Unforced Errors

Thursday, July 9, 2020

This week, both presidential candidates made major unforced errors. Both did so fumbling toward the same goals: solidifying support in their party base and revving up the base’s enthusiasm. This focus makes more sense for Biden since the party’s left wing, led by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is deeply skeptical of the former vice president, who has a long track record as a center-left “insider.”

Trump, on the other hand, has no need to convince his base, and it is perplexing why he spends so much time doing so. Polls show that 90 percent of Republicans already support him, most with real enthusiasm. His focus should be on persuading independent voters. That’s where Trump is so vulnerable. Only about one-third of independents currently support him, and his latest mistake only compounds their disillusion.

What Were the Errors?

In Biden’s case, the fumble came when he promised to “transform” America. “We’re going to beat Donald Trump,” he tweeted on July 5. “And when we do, we won’t just rebuild this nation—we’ll transform it.” Now he will be forced to say what that means.

Whatever he says will hurt him, first, because his proposals will break the bank and require a bigger federal government; second, because they require him to explain himself in detail, which is not exactly his strong suit. Making a major policy speech or answering tough questions is often a bridge too far, and he has made every effort to avoid crossing it.

Those problems are serious, but there is an even bigger issue with his statement. Biden’s transformational promise undercuts his most appealing message: that Trump has taken America off the rails and that he, Biden, will restore the country to normalcy. After the tumultuous Trump years, Biden’s best argument is to say, “I will return the nation to the calm, steady progress that characterized the Obama-Biden administration and led America forward. I worked hand-in-hand with President Obama, so I know how to do that.”

His best strategy is to leave his promises as vague as he can get away with, much as Richard Nixon did in 1968, when he vowed to end the Vietnam War with “peace and honor.” No one had any idea what that meant. They read their own hopes into it. Similarly, Biden won’t win the White House with detailed policy proposals. He’ll win, if he does, because people think he’s a likable guy who promises stability, as opposed to Trump, whom many dislike and who has overturned familiar Washington policies, practices, and norms.

In the primaries, Biden seemed to understand his own appeal. He stressed a center-left message, such as supporting revisions and extensions of the Affordable Care Act rather than the wholesale overhaul of healthcare promised by Sanders, Warren, and others. Now, however, he is saying he will support much bigger changes. He will be the president of the Green New Deal, the leader who appointed Ocasio-Cortez to cochair his task force on energy. Goodbye fossil fuels, hello solar—plus all the regulations and government subsidies that go with it.

Trump will use dark, frightening colors to fill in the missing details of Biden’s promised “transformation.” That makes perfect sense since the president’s best path is to make this a one-on-one race, pitting his next four years against Biden’s. He will insist that Biden wants to pursue socialist, big-government, high-tax, onerous-regulatory policies and doesn’t have the backbone to stand up to the progressive wing of his party. Trump’s ads will say that, behind Biden’s smile, he and his family are thoroughly corrupt, the poster children for the Washington Swamp. Biden may tout his working-class Scranton roots, but his family has grown rich, thanks entirely to his government connections in Ukraine, China, and elsewhere. That will be one prong of Trump’s attacks.

Biden’s best response is to make this race about Trump and hope that popular revulsion against the incumbent and Biden’s own support for mainstream Democratic policies will carry him to victory. The trick is to promote those policies without dividing or alienating his party’s activist, left-wing base. His tweet promising “transformation” shows just how difficult that will be.

Making the “return to normalcy” case against Trump is easier. Biden is aided, obviously, by the president’s overexposure, polarizing statements, and erratic tweets, all of which are, and will continue to be, highlighted by the media. Trump’s tweet last weekend, favoring the Confederate flag at NASCAR and attacking the only Black driver, Bubba Wallace, shows the president at his worst. His comments are both wrong and breathtakingly dumb. There is dwindling support for Confederate symbols, and rightly so. Independents hate them. So do educated voters. They see them as emblems of treason and racism, not of benign Southern pride. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) showed a clear understanding of these issues when he discussed NASCAR’s recent ban on Confederate symbols. The auto-racing association, he said, “is trying to grow the sport. I've lived in South Carolina all my life and if you're in business, the Confederate flag is not a good way to grow your business.”

It’s not a good way to grow your electoral support either. Graham knows it, and so should Trump. The president’s tweet plays directly into the Democratic Party theme that he and his fellow Republicans are racists. If people believe that, they will vote for Democrats.

How Can the Candidates Overcome These Errors?

If these unforced errors were rarities, they would pass quickly. Unfortunately for both candidates, they aren’t, and they won’t. They reveal each man’s enduring difficulties. Biden’s problem is that he now appears to be a tottering weathervane, pointing whichever way the wind blows. Voters see his cognitive decline and wonder who will actually govern the country if he is elected. There are good reasons why Biden stays in his basement, avoids press conferences, and invites only softball interviews. He’s harder to find than Waldo and more averse to hard questions than Prince Andrew. And, truth be told, why should he leave the couch when he’s gaining in the polls, thanks to Trump’s troubles?

Trump’s biggest troubles—the pandemic and ensuing economic collapse—are not of his making. But many of his other problems are all his own, particularly his self-defeating impulsiveness.

Amid these troubles, Trump has been handed a huge political opportunity, thanks to riots and destruction in Democratic cities, mindless efforts to defund the police, and visceral anti-Americanism of left-wing activists, including many elected Democrats. Trump has failed to exploit these opportunities, thanks, once again, to his own limitations and self-inflicted errors. These miscues are not oversights or one-time errors. They happen repeatedly, as he steps on his own message and defends the indefensible, such as the Confederate flag. He seems unable to help himself or exert the self-discipline to stop.

For Trump to win, he must minimize these unforced errors, limit his overexposure, and stress three compelling arguments. First, he must argue that, unlike Biden, he will restore rapid economic growth, starting with a new round of tax cuts. That’s his best argument, the one with the widest appeal, and it should be the centerpiece of his campaign. Second, Trump must show that, unlike Biden, he can restore domestic order and pride in America. That means drawing a sharp contrast between his own vision of America and Biden’s vision. The president thinks we are a shining example, exemplified by heroes like those on the Washington Mall and Mount Rushmore. The former vice president, Trump will say, thinks much of American history is a disgrace. “Just look at what his supporters are doing in the streets.” Finally, Trump needs to make the case that he is far better qualified to protect and defend our country from foreign threats, especially China’s growing danger. He should argue that the Obama-Biden administration allowed the US military to decay but that he rebuilt it, not to embark on foreign wars but to deter them. He should add that Biden still doesn’t understand the Chinese threat and actually profits from his family’s ties to Beijing and its communist leaders.

Both candidates have potentially winning messages. Unfortunately, right now, neither one is tightly focused on making them. Each is too busy shooting himself in the foot. Or perhaps the shots are landing, even more painfully, higher up.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. His recent articles for The Bridge include pieces on Biden’s difficulties in picking a running mate and pandemic-related trends. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

Photo credit: Ron Przysucha/State Department

Biden and Trump undermine their best arguments

Why It’s So Hard for Biden to Pick a Running Mate

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The candidate known for his gaffes topped himself when he told an African American interviewer that if he had trouble choosing between him and Donald Trump for president, he “ain’t black.” Later, after Joe Biden’s advisers finished smacking their heads, the former vice president issued a groveling apology.

That was good enough for some black politicians and commentators. Take Donna Brazile, the Democratic Party’s interim chair in 2016. After the apology, she considered the issue over and done. CNN and NBC barely mentioned it. “Nothing to see here. Let’s move on.” Other black politicians and celebrities were less forgiving, though few said it disqualified the former vice president. Whether they were harsh or forgiving, all African American commentators agreed on one thing: Democrats cannot take black votes for granted this November.

Strategists in both parties saw their point. Trump was already striving to win black support before the pandemic crushed the economy. Now, as the economy reopens, he will renew that appeal and exploit Biden’s comment. Even a small increase in his 2016 vote total among African Americans could be decisive in swing states.

Biden’s blunder also underscored an inconvenient truth, universally acknowledged: it is dangerous to let the former vice president speak extemporaneously. At any moment, his train of thought could run off the tracks and crash into a ravine. It happens repeatedly. The safe choice is to stick with the teleprompter. But that’s not always possible, and when it is, it makes for dull viewing. You can’t do interviews that way; you can’t talk with voters and donors that way; and you certainly can’t generate voter enthusiasm that way.

Biden’s foot-in-mouth disease is one reason party pooh-bahs worry about the general election. They know Trump is vulnerable, but they wonder if Biden can capitalize. Many believe the former vice president is, at best, a “generic Democrat” who will capture the anti-Trump vote, appealing to those who want to “return to normal” after the disruptive Trump years. To win, however, Biden needs more than that bland appeal. He needs to promote a vigorous, forward-looking agenda that energizes both party activists and independent voters.

Capturing both activists and independents is tricky, even for candidates more adroit than Biden. The party faithful lean left; independents are more centrist. It’s hard to appeal to one without alienating the other. It’s even harder in the era of cellphones, when everything is recorded and circulated on social media. In ancient times, when phones were used only for talking, candidates could say one thing to Manhattan donors, another to San Francisco progressives, and yet another to moderates in suburban Atlanta or Philadelphia. No more. Those days have been buried alongside Ma Bell.

So far, Biden’s only viral moments have been negative ones. His home-baked video conferences haven’t helped. Few have watched them. Those who did were treated to more technical glitches than a high school musical. It’s obvious Biden has to try something different, and soon. He has to ramp up a sophisticated online campaign, and he has to get out of his basement and start flying around the country. Although he can’t hold regular rallies—no one can—he can introduce his policy initiatives in telegenic locations, something Trump is already doing.

He must also make his most consequential decision before the fall campaign: who will be his running mate? There are three major constraints on that choice. First, given Biden’s age, voters want to know that his vice presidential pick is prepared to become president. Second, because the Democratic coalition depends on identity politics, both African Americans and women must approve the choice. Biden has already committed to choosing a woman. Now, as the first white male to lead the Democratic ticket since 2004, he is being pressed to pick a woman of color. Third, he must cope with left-wing activists who demand transformational policies far beyond those of the Obama administration. They voted for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the primaries and have never embraced Biden. He needs their support in the general election. His track record makes that a hard sell.

The flurry of indignation about Biden’s “you ain’t black” gaffe underscores the importance of picking someone popular with African Americans. Without their backing, Biden would never have won the nomination. The crucial moment came when the highest-ranking black member of the U.S. House of Representatives, James Clyburn (D-S.C.), endorsed him just before the primary in Clyburn’s home state. That endorsement reinforced Biden’s main appeal to African Americans: he was Barack Obama’s choice for vice president.

Biden’s success in the South Carolina primary highlights a characteristic feature of modern Democratic Party politics. To win nationally, their candidates need strong black support. That not only means voting for Democrats in overwhelming percentages, it means turning out in large numbers. That’s true for many state and local candidates, as well. One reason Hillary Clinton lost, despite holding Trump to only 8% of the black vote, is that she couldn’t generate a large turnout in the African American community. Because they stayed home in Cleveland, she stayed home in Chappaqua.

These calculations bear on Biden’s choice for a running mate. His racial gaffe makes it even more important to restore his reputation among black voters and generate some excitement. That’s good news for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) and bad news for Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Klobuchar and Warren captured almost no black votes in the primaries. Black activists had warned Biden not to pick either one even before the Minnesota riots ruled out Klobuchar. (During her tenure as a Minneapolis-area prosecutor from 1996 to 2006, Klobuchar was criticized by liberal activists of being too soft on alleged police violence.)

The putative candidacy of Stacey Abrams, the imaginary governor of Georgia, is not serious. Although she is actively campaigning for the VP slot, her only significant support comes from partisan journalists in the Acela corridor, where reporters and editors produce fawning profiles. They depict Abrams, quite literally, as a caped crusader. Unfortunately for Abrams, who lost the only statewide race she ever ran, Batman himself has a better chance of becoming vice president.

Biden’s problems with key Democratic constituencies are not limited to African Americans, and those, too, will affect his choice. The progressive left still greets him with skepticism. He’s not one of them, and they know it. He’s a Beltway insider. The former vice president tried to run as a center-left candidate, but, time after time, he moved left to win support among progressive activists.

It is particularly striking—and a major sign of weakness—that Biden has continued to move left after winning the primaries. Normally, a candidate would edge toward the center, targeting undecided swing voters in the general election. Biden has not done that. Why not? Because he still needs to shore up his base. Within the Democratic Party, that base is chock-full of progressives. They didn’t capture the nomination this time or last, but they demand to be heard. Biden and his team understand that. Again, the issue is not whether the left favors Biden over Trump but whether they are enthused enough to campaign, donate, and vote.

Biden recognized these ideological concerns when he appointed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to co-chair his new committee on energy policy. Consider what that means. As principal sponsor of the Green New Deal, AOC is anathema in Pennsylvania’s fracking country, and Biden needs Pennsylvania to win. The inexorable conclusion is that, even though AOC hurts Biden in Pennsylvania (and Ohio) oil country, as well as Michigan’s auto belt, he is willing to accept the damage there because he needs national progressive support even more. That’s why Biden has pledged to appoint progressive co-chairs for all his policy committees. He is betting these concessions will help him more on the left than they will hurt him in the center. It’s a big bet, and it’s far from clear he will win it.

These problems, plus Biden’s earlier promise to pick a female running mate, leave him with a limited set of options. He has to pick someone who will strengthen his standing among progressives, consolidate his support among African Americans, and convince everyone she could move into the Oval Office immediately. Voters always consider the vice president’s fitness to govern. It matters even more this year because Biden is the oldest candidate ever to run. Indeed, he will be older on Inauguration Day than Ronald Reagan was when he left office. Concerns over Biden’s age and health (he has not released his medical records) make his choice for vice president as weighty as the one Democrats made in 1944, when party leaders feared—correctly, as it turned out—that Franklin Roosevelt would not complete a final term.

These distinct problems are pulling Biden in different directions, forcing him to make hard trade-offs under tight constraints. No VP hopeful can check all the boxes. For Biden and his inner circle, the overriding question is “Who checks the most important ones?” Picking the right name on that short list is Biden’s biggest decision this summer.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. His recent contributions to The Bridge include articles on threatening judges and pandemic-related trends. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

Photo Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP

The Democratic nominee is being pulled in different directions, forcing him to make hard choices

Beware of Government Overreach to Protect Our Health

Monday, April 13, 2020

When two important goals conflict, sensible people try to strike a sensible balance. This sense of proportion and mutual forbearance is central to living peacefully in a liberal society like ours.

It is important to remember these values as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The most striking aspect of the American public’s response has been the extensive, purely voluntary compliance with city, state, and local guidelines and orders. That phrase “purely voluntary” is crucial. Some of the guidelines have hardened into legal mandates, but even in those cases people have cooperated willingly because they want to do the right thing, both for themselves and for their community.

What about cases where voluntary compliance breaks down, where people don’t follow the guidelines or even the laws? If personal values and social pressures don’t work, the authorities have to step in. But their first step should be a warning, unless a violations are malicious or pose serious danger. If finger wagging at lessor violations fails, the next step should be a fine or sometimes even jail. But punishment should be a last resort.

Balancing the right to assemble with public safety

How does this approach apply to large gatherings? The right to free assembly is protected under the First Amendment. In fact, free speech gains its political clout from the right to assemble freely and contest elections openly. But this right to assemble doesn’t mean groups can congregate anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. Gatherings can be suspended, properly and legally, in emergencies like this one. During a pandemic, it makes perfect sense to stop hordes of college students from gathering in bars and on beaches during spring break because they pose a danger to themselves and others.

The same logic holds for large, in-person services in church, even though religious freedom is among our most zealously guarded rights. It is perfectly reasonable (and perfectly legal) to ban large meetings in churches, synagogues, and mosques, at least temporarily. Although practicing religion in your own way is a constitutional right, it comes with some limits, just as the right to speak freely does. Freedom of speech doesn’t guarantee your right to use a bullhorn at 2 a.m. outside an apartment building. Such limits are called “time, place, and manner” restrictions. They apply to freedom of assembly, including religious assemblies, during health emergencies.

Banning large gatherings does not mean banning collective worship. That really would violate basic rights if the worship could be done safely. In this case, it certainly can since services don’t have to be held in large groups that meet in person. They can be streamed, for instance, as the pope did for Easter Mass. So can extended-family gatherings for religious holidays, such as Passover.

The joke going around Jewish households this year reflected the problems of celebrating online. The Passover Seder is always structured around the “Four Questions,” beginning with “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This year, friends said, the four questions were:

  1. Can you hear me?
  2. Can you see me?
  3. How do I turn on the audio?
  4. How do I turn on the video?

What about meeting clergy and fellow congregants for religious services? A safe way to do that is to hold drive-in services, with participants staying in their own cars. That approach reconciles the otherwise thorny tradeoff between religious rights and public health. A no-brainer, you’d think.

Alas, some public officials also fit that description: no brains. One of them, the mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, decided to slap a $500 fine on everyone who attended drive-in church services last week, even though they stayed in their cars and endangered no one. Mayor Errick Simmons’ reasoning is that Mississippi has a “shelter-in-place” order, and these people didn’t shelter at home. But even if worshippers technically violated the order, theirs was a harmless violation, coming when they longed for spiritual support. The mayor should remember the wise practice of basketball referees, “No harm, no foul.”

Since everything in America ends up in court sooner or later, as Tocqueville said 200 years ago, the tickets are now being challenged by a public-interest law firm. The same thing happened when the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, banned drive-in services. A federal judge promptly overruled that ban. Whatever the courts decide, these episodes should teach us a few larger lessons about dealing with emergencies like this.

Sustaining voluntary compliance

First, it is crucial to encourage voluntary compliance. Thankfully, that’s how nearly all Americans have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. The key is to promote and sustain that voluntarism. The best way to do that is through reasonable rules, thoughtful discussion, and intelligent enforcement. That doesn’t always mean “forgive and forget.” The public deserves protection from criminals who use the pandemic to phish for credit cards, sell defective goods, or commit outright fraud. It means no tolerance for the malevolent morons who deliberately cough on groceries. But it also means a light hand for most people, who try to do the right thing but don’t always succeed. Government diktats and rigid enforcement pit these ordinary citizens against public officials and police. That confrontation is unnecessary, and it undermines the trust needed for voluntary compliance.

Second, mutual respect is essential for us to live together peacefully in a diverse society. That means recognizing that people have different preferences and values, including their most deeply held beliefs. And that means governing authorities and their constituents ought to search for solutions that “make everyone whole.” That’s not always possible, but it’s always worth searching for. Don’t assume the only solution is “I win, you lose.” Maybe we can both win, or come close. In the case of religious freedom and public health, it should be easy. Those values can be reconciled with a few prudent, temporary restrictions, which already have widespread support.

Mutual respect also means valuing each individual’s autonomy and the private, voluntary organizations they form, including religious institutions. A vibrant civil society, filled with those organizations, is one of America’s great achievements. Don’t mindlessly break it with coercion, intrusion, and an engorged state sector, which crowds out private efforts.

Respect for individual autonomy and restraints on state power are the heart of Americans’ civil liberties. That’s why it’s a terrible idea to track all movements of infected people, as some public health authorities have suggested. It’s one thing to track people the courts have confined to their homes. That’s why we use ankle bracelets. It’s another thing entirely to track vast numbers of people, most of them law-abiding, to identify a few miscreants. You expect to see that Big Brother lurking in Beijing, not in Boston or Biloxi.

Third, Mississippi’s order to “shelter-in-place” illustrates a common problem with laws and regulations. They are blunt instruments, often riddled with mistakes, omissions, and unexpected effects. One size doesn’t fit all, or at least it doesn’t fit well without alterations and a lot of elastic. One obvious way to make these rules work, aside from flexible enforcement, is to modify them swiftly when problems arise. If an initial rule bans all restaurants from operating, for instance, it would mistakenly ban drive-through window and take-out service. That error might be inadvertent and easily remedied after it was noticed. Or it could be deliberate, but worth changing after problems emerge. Those remedies are what Mississippi should undertake. Either drop the enforcement or, better yet, change the rule to exclude drive-in services.

Remember: America is working through this pandemic with lots of voluntary compliance, selfless cooperation, and unprompted generosity. That public spirit deserves praise and encouragement. Don’t crush it with overreaching rules, draconian penalties, and intrusive surveillance. Those clumsy, coercive measures come at a price. They undermine our liberties, and they don’t make us any safer.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

Photo by Kentaro Toma on Unsplash

Don’t let heavy-handed regulations undermine voluntary cooperation

The Next Shoes to Drop in the Pandemic

Monday, March 23, 2020

In the span of a few months, we have witnessed as many world historical news events as might normally occur over a decade or more. Expect this trend to continue. Because the COVID-19 pandemic spreads on an exponential scale, our long, false lull of normalcy appears to have been suddenly pierced by a series of rapid, fearful escalations. But not all the news is bad and more good news could be coming, especially if promising treatments pan out. Here are a few burgeoning trends that should soon take center stage in the policy arena barring significant, unexpected interventions.

The situation in New York City gets worse

New York City faces a genuine health crisis within days. Other big cities may follow soon. That means it is essential to get masks and other protective gear immediately to hospitals, first responders, and others there who have unavoidable contact with the public.

The crisis is looming because New York is currently nearing capacity in its hospitals, and those current patients contracted the virus a week or so ago. It takes that long for the virus to take hold and present serious symptoms. These newer cases will begin suffering their worst symptoms over the next week or two.

In the meantime, the number of likely infections in New York has expanded exponentially. There is simply no place to put these new people, no protective gear for those who will treat them, no respirators or ventilators for all who will need them. Without those essential tools and without successful new treatments, the death toll will be appalling.

There will be time later for finger pointing about why these shortages happened. Everybody has their favorite culprit, and more than one of them might be to blame. Right now, though, it’s far more important to look forward and try to manage the problem.

It’s worth remembering that there is no off-the-shelf plan for emergencies of this scale. It struck with ferocity and extraordinary rapidity. We lost crucial time while China hid the facts, the Centers for Disease Control sent out bad test kits, and the Trump administration downplayed the gravity of the pandemic. Those failures are worth debating—but not now. In any case, they all seem to be behind us now.

The issue today is whether individuals are doing all they can to prevent themselves and their neighbors from the contagion and whether federal, state and local governments are planning and acting efficiently to cope with the crisis going forward. The good news is that all these government agencies are now focused on the pertinent health and economic issues, all are trying to cut through red tape and provide emergency funding, all are working with private industries and health-care providers, and all are looking forward.

Moreover, these agencies and private businesses seem to be coordinating extremely well. Just as important, the right questions are being asked: How do we speed up the production of essential equipment and medicine? How do we get those supplies quickly to hot spots? How do we deal with the most vulnerable populations? How do we help people who are out of work and who need to pay for food, rent, and more?

The one piece of immediate good news is that medical supplies won’t be delayed for financial reasons. Neither, it seems, will patients be denied treatment for financial reasons. The federal government has moved very quickly to pass bills that will pay for equipment, treatment, research, and testing. The pressing questions are how fast can manufacturing and distribution be ramped up, how fast can hospital capacity be expanded, and how fast can new treatments be devised?

Experimental treatments can buy us precious time while we search for safe vaccines

Unfortunately, vaccines won’t be available immediately. At the same time, some treatments look very promising and will be available almost immediately.

In the early days of the crisis, the news reports focused on vaccines. We love the magic wand of technology, and rightly so. Thanks to science and technology, our lives are so much richer and more comfortable than those of our ancestors. Moreover, as Americans, we aim to solve problems once and for all and not just manage them and muddle through.

This time, however, we may have to settle for muddling through, at least in the short term. True solutions, such as successful vaccines, won’t be available for a year or more. Instead, the best hope—and it’s still just a hope—is an effective, readily available treatment that could prevent deaths, shorten hospital stays, and perhaps avoid hospitalization altogether. It would be a critical life-saver for health-care workers and first responders on the front lines, exposed to infected patients every day.

The good news about vaccines is that several research labs seem very close to developing them. Even better, these are not all the same vaccines; they work in different ways. We can test and see which ones work best, are easiest to administer, and have the fewest side effects.

The bad news, as we already mentioned, is that none of these vaccines will be ready immediately. Even if some are safe and work well, even if we cut through all the unnecessary red tape, there seems to be no safe and responsible way to start manufacturing and distributing them in less than 12 to 18 months. That’s because it takes time to test them first for safety and then for effectiveness in a large population.

Those schedules can be rushed, but only slightly. We still need to know if a vaccine will harm people with allergies, asthma, heart problems, diabetes, or other conditions. We need to know if a vaccine interacts safely with other medications that patients already take, and so on. The worse the Wuhan virus is, the more we can take risks to speed up to approve the vaccine and begin administering it.

Still, we civilians ought to remember the Hippocratic Oath that doctors live by, “First do no harm.” We don’t want to find that we mistakenly shortened the lives of everyone living with, say, an artificial heart valve or taking blood-pressure medication because we didn’t check thoroughly during the clinical trials. We want to balance the real risk of speeding too fast around these dangerous curves and the opposite risk of getting to the fire too late.

The same issues arise in treating those who are now infected. But we are willing to take more risks because they are already facing serious medical problems and may have few alternatives. (These applications take advantage of President Trump’s decision, well before this crisis, to allow the “compassionate use” of experimental drugs for those who are gravely ill and have few alternatives.) Meanwhile, testing is already underway right now for several treatments in the United States, Canada, Europe, Israel, and South Korea.

One of the most promising is an anti-malarial drug (chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine) probably given together with an antibiotic (azithromycin or Zithromax). Tests on that treatment are scheduled to begin in New York on Tuesday. In a week, we should know whether it works.

The success of this drug combo is not anecdotal, though the initial test population in southern France was small. Of the 30 confirmed COVID-19 cases in that test, 10 were control and 20 were treated. Some were given hydroxychloroquine alone, while others were given hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin. By day 6, about 90 percent of the untreated patients still had the disease, half of the “hydroxychloroquine only” patients had it, but none of the “hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin” patients did. None. In fact, those treated with the drug combo were virus-free by day five.

Earlier reports from China tell a similar tale, so the treatment is clearly promising. Moreover, since the anti-malarial drug has been on the market for decades, its general safety is not an issue. What is at issue is whether these results hold up in larger trials, which can be done immediately, and whether patients with underlying conditions face special risks. The same questions apply to another promising treatment, an antiviral called remdesivir, developed by Gilead. Other labs are working on still other treatments.

The good news is that these treatments have already been developed and can be tested immediately on confirmed COVID-19 cases. Results would be available quickly, too. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been moving quickly to cut through rules and regulations to allow such testing. That’s crucial because doctors and hospitals are reluctant to use experimental treatments without FDA authorization and established guidelines. Unauthorized use would inevitably led to lawsuits, and doctors doing their best on the frontlines need to be insulated from those. Guidelines are important, too, to ensure proper use and to get the data needed to apply the treatments going forward.

If these or other treatments are successful, they could save lives quickly and relieve the intense pressure on doctors, nurses, and hospitals in hot spots.

Economic troubles on the horizon

Meanwhile, the entire economy is shutting down, and even the largest stimulus package is not as good as a paycheck. The dangers go beyond each hard-hit worker, family, and business. Each one in trouble hurts others. The knock-on effects will be vast and unpredictable.

We are in completely uncharted waters here. No modern economy has ever faced what the United States, Italy, France, Canada, Spain, Israel, and the United Kingdom are facing now. In the United States., the speed of the federal aid packages is unprecedented. So is the level of bipartisan cooperation in this age of deep ideological division. Let’s hope it can be sustained as each side uses the emergency to push its own priorities.

Whatever national and local governments do, the knock-on effects of unprecedented business closures and layoffs will be massive and difficult to diminish. The longer the closures last, the most devastating the effects, both short-term and long-term. If a corner restaurant shuts down, it may never reopen or regain financial stability if it does. Small businesses don’t operate with deep reserves of capital or big lines of credit with their banks.

When those businesses close, their cooks, waiters, cashiers, and owners may not be able to pay their rent, which puts them—and their landlords—in trouble. Restaurants’ landlords won’t be able to make their mortgage payments either. The banks or pension funds which hold those mortgages will feel the effects too, stretching their capital. The scale of these effects depends on how long the shutdown lasts—and that hinges on how well we contain and treat the virus.

One macro effect, already visible, is the precipitous drop in the stock market. What is happening is simple but painful: investors are repricing all assets to take account of much lower expected earnings. How much lower the market goes depends on how badly they expect future earnings to be hit and for how long. Similar repricing could happen in the real estate market, not only for homes and apartments but for commercial and retail space. Since all real estate is highly leveraged, lenders will feel the pressure, too, especially if many borrowers don’t have enough cash flow to meet their monthly obligations or if assets are repriced below existing mortgage obligations. We’ve seen that movie before, during the Great Recession of 2008, and it is not a “meet-cute” comedy.

The good news here is that banks are much better capitalized than in 2008, and the repricing may be modest if the health crisis is short-lived. Federal aid packages also could mitigate enough of the damage to keep most players–large and small–going.

Troubles like these ripple through the whole economy. Their cumulative impact is simply unpredictable. What is predictable is that their impact will be far greater if the pandemic lasts months instead of weeks, if the hot spots pop up in several large cities at once, and if banks and other financial institutions are affected.

Still, as economist John Cochrane has observed, we not only need to think about surviving the downturn, we need to start planning to restart these shuttered businesses once the crisis ebbs.

Keep calm, but carry a big sword

We are not the first to sail in uncharted waters. Medieval and early modern maps often had large gaps where no one had ever been. The cartographers knew nothing about the land and water in those mysterious places. They warned sailors with the phrase, “Cave! Hic Dragones!”: Beware, there are dragons here. That old message is as relevant now as the more encouraging one the British made famous during World War II, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” We do need to keep calm and carry on. But we also need to have our swords ready to look for opportunities to strike at the dragons lying in wait.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com    

Photo by Richard Bord/Getty Images

We face a burgeoning health and economic crisis, but not all the news is bad

Why Is It Bad to Threaten Supreme Court Justices?

Friday, March 6, 2020

The bipartisan shredding of America’s established constitutional norms continues apace. The latest culprit is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Standing on the steps of the Supreme Court, he issued a chilling, direct threat to two sitting justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. He deserves broad condemnation. He received it only from Republicans. Save for some prominent lawyers, Democrats remained silent.

Schumer told a cheering crowd, “I want to tell you Gorsuch. I want to tell you Kavanaugh. You have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price!” The crowd was rallying for abortion rights as the Supreme Court heard a case on that issue. The minority leader was there to support them, a perfectly legitimate political act. What’s illegitimate is his call to arms, his over-the-top threats. Schumer concluded by saying the two justices “won’t know what hit them” if they decide the wrong way.

Could a US politician’s behavior get much worse? Actually, it could. Schumer doubled down when he was rebuked. It took him a full day, some tongue-lashing on the Senate floor, and doubtless some phone calls behind the scenes for him to admit he was wrong.

There’s nothing wrong with taking sides on the abortion issue, nothing wrong with speaking to the rally outside the court building, nothing wrong with saying that Democrats want to appoint judges who support women’s reproductive choice and Republicans don’t. What is wrong is threatening the justices and then reiterating one’s position after being called out. Those comments challenge both the independence of the judiciary and the safety of all public officials. It is particularly disconcerting that the comments came from a trained lawyer who ranks alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the country’s highest Democratic official.

Schumer’s initial statement so disturbed Chief Justice John Roberts that he did something extraordinary. He publicly rebuked the senator. A year earlier, he had similarly rebuked President Donald Trump for depreciating a lower-court decision by attributing it to an “Obama judge.” (Candidate Trump had said something far worse in 2016, calling out a federal judge for his Mexican-American heritage. Fortunately, there was near-unanimous condemnation for that remark.)

After the president’s comment about “Obama judges,” Chief Justice Roberts issued a strong statement defending the courts: “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”

In fact, there are ideological judges—increasingly so; and, on the federal bench, their ideologies are likely to track those of the presidents who nominated them. That obvious point is now prominent in elections and in coverage of controversial decisions. News stories now routinely identify which president appointed presiding judges. That’s relatively new, and it is not the media’s fault. After all, many decisions do reflect judges’ political leanings, and readers understandably want to know if they do. Now that ideological politics suffuses Americans’ shared experience, it inevitably suffuses their understanding of court decisions too. That is a disturbing development that could diminish public acceptance of court decisions.

Schumer’s threat is another long leap into this deep and dangerous ideological chasm. It comes on the heels of Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s leap in the same direction: her personal attack in a dissenting opinion on fellow justices for siding with the Trump administration in overturning nationwide injunctions. Of course, all these controversies follow the scorching, uncorroborated attacks on Kavanaugh’s nomination, launched only after his confirmation appeared certain.

Schumer’s threats are far worse than “bad manners,” like the disgusting tweets of people who wish Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ill. At least those comments are made by private citizens. Imagine if those horrid thoughts had been uttered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. There would be national outrage, and rightly so. There ought to be similar, bipartisan outrage at Schumer. Instead, his violation of basic norms is downplayed by a national media that is itself now seen as partisan and untrustworthy. Trump has made that mistrust of mainstream media a major theme of his populist rallies, shredding still more norms by repeatedly calling out “fake news” and labeling the press the “enemy of the people.”

Just as Trump’s reference to Democratic and Republican judges treads on dangerous ground—but was obviously accurate—so too does Schumer tread the same ground (and make similarly accurate statements) when he says that court decisions about abortion are controversial and divisive. The danger is not in expressing that view, but in making direct threats on judges who decide cases “the wrong way.” It didn’t help that Schumer delayed his apology until he couldn’t stand the political heat.

Even his apology was problematic: “I shouldn’t have used the words I did,” he said, “but in no way was I making a threat.” Actually, he was making a threat. His comments were not vague, political ones, as he initially claimed. He pointed directly at the court behind him, where the judges were sitting, as he called out Gorsuch and Kavanaugh by name and warned them that they would pay a price.

Some Democrats meekly defended Schumer by saying his comments are no worse than President Trump’s urging Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor to recuse themselves from cases involving his administration. Not so. Although Trump was clearly trying to delegitimate their decisions, he didn’t threaten them, and he had a good reason for speaking out. Both justices had entered the political fray, wrongly, when they issued anti-Trump statements (Ginsburg’s in a public forum; Sotomayor’s in a blistering dissent). The president was highlighting their violation of Supreme Court norms. He was saying, in effect, that, “If you want to make partisan statements, then your decisions will inevitably be seen in partisan terms. I will make sure of it.” The larger point here is not who is most at fault, much less who started this mudslinging, but rather that the back-and-forth undermines America’s shared norms of judicial independence.

This nasty tit-for-tat is likely to get worse as the election approaches. After all, control of the federal courts is at stake, and the next president and Senate majority will fill those appointments. Several Supreme Court justices are elderly, and the president might well have openings to fill. And there will surely be numerous openings at the district and appellate court levels. What kinds of judges will fill them is a legitimate topic for political dispute.

In this vituperative, high-stakes battle for the presidency and Senate, it’s important to underscore the norms that buttress America’s judiciary and the separation of powers that surrounds it. For America’s constitutional structure to work, those judicial norms ought to be understood, shared, and promulgated, not undermined by political leaders for partisan gain. It’s fine to promise appointments of “strict constitutionalist” or, conversely, “living-constitution” judges. It’s fine for candidates to say they want to appoint judges who will “uphold your Second Amendment rights” or, conversely, “recognize that reasonable gun restrictions will make us all safer.” The same is true about other controversial issues before the courts. Voters care about those questions, and politicians have every right to say where they stand and what kind of judges they want on the bench. Voters are motivated by those issues.

What’s not acceptable is to challenge judicial independence or, worse, to threaten judges or any other public officials. What’s not acceptable is to stay silent when others make those threats, whatever party they represent. Those threats and that craven silence are a lethal challenge to the constitutional order.

It needs to be called out. It needs to stop.


Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

Photo by Sarah Silbiger / Stringer

Threatening judges is a challenge not only to judicial independence, but to America’s constitutional order.