Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) barred spectators from an annual fitness and bodybuilding festival before there were any confirmed covid-19 cases in his state. He was the first governor to close schools. Despite controversy, he used the state’s health emergency powers to delay this past Tuesday’s state primaries.
The Toledo Blade recently quoted Nan Whaley, the Democratic mayor of Dayton, Ohio, as saying of DeWine, “He knows it’s coming, and he’s preparing us before we can even see it. That’s tremendously difficult leadership to show.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) faced the crisis earlier than most when the virus struck a nursing home in the Seattle area. That state has more deaths recorded to date than any other state, but Inslee has, so far, not done what Cuomo, Newsom and Pritzker have done in ordering people to stay home.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who chairs the National Governors Association, closed schools shortly after Ohio had done the same and has followed up with other restrictions on businesses ahead of federal guidelines. He also postponed the state’s scheduled April 28 primaries.
Not all governors have been so proactive. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Thursday called for the closing of bars, restaurants and schools but not before mayors of some major cities in that state had already moved unilaterally in the absence of gubernatorial action. The Texas Tribune described Abbott’s move as “a remarkable shift after he spent days deferring to local officials on virus-related issues.”
When the federal government faltered earlier, governors stepped in. Many have been demonstrating the kind of leadership that was missing in Washington as the coronavirus continued to gain force, including a recognition that this is not a time for buck passing.
President Trump was asked a week ago whether he should shoulder any blame for the delays and missteps by the federal government earlier this year. He responded by saying, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” He has maintained that posture, even as he has begun to take a more serious attitude toward the situation.
Contrast Trump’s blame-shifting with what Cuomo said on Friday when he announced the stay-at-home restrictions. “If someone is unhappy and somebody wants to blame someone or complain about someone, blame me,” he said. “There is no one else who is responsible for this decision.”
Trump has sparred with some state leaders who have demanded swifter action by the federal government. Two weeks ago, he called Inslee “a snake” and said he did not want to deal with him. Vice President Pence, who heads the federal coronavirus task force, took another tack, praising Inslee and his staff for the steps they were taking and maintaining good relations.
Trump also needled Cuomo on Twitter, but state-level officials say that in recent days there has been a greater spirit of cooperation between the president and the governors, in meetings and on conference calls. Trump has since taken to praising Newsom, and he reportedly has had good conversations with Cuomo.
But the president still loses focus on the pandemic and lashes out when there is any hint of criticism. On Friday, he aimed his ire at NBC’s Peter Alexander for asking what message the president would have for Americans who are scared. “I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say,” Trump replied.
That governors have become leading public actors at a moment the country is facing one of the biggest health threats in a century is all the more notable, given that they were afterthoughts in this year’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, just as they were in the 2016 Republican nomination battle.
Citizens are looking to governors now for action and reassurance; voters looked past them when deciding who should be president.
Inslee declared his candidacy for the Democratic nomination on March 1, 2019. He said combating the enormous threats posed by climate change would be the signature focus of his campaign and his presidency. By mid-August, he was out of the race. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper was gone a week ahead of Inslee. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock suspended his candidacy by early December. Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who announced late, barely left a trace.
In 2016, there were even more sitting or former governors seeking the Republican nomination, including Florida’s Jeb Bush, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Texas’s Rick Perry, Arkansas’ Mike Huckabee and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. Some, like Bush and Christie, had dealt with natural disasters and had earned high marks. Only John Kasich, then the governor of Ohio, lasted into the spring of the nomination battle, though he won only his home state.
From 1976 through 2000, governors seemed to have the upper hand in presidential nomination campaigns. Jimmy Carter, who had been governor of Georgia, won the presidency in 1976. He was defeated in 1980 by Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California. He was succeeded by his vice president, George H.W. Bush, but in 1992, Bill Clinton, the governor of Arkansas, defeated Bush. Eight years later, George W. Bush, the governor of Texas, succeeded Clinton.
Since then, the White House has been occupied by Barack Obama, a first-term senator, and Trump, a businessman with no governing experience. The next president will not come from the ranks of governors, as the campaign is now down to former vice president (and former senator) Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Trump.
Last Sunday’s debate between Biden and Sanders, which came as the full impact of the crisis was being felt widely, featured extended squabbling between the two candidates over Senate votes that took place a decade or more ago. Meanwhile, governors were dealing with the realities of trying to mitigate the worst of the coronavirus outbreak.
Governors will continue to look to Washington as the battle continues. They will be asking for help in securing more medical supplies. They will need money to help refill depleted state budget accounts. They also have their limitations. But in a federal system, much of the burden of dealing with something like this threat falls on the states, and in the face of an event this massive and unexpected, many governors have risen to the moment with presidential-style leadership.