Political Animal

What Living Through the Polio Epidemic Taught Me About COVID-19

It began when I picked up the Washington Post magazine on a recent Sunday. The cover story caught my eye—a daughter’s haunting tale of her relationship with her mother, whose childhood bout with polio would affect the rest of her life. Polio feels a distant memory, but as I read the story, I recalled things I hadn’t thought about for decades.

As a child growing up on the Jersey shore in the late 40s and early 50s, at a time when polio was spreading at epidemic levels, I saw the fear that gripped parents and children alike, especially in the warm summer months when the virus really took hold. No more family gatherings at Lake Lenape (still waters were thought to be breeding grounds for polio); cautious get-togethers with playmates—and whispers among the grown-ups about children they knew who had fallen ill with the disease, always with a sense of relief that, for now, their own children had been spared. My mom’s safety zone was on the beach and in the ocean. She would pack up my sister and me almost every day, stake out a spot away from other families, and place her faith in the ability of the sea breezes and churning waves to keep the virus away.

This went on for years, changing the patterns of our lives. We still went to school. The coming of fall meant there was a respite from the spread of the virus, which attacked the central nervous system, mostly of children, and caused mild to disabling paralysis and sometimes death. As time passed, we began to accept the ever-present threat, avoiding known dangers and hoping not to be struck down. There were constant reminders of what could befall us: terrifying pictures of children who had to live in iron lungs, the leg braces I saw on those less fortunate than myself. Then, in 1955, Jonas Salk discovered the vaccine. My mom zipped me off to our family doctor at lightning speed, saying it was one of the happiest days of her life.

As I finished reading the Post magazine piece, I passed it along to my husband Carl. He told me of his own memories of “the polio scare,” growing up on 13th Place in northeast Washington D.C., just a short distance from the Franciscan Monastery. He recalls summer days when he would venture out of his family’s row house, looking for kids on bikes or skates, maybe a pal or two to walk to the nearby school or the monastery for a day’s adventure. Instead, he would find near-empty streets. One summer day, his mom broke the news about a playmate who caught the disease and died.

I also had a chance conversation with my friend Barbara. I’ve known her for years, we’re part of a special lunch bunch that frequently spends three or four hours talking about everything from books to travel to world events, families, and grandkids. When I mentioned the article to her, she said she had already read it with great interest because… she had polio when she was six years old. How is it possible, I asked, that she never mentioned this? “I don’t think about it a lot,” she said, “but the article made me reflect—it gave me permission to realize that this was, in fact, a very big deal.”

Barbara has spent the past several days thinking about the sudden onset of the illness during her summer between first and second grades, the ride in the ambulance, propped up on one elbow to see pictures in the book her mother was reading to her along the way, not being able to sit up by the time they reached the hospital as the paralysis spread quickly. She spent six weeks in a hospital ward with row upon row of other children with polio, unable to see her parents except for a short visit each Sunday. She remembers the whirlpool tub treatments and the smell of the hot packs placed on her limbs to keep the paralysis from spreading. It must have worked, she says, because in six weeks she was able to walk out of the hospital. And yet, she hasn’t thought about it much. In fact, she isn’t sure her own grown children know that this happened to her. It’s just something she tuned out internally, she says, an unconscious decision not to hold onto because it was just too scary.

I have been struck by these memories that we of a certain age have always carried with us, of another time when we practiced “social distancing” and stayed close to home, trying to avoid a frightening disease. Some of us were lucky, some of us were not. One of my younger friends observed the irony for my generation: We were the target group for polio when we were so young and we are now in the crosshairs of the coronavirus, the most at-risk group of Americans.

Today’s virus is much less discriminating when it comes to its target groups, and it will be with us for quite some time. I realize now that the lessons I learned so many years ago have come into play once again, as I watch warily and learn to accommodate the virus’s presence until another miracle vaccine is found. When that day comes, I will be reminded, again, of the gift that Jonas Salk gave to us all so long ago. For the sake of all of us now, across all generations, for everyone who is waiting to hug their families and friends and get back to their lives, I hope that day comes soon.

Trump Can’t Just Make Country Re-Open. He Has To Actually Stem the Outbreak.

Donald Trump’s peculiar personality defects have never been more apparent than in his confused, blustering response to the ongoing pandemic. His signature combination of aggressive, ignorant mendacity has been particularly catastrophic in reaction to this once-in-a-century crisis.

When the history of the COVID-19 pandemic is written, it will show that Trump didn’t want to believe the threat was real, didn’t want to do the work to deal with it once the damage became obvious, and then tried to use wishful thinking, magic cures, and propaganda to will it out of existence.

But unlike most political issues in America in which the conservative propaganda machine has brought large swaths of public opinion where it wants it to be, the virus is implacable. It does what it does without regard to what Trump, Fox News, or AM Radio says about it.

Most of the public has caught on. Desperate to buoy his deflating poll numbers, Trump is eager to restart the economy (and his political organizing base in evangelical churches) as soon as possible. He has declared that he has the authority to supersede governors in doing so (he does not: the 10th Amendment to the Constitution clearly relegates that power to the states).

Yet even if Trump could wave a magic wand and force the entire government and every shuttered American business to reopen tomorrow, it’s not at all clear that people would cooperate. According to a new AP-NORC poll:

[M]any are apprehensive about re-engaging in activities that draw a crowd, like attending movies, concerts, or sporting events, using public transportation, or even going out to bars and restaurants.

People’s post shutdown plans depend on what they did before the outbreak. Overall, 38% say they would attend religious services. But among people who attended services at least once a month before the coronavirus outbreak, 67% say they would return to their church, synagogue, or mosque if restrictions were lifted. Fifty-two percent of those who ate out at least once a month before the outbreak say they expect to head to a restaurant or bar.

Still, even among those that regularly engaged in activities that draw a crowd, like sporting events, concerts and movies, or using public transportation, fewer than half plan to return to them in the short term once restrictions are lifted.

There’s also the economic psychology to deal with: the tens of millions of Americans who are now either temporarily or permanently laid off from their previous jobs aren’t going to be splurging on cocktails, sporting events, or manicures any time soon.

Of course,  some of the economic damage was inevitable given the impact of the virus. But a huge amount of the blame for the economic fallout falls on stingy Congressional Republicans who refused to do what so many other countries did in guaranteeing wages and housing protections so that people could maintain a firm financial footing during the months of lockdown.

Most state governors will not recklessly court a second wave of COVID-19 just to temporarily help the president’s reelection prospects, knowing that they will ultimately be blamed for the consequences. Even if they do, most ordinary Americans won’t be going out to get sick and spend their limited disposable income.

The only credible way out of this crisis—at least until the distribution of an effective vaccine, which likely is still at least a year away—is to do the hard work of testing and contact tracing. That, in turn, means the federal government and state governments telling the public the real number of cases and deaths (looking at you, Florida), and moving aggressively to quarantine the sick and those most immediately at risk.

This is the work Trump and his team have most resisted doing as they tried to manage the disease. They treat it as a media problem rather than a public health problem. They tried to minimize the official number of cases by not ramping up testing and then hoping it would go away, fearing a dip in the stock market above all else.

As it turns out, the stock market is doing fine—due largely to the now-unbridgeable gap between Wall Street and Main Street. But regular people are hurting badly, the real economy is teetering on the edge, and no number of executive orders can make the governors do what Trump wants, or force people into stores and stadiums, even if they could.

This administration is going to have to buckle up and do the hard work they’ve been avoiding now for months, or this crisis will continue to spin out of their control all the way through Election Day and beyond.

Can Lindsey Graham Win Reelection as a Trump Enabler?

The most significant long-term story in American politics these days is the realignment that is occurring in a few traditionally red states in the South like Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and possibly even Texas. One state at the heart of the Confederacy that isn’t feeling that transition is South Carolina. No one doubts that Donald Trump will win there in 2020, even if his margin is lower than his 14 point win against Clinton in 2016.

It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has a race on his hands for re-election in South Carolina. The most recent poll has him beating Democrat Jaime Harrison by only four points. Perhaps more significantly, prognosticators at both the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball downgraded the race from “solid” Republican to “likely” Republican. That is a bit of a sea change from Graham’s 15-point victory in 2014.

The Lindsey Must Go super PAC has captured what could make Graham vulnerable in the Trump era by almost exclusively using the senator’s own words.

Anyone who watches politics closely has noticed the dramatic change in Graham over the last three years. He went from calling out Trump’s unfitness for office and palling around with “maverick” John McCain, to being one of the president’s chief enablers. There has been a lot of chatter about what caused that transformation, but we’ll probably never know what really happened. The important thing is to notice “the two faces of Lindsey Graham.” That represents a cause for concern among both Trump defenders and opponents, which is why this ad is so powerful.

Over the last couple of weeks, Graham has been on a bit of a roller coaster when it comes to his relationship with the president. Initially, Trump pressed him to subpoena Barack Obama to testify about whatever it is that the president defines as “Obamagate.” Graham responded by saying that would be a bad idea and could open up a can of worms (hint: Trump could be subpoenaed after he leaves office). Gabriel Sherman reported that the president wasn’t happy with that.

“Trump thinks Lindsey isn’t doing anything on Flynn,” a former White House official said. According to the former official, Trump recently asked prominent allies to tweet negative things about Graham, and he has been complaining that Graham is a hanger-on. “Trump has said, ‘Since [John] McCain died, Lindsey follows me around and shows up to play golf and I don’t even invite him,’” according to the source briefed on the conversation.

Graham snapped back with a compromise offer.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham is preparing to ask his colleagues on the panel for blanket permission to subpoena dozens of Obama and Trump administration officials connected to the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election — and contacts between President Donald Trump’s team and Russians.

His proposal would permit the South Carolina Republican to demand testimony and documents from figures involved in the intelligence associated with the launch of the Russia investigation, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch, former national intelligence director James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan and former FBI Director James Comey.

We’ll have to wait and see if that move by the senator appeases the president.

Graham’s situation captures exactly what Trump has done to the Republican Party. The president is running for re-election on a strategy to mobilize the haters. Graham stands no chance of winning without them. But Trump’s strategy is offensive not only to Democrats, but also to the Never Trumpers. There just might not be enough of them in South Carolina to defeat Graham. But they could make this race competitive.

Trump Needs to Win Michigan. So Why Is He Dumping on the State?

The polls out of Michigan haven’t looked very good recently for Donald Trump or really any members of the Republican Party. This is a problem for both Mitch McConnell and the president. For McConnell, Michigan is probably his second-best chance to knock off an incumbent Democrat after Alabama, as he tries to protect his party’s slim Senate majority. But Sen. Gary Peters is leading in every survey taken this year, often by double digits. For Trump, it’s a cause for anxiety because he probably needs to carry Michigan if he wants to be reelected, and over the last couple of months he’s been down six to nine points.

To demonstrate what I mean, if we were to spot Trump every swing state but Michigan and Pennsylvania, and give Trump one Electoral college vote from Maine for good measure, he would lose 271-267. If we were to give Trump Pennsylvania but take away Arizona and Wisconsin, he’d lose 272-266. If Trump loses both Michigan and Florida, he could carry Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina, and Georgia and still lose 270-268.

Finding winning scenarios without Michigan is therefore hard for Trump to accomplish. After all, he’s currently behind or basically tied in every state that I just mentioned. Perhaps that’s why Trump decided to visit Michigan on Thursday, but his strategy for winning the state is questionable.

He’s been picking a fight with Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer ever since the COVID-19 pandemic started, but he’s not getting the better of the brawl. Polling consistently shows that Michiganders like their governor and approve of her approach to handling the virus. In fact, the numbers are so stark that Trump is probably increasing the chances that Whitmer will be selected as Biden’s running mate. It must be tempting to Biden to pick someone who should help him lockdown a critical state.

During his trip, Trump violated state guidelines by refusing to wear a mask while in enclosed public spaces, which has caused a giant row with the state attorney general Dana Nessel who called him “a ridiculous person” and “a petulant child,” while adding that she she is “ashamed to have him be president of the United States of America.”

The symbolism was particularly bad not only because Michiganders support the governor’s policies, but also because he was visiting a Ford factory that has been repurposed to produce ventilators and masks.

Ford did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post early Friday. But in a statement to reporters after Trump’s visit, the company said that executive chairman Bill Ford had “encouraged” the president to wear a face covering on his tour inside the Detroit-area factory that has been repurposed to produce ventilators and masks.

“He wore a mask during a private viewing of three Ford GTs from over the years,” the company’s statement said. “The President later removed the mask for the remainder of the visit.”

Trump said as much to reporters Thursday after he was questioned about his decision to go without a mask.

“I had one on before,” he said, standing barefaced in front of several men wearing masks and a large sign advertising the facility’s mask-making efforts. “But I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”

…When asked to confirm Trump’s comments, Bill Ford only shrugged and responded, “It’s up to him.”

Dana Nessel pointed out that if Trump infected anyone, it could cause the plant to close down, and that’s one reason to be concerned about Trump’s childish behavior. But the main reason is that we want him to model good behavior to American citizens and particularly to his supporters. Apparently, he feels that doing the right thing would give the media satisfaction, and he cannot abide that.

It’s probably safe to say that Trump didn’t help his chances of winning Michigan on Thursday, but that’s not the only self-injurious thing he did this week. He also chose the day that two dams broke and inundated whole communities to threaten to withhold all federal aid from the state.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said she told President Trump they need to focus on the “true enemy” of coronavirus during a phone call after catastrophic flooding forced her to declare a state of emergency. Mr. Trump, who will be visiting a Michigan Ford auto plant Thursday, has been encouraging protests against several states’ lockdown orders, including Michigan, and recently threatened to cut funding to the state over mailing out absentee voting ballots.

“To have this kind of distraction is just ridiculous to be honest,” Whitmer said on “CBS This Morning” on Thursday. “Threatening to take money away from a state that is hurting as bad as we are right now is just scary. And I think something that is unacceptable.”

This would be bad timing in the best of times, but it was based on a faulty premise, too. Michigan isn’t mailing absentee ballots to its citizens, but only applications for ballots, which is something that several Republican-run states are also doing. Coinciding with his Thursday visit, the president eventually approved an emergency declaration for the state, but the damage was done.

It seems that Trump knows he needs to win Michigan, but he doesn’t know how to make that more likely.