loss of income for waitstaff and the lack of food and child care for families who rely on schools to provide those necessities.
And not all political experience is the same. De Blasio had been an activist and a campaign manager before becoming a city council member and the city’s public advocate. His role was always that of an advocate rather than a bureaucrat or executive, and his managerial performance in City Hall has been questioned before.
But no one has failed more spectacularly at combating coronavirus than the president. And while he spends time maligning some of the politicians whose decisions he dislikes, they are stepping up to fill his leadership void. Perhaps, in 2024, some of them will run for president and proudly introduce themselves as just another lifelong politician.