Political Animal

How to Get Contact Tracing Right

It’s been more than five months since the novel coronavirus was first detected in the United States. Even as the pandemic continues to spread—the U.S. recorded a single-day record of 70,000 new cases over the weekend—some states are still returning to something resembling normal. Most have cautiously re-opened restaurants, gyms, and retail stores with safety precautions in place; a number of GOP-controlled states have imposed far looser restrictions.

But as more Americans emerge from lockdown—and cases keep surging now that stay-at-home orders have been lifted—governors and mayors are trying to hone the two main measures that are needed until a vaccine or effective therapy is produced: expanding testing capabilities and contact tracing, which entails identifying people who test positive and tracking down anyone they’ve come into contact with.

The first component should have been easier, but the Trump administration set the country back when it failed to produce mass testing after first learning of the pandemic in January. According to the Washington Post, it wasted more than 70 days before addressing the disease. As a result, states were left to fend for themselves to obtain the necessary supplies.

But contact tracing, it turns out, may be even more complicated than testing: It will require state and local governments to design and implement working systems in a short period of time, and then to hire and train staff that can implement those systems. It will require cooperation from a population that has grown increasingly distrustful of government-collected data. And it will require coordination between states and municipalities, especially since there is no cohesive national entity leading the effort.

Unfortunately, state-level contact tracing does little to track people who move across multiple states and regions, or account for immense disparities in public health resources among different states. Equally disconcerting: As state revenues are expected to dip by 20 percent this summer, hiring a new public health workforce is significantly more difficult for states that already lack expansive public health funding.

That has left states with a daunting task, especially since enacting a contact tracing program is something most haven’t done before. Some of them have relied on digital technology to help. Alabama, South Carolina, North Dakota, and Virginia are partnering with Apple and Google to develop their own exposure notification apps, which would allow people who test positive to enter who they have been contact with. Anyone who signed up and was entered in by someone who has been infected gets notified. Utah and South Dakota have designed similar software with the help of smaller tech companies.

Those efforts, however, have already run into hiccups. For example, less than two percent of residents in Utah downloaded the state’s Healthy Together app as of late May. Meanwhile, a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland survey that found three out of five Americans either can’t or won’t use contact tracing apps. That suggests this low turnout reflects a broader national sentiment.

The good news is that some states are showing a better approach. New York has eschewed technology and is focusing on contact tracing the old-fashioned way. This means that physical workers, not technology, are the ones doing the job of discerning who comes into contact with positive cases. New York City has already hired 3,000 contact tracers, many of whom live in the neighborhoods they’re working in, to reach out to people who’ve tested positive over the phone and in-person. The city’s initiative has shown early success: As of June 16, it had reached 94 percent of all new positive cases.

New York’s model is not a novel concept. Contact tracers were a major component of the national fight against syphilis in the 1930s. According to the city’s contact tracing website, a similar disease tracking system was used to fight tuberculosis outbreaks that occurred from the 1970s up until 1992. It also helped contain the 2019 measles incidence in NYC, the largest outbreak of the disease in almost three decades.

As more states launch their own contact tracing programs, it’s critical that they look at what’s worked in the past, and what appears to be working now. That means relying on people—not programming.

Of course, it was always more difficult to implement a national contact tracing system in the U.S. than say, South Korea, where the government has been monitoring citizens’ GPS and credit card usage to publish the travel routes of those who test positive. Senior advisor Jared Kushner, who was appointed by the president to oversee a “supply chain task force,” briefly considered creating such a surveillance system, but backed down after Democratic lawmakers pushed back with privacy concerns.

Still, Big Tech joined the national contact tracing conversation on April 10, when Apple and Google jointly announced plans to develop what they call Exposure Notification Software, which was marketed as a tool that individual states can use to develop their own apps. Apps using the software rely on Bluetooth-generated random identification numbers, which alert people if they’ve come into contact with other app users who record themselves as testing positive. States that’ve signed on for the software see anonymity as a benefit because it protects user privacy above all else.

But while that may appeal to some lawmakers, it’s not entirely advantageous. Positive cases reported by this technology are not sent to any public health agencies because of the software’s decentralized data storage. This means that any states hoping to maximize user privacy by using this software won’t be able to assist the human contact tracers collecting that data and working on the ground. For that reason, some states have developed their own software. Utah’s Healthy Together app assists the 1,200 contact tracers the state hired by helping tracers get in touch with people who have possibly been exposed.

The problem is that apps can only work if people actually use them. Software does nothing to help the 18 percent of Americans who do not have smartphones, who are overwhelmingly poor or elderly—and who are already more at-risk from COVID-19. Even still, only half of the 82 percent of Americans who do own smartphones reported that they “probably or definitely would not” use contact tracing apps due to privacy and security concerns.

These concerns are valid. Some apps have already been called out for questionable data-sharing practices. In April, app security firm Jumbo Privacy alleged that North Dakota’s Care19 app shared location data with Foursquare, unbeknownst to its users.

In contrast, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has initiated one of the largest contact tracing recruitment operations in the country. New York’s program is hiring up to 17,000 contact tracers across the state. In NYC, half of the initial hires live in neighborhoods hit especially hard by the pandemic, meaning that these communities have tracers embedded within them. Cuomo’s state-wide program is also partnering with New Jersey and Connecticut to expand the program throughout the region. “It’s best to do this tracing on a tri-state area because that’s how the virus works. It doesn’t stop at jurisdictional boundaries,” said Cuomo during an April 22 press briefing.

New York’s plan may be well-funded and well-resourced, but it isn’t wrinkle-free. Just like polling and other phone-based work, contact tracing relies entirely on people’s willingness to engage with strangers. People across the political spectrum don’t want to do that—making the job of a contact tracer all the more difficult.

Even with these difficulties, however, New York’s program has managed to successfully track down positive cases by relying on tracers who often live in the same neighborhoods they’re working in. At the same time, it has come with an additional economic benefit. The economic fallout of the pandemic has been dramatic. The 17,000 hired contact tracers do not compensate for the 2 million people in New York who have filed for unemployment since April, but it does offer some of them with much-needed full time jobs that can help pay their bills and fight the virus.

With Donald Trump as president, Americans cannot count on an integrated national contact tracing initiative. It’s up to the states to take charge. If they want to keep their economies open without facilitating a huge surge in infections, they will have to trace cases the right way.

It’s impossible to predict which state’s program will ultimately be the most successful, but past and current efforts show that New York is leading the country in effective, person-led contact tracing. The logic is simple: Why spend millions of dollars on an app that few people will use, when you can hire and train people who desperately need jobs to do the work more effectively?

For contact tracing to be a national success, states need to make sure they’re hiring an adequate number of workers—meaning it would help if more states adopted New York’s approach.

According to former director of Medicare and Medicaid Andy Slavitt and former Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb, the national contact tracing workforce needs 180,000 more tracers across the country, and a $12 billion budget. The disparity among states’ public health resources is evident in the sparsity of contact tracers in some regions: Mississippi, for instance, has more than 18,000 confirmed cases, but only had 250 contact tracers employed as of mid-June.

The nationwide reluctance and inability to use contact tracing apps signals that they won’t be the public health hero Google and Apple would like them to be. But if all states turn to hiring an adequate number of contact tracers, they can more successfully reduce the spread of the virus until a vaccine is ready. Otherwise, we may just keep suffering from the same level of dysfunction and disarray.

The GOP’s Reliance on Mega Donors Is Becoming a Liability

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United was handed down in 2010. In response, “superPACs and other independent groups dumped more than $1 billion into the 2012 election, largely on behalf of Republicans.” They spent most of that money flooding the television airwaves with negative ads about Democrats.

Then along came a service employee who surreptitiously video-taped a speech by Mitt Romney to big donors in which the candidate talked about the 47 percent of Americans who vote for Democrats because they are dependent on the government for freebies. That videotape went viral and is perhaps one of the main contributors to Romney’s loss in 2012. And it didn’t cost the Democrats a dime.

That didn’t stop Republicans from their reliance on superPACs.

“We are not about just one year or one election or one issue,” said Tim Phillips, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, which spent more than $190 million in the two-year cycle — a large share on ads pummeling Obama on the debt and his energy policies. “It’s about building for the long haul, and that’s what we’re committed to doing.”

AFP’s contributors are not discouraged, he said. “They tell us this is a long ballgame.”

Fast forward to the 2016 Republican primary and initially all of the big money was on Jeb Bush, whose superPACs raised over $100 million. We all know how that one turned out. The narcissistic bully in the race grabbed millions of dollars worth of free media, while he raised almost nothing in contributions.

Heading into the 2018 midterms, Elena Schneider wrote that Democrats had found their answer to the Koch brothers.

Hundreds of thousands of online donors are pouring gobs of cash into Democratic House campaigns at an accelerating clip — a bulwark against a late-summer advertising assault that Republicans hope could save their majority.

That was made possible by the fact that in 2004, a couple of techies created something called ActBlue.

Where big-dollar fund-raising is typically done behind closed doors with well-connected bundlers and showy, costly fund-raisers, ActBlue is just the opposite. It is an Internet-based political action committee that lets Democratic candidates use their Web site as a portal to collect donations, making fund-raising cheap, and, for donors, as simple as a click of a mouse.

In 2018, ActBlue helped Democratic candidates raise over $700 million—which, unlike superPAC money, went directly to individual campaigns.

In addition to providing the funding necessary to compete, it is important to note the advantages of small dollar donations. SuperPACs are limited in how much they can contribute directly to a campaign and are not allowed to coordinate their efforts with a particular candidate. They also pay much higher rates to run television commercials, so they get a lot less bang for their buck.

Because Democrats were so successful in raising small donations online via ActBlue, the Republicans created something similar in 2019 that they call WinRed. But it’s not working out very well for them.

Last month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee prepared a slideshow for Senate chiefs of staff full of bleak numbers about the party’s failure to compete with Democrats on digital fundraising. For anyone not getting the message, the final slide hammered home the possible end result: a freight train bearing down on a man standing on the tracks.

The slideshow, obtained by POLITICO, painted a grim picture of the GOP’s long-running problem. Republican senators and challengers lagged behind Democrats by a collective $30 million in the first quarter of 2020, a deficit stemming from Democrats’ superior online fundraising machine. Since then, Democrats’ fundraising pace accelerated further, with the party’s challengers announcing huge second-quarter hauls last week, largely driven by online donors giving through ActBlue, the party’s preferred fundraising platform.

Republican strategists suggest the problem is that their candidates haven’t done the legwork that is necessary to build a grassroots base of small donors. But at least one Republican who lost in 2018 suggests that the problem goes much deeper.

Many candidates have long assumed that “95 percent of the money you would raise would be from large donors, political action committees. Online fundraising was just to check the box,” said former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who lost his seat in 2018 after being outraised by his Democratic opponent. “For a long time, members didn’t understand the potential of online fundraising.”

With tax cuts and deregulation as their only real agenda, Republicans have built their fundraising campaigns around the desires of their big donors who support their election via superPACs. That means that they haven’t had to pay attention to the grassroots in order to build the kind of small donations that come via online fundraising. Therefore, to fully utilize a platform like WinRed requires them to change their entire culture. That’s why they’re struggling.

As the authors of the Politico piece point out, that doesn’t guarantee the ultimate success for Democrats in November.

The money guarantees Democrats nothing heading into November 2020. But with President Donald Trump’s poll numbers sagging and more GOP-held Senate races looking competitive, the intensity of Democrats’ online fundraising is close to erasing the financial advantage incumbent senators usually enjoy. That’s making it harder to bend their campaigns away from the national trend lines — and helping Democrats’ odds of flipping the Senate.

Anyone who follows Senators Brian Schatz and Chris Murphy on Twitter has noticed how they’re using social media to build on the advantage Democrats enjoy with small donors.

Even tweets can bring in significant cash: Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) have started posting tweets about Senate candidates as a way to boost their profiles and raise money. All told, they have raised more than $600,000 for 8 Democrats through Twitter, including six figures apiece for Iowa’s Greenfield and Georgia’s Raphael Warnock.

“This money is essential,” Schatz said in an interview, noting that the national parties always have to pick and choose where to spend their money. He continued: “The ability for the grassroots to make sure that we are funded in Texas, and South Carolina, and Kansas, and Montana and Georgia 1 and 2, is essential.”

You don’t have to be a Senator to raise that kind of money for Democratic candidates. Charles Gaba, who is known for his analysis of Obamacare and healthcare issues, has raised over $500,000 from small donors via ActBlue for candidates at the federal and state level in 2020. That’s why the message from Schatz is both simple and consistent: “Pick a race.”

Trump Should Be Impeached for the Stone Commutation

I’m glad the editors at the National Review finally got around to condemning President Trump’s commutation of Roger Stone’s sentence and I agree that it was indefensible. However, I have to quarrel with their assertion that the act was “fully within the president’s powers and in keeping with the long-established pattern of presidents’ pardoning or commuting the sentences of associates caught up in special-counsel probes.”

To be sure, it’s possible to find precedents if you’re looking to make a two-wrongs-make-a-right argument. President Clinton famously pardoned his brother. He also pardoned Susan McDougal of Whitewater fame. Neither of these examples are on a par with Trump giving Stone a get out of jail card. In the case of Roger Clinton, the charges were drug-related and over a decade old, and he had served his full sentence. With respect to McDougal, it’s conceivable, although not proven, that she covered up criminal, unethical or embarrassing acts by then-Governor Bill Clinton, but she likewise had already served her full sentences on charges of fraud, conspiracy and civil contempt. The National Review prefers the example of Poppy Bush’s infamous Christmas Eve 1992 pardons of Iran-Contra figures, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. This is a better comparison because Weinberger almost certainly protected Bush from Lawrence Walsh’s special investigation as well as the inquiry conducted by Congress. But Bush had already been defeated in the November election and was headed out the door.

In one sense, since the presidential pardon is absolute, there can be no limitations on it and even the most self-serving and obvious example of obstruction of justice can be considered “fully within the president’s powers.” This is basically the de facto situation in most cases, especially because the Department of Justice has a policy against prosecuting a sitting president. The only remedy while they remain in office is impeachment, and that possibility certainly had limited appeal in Poppy’s case. Bill Clinton could have pursued impeachment of Bush if only to assure that he became ineligible to hold any further office, but that kind of contentious battle would have destroyed any honeymoon he had in DC, which was limited in any case. Some commentators, including myself, have argued that the costs of not pursuing impeachment were extremely high, and now we’re seeing why, but the immediate problem was solved when Bush left office. As for charging a president once they’re a private citizen, it’s not easy to overcome the constitutional right of a president to pardon and commute however they please.

This is problematic in theory and now in practice. If Donald Trump stood accused of murdering someone on Fifth Avenue and Roger Stone was an eyewitness, we would not say it was okay for Stone to stonewall the investigation and then receive a commutation as a reward. In that scenario, we’d expect the Justice Department to drop their qualms about indicting a sitting president. At a minimum, we’d certainly expect Trump to face charges of obstruction of justice once he left office. There has to be some legal limitation on the pardon power.

Personally, I think Nancy Pelosi would be doing the Republicans a favor if she impeached Trump a second time over the Stone commutation. I don’t mean that she’d be making it easier for Trump to win reelection. I mean that it’s too late for the Republicans to nominate someone other than Trump as their 2020 presidential nominee because he’s already won all the necessary delegates. The only option they have left to avoid going into the fall election with Trump as their standard bearer is to convict him in an impeachment trial and render him ineligible. Were Pelosi to give them that option, it would be a gigantic gift. It would also be the right thing to do since Trump is manifestly incapable of managing the COVID-19 outbreak and it’s already led to tens of thousands of excess deaths and untold economic damage.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense for Pelosi to do this from a self-interested political perspective. Why disrupt a trajectory that looks increasingly like a Democratic landslide up and down the ballot? But it would still be the correct move because Trump’s crime sets a terrible precedent, and because so many people’s lives are on the line.

The Republicans would probably take a pass, but that would help clarify where they stand, and that’s also a benefit for the voters, and the American people.

When Truman Titled a Hollywood Epic—and Then Sabotaged It

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Greg Mitchell’s book The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood—and America—Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, published this week.

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In a historic coup, the MGM studio fixer in Washington, Carter Barron, managed to secure a November 19, 1945, meeting for producer Sam Marx and talent agent Tony Owen with President Harry S. Truman at the White House,  on a strictly off-the-record basis. Their goal was to secure the president’s approval for the first movie drama on the creation and use of the atomic bomb, MGM’s The Beginning or the End. It was little more than two months after Truman had ordered the new weapon deployed against two Japanese cities. The MGM movie was inspired by urgent warnings from the atomic scientists against building more powerful weapons, but Hollywood was now in the process of turning over creative control to Washington–to the White House and to the Pentagon.

The Beginning or the End

The Beginning or the End How Hollywood—and America—Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Greg Mitchell                             New Press, 304 pp.

Dr. Edward Tompkins, whose letter to actress Donna Reed led to the MGM project, had left Marx and Owen to return to the Manhattan Project site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This surely did not bother the president.  Truman’s recent confrontation in the Oval Office with one of the most prominent atomic scientists had left him with nothing but bitterness.

Three weeks earlier he had met the eminent Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had steered creation of the new weapon at Los Alamos, for the first time.  After the usual pleasantries between the former haberdasher and the world famous physicist, Truman asked Oppenheimer to guess when the Soviets would develop their own bomb.   Oppenheimer, who privately felt it would not take long, claimed he did not know.  Truman knew better, predicting: “Never!”  Truman also seemed to confirm Oppenheimer’s worst fear, that the U.S. intended to bully the Soviets with their new weapon instead of working for detente and arms control.

The usually confident Oppenheimer, far out of his element, grew nervous, reflective, finally muttering, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” The president, according to his own story, replied, “The blood is on my hands—I ordered using the damn thing—let me worry about that.”  Other accounts would vary with some claiming the president mocked his visitor by offering him a handkerchief. (In Oppenheimer’s version, Truman simply advised him that any blood could easily be washed off.)  Truman would later instruct Acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson, “I don’t want to see that son of a bitch in this office ever again. He didn’t set that bomb off, I did. This kind of sniveling makes me sick.” At another point Truman referred to Oppenheimer as that “cry-baby scientist.”

Marx and Owen were no doubt a bit on edge themselves, striding into the White House, but the casual Truman soon allayed their fears. The sit-down was supposed to last fifteen minutes; it stretched to fifty. Marx was impressed with Truman’s affability, calmness, and intelligence, as he filled holes in the atomic narrative the MGM producer had pieced together from others. Truman’s manner  reminded him of an unheralded tennis player who finally gets his big chance at Wimbledon and then plays way over his head. Truman’s only failing was insisting on telling bad jokes.

Some of Truman’s bomb-related anecdotes appeared tailor-made for a movie, however. There was that time, or example, when he was a U.S. Senator on a committee investigating mysterious government expenditures. This took him to the gates of Oak Ridge where millions of federal dollars were being poured into some kind of mysterious war project.   When he was barred from entering the gates, he called President Roosevelt himself and demanded an answer.  Roosevelt advised him to forget about this “very special place” for now. When Truman became his vice president, FDR still did not inform him about the bomb project, and died in April 1945 before scheduling that talk.

Marx had already started formulating a scenario for his movie, which he had not yet shared with the scientists but was happy to sketch for the president. It would cover every phase of the bomb’s conception and development and eventual use against Japan. Truman responded enthusiastically, going so far as to verbally grant permission for the studio to proceed.  As they were exiting, Truman stopped them at the door and asked if they had titled their movie yet, and was told no. “Make your film, gentlemen,” he urged, “and tell the world that in handling the atomic bomb we are either at the beginning or the end.”

“Mr. President,” Marx replied, “you have just chosen the title of our film.”

Two days later, MGM’s Barron wrote Truman that before Marx and Owen returned to L.A. they wanted him to know that his “gracious” chat at the White House “was the supreme inspirational climax of the widespread research activities they have been involved in.” After ticking off all the key people they had met, with special attention to General Groves and Archbishop Francis Spellman (who had blessed the flight crew before they dropped the bomb over Hiroshima), Barron declared, “We are happy to advise you that they all believed the motion picture industry could do a great service to civilization at large if the right kind of film could be made….although always within the bounds of government approval,” thereby granting nearly unprecedented (in peacetime) official control.

But Barron had to make sure that Truman would continue to give his blessing to the film–and also allow the studio to portray him making some of his key decisions. To this end he stressed that their movie would not only perform “a great service” but potentially reach a very wide audience. “We are, of course, anxious to put entertainment into this film, rather than concentrate on its document phases, for it is our belief that only for solid entertainment does the world sit in theaters and listen. They go to school for education and to churches for sermons.  We want them to come into theatres and to be entertained.”

Yet MGM would always picture the president “with dignity,” even in scenes of “drama and excitement.”

In his reply, Truman confirmed that it was “a pleasure to discuss the Atomic energy program” with his visitors.  Anxious to exploit Truman’s endorsement, Barron wrote the Pentagon publicity chief to inform him that the studio had now titled the movie The Beginning or the End and that it had been “suggested by the President during our conversation with him.”

And that lively anecdote offered by Truman to his visitors about getting turned away at the gates of a secret Manhattan Project site?  He would later order it excised from the movie, no doubt fearing that many viewers would consider him a “snoop” who might have exposed the secret project to the world. This wouldn’t be the only change Truman later demanded and got, including a costly re-take of the key scene in the movie—and the firing of the actor playing him.