The pandemic has returned, perhaps stronger than ever, and the politics of it are more deadly than ever. Americans are dying because some politicians have discouraged two key things that have been proven to quash pandemics of respiratory illness: masking and vaccines.
Kentucky has some of the worst offenders, such as U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and 4th District U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie. Luckily, we have not been subject to the sort of damage that is being done to Texas and Florida by Republican governors who appeal to the anti-elite, science-skeptic crowd that Donald Trump made a core part of their party’s base, with their eyes.
But that crowd has long been a part of Kentucky, in most political parties, and Kentucky Republicans are appealing to it, too. Usually, it’s subtle. But at last weekend’s Fancy Farm Picnic, Attorney General Daniel Cameron had this head-slapper: “The big-government Democrats and bureaucrats in Frankfort and Washington want you to follow the science, so long as it’s their science that you’re following.” (Afterward, he declined to provide examples.)
Science doesn’t belong to anybody, certainly not to any political party. It’s a search for knowledge, with longstanding procedures for testing information to reach reliable conclusions. The junction of science and politics is public health, one of the more honorable professions – but one that Trump and his allies dishonored when confronted with the pandemic.
Public health and science have become, for many Republicans, just another distrusted elite. In 1975, a Gallup Poll found that Republicans were slightly more likely than Democrats to say they had confidence in science, 72% to 65%. This year, Gallup found that only 45% of Republicans had confidence in science while 79% of Democrats did.
That is the political landscape to which Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear returned with both feet Tuesday when he ordered everyone in public schools, preschools, Head Start and day-care centers to wear masks — to protect themselves, their relatives, their friends, their neighbors, their communities, and the state’s economy from the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus.
After a few hours, perhaps to agree on messaging, leading Republicans objected. Cameron went to court to block Beshear’s emergency order, on a more valid basis than his Fancy Farm quip. However, Beshear had a trump card, the state school board he appointed; it issued an emergency regulation that applies only to public schools. The Republicans who run the legislature didn’t think about that angle when they passed a law last winter limiting governors’ emergency orders to 30 days without legislative approval.
In general, Republicans say they are defending the authority of parents and local school officials to make decisions. Those are politically popular notions, but local school boards were not elected to make public-health decisions, and this is a public-health emergency that requires reliance on experts, not parental opinions driven by emotion or social-media misinformation. Beshear had tossed the ball to the boards, but most dropped it, rejecting his recommendation for a mask mandate.
Notably absent from Republican comments at Fancy Farm and afterward were any cautions about the virus and the need to get vaccinated against it. At a forum attended by few Democrats, pro-vaccine comments wouldn’t have been popular; a mid-July poll found Republicans are four times as likely as Democrats to say they haven’t been vaccinated and probably or definitely won’t be. That was a national poll, and the Kentucky results would probably be stronger; a slightly earlier survey found that Kentucky was second only to Minnesota (!) in the percentage of people who said they wouldn’t get vaccinated because they don’t trust the government.
We face a crisis, and the timid, pandering Republicans are part of the problem when they should be part of the solution — as the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce was, endorsing Beshear’s school-mask mandate.
Cameron’s pander was out of character for the most prominent protege of Sen. Mitch McConnell, who wasn’t at the picnic but has set perhaps the best example of any Republican by masking up when there were no vaccines and promoting them after they arrived. But McConnell probably won’t run again and is not as encumbered by political considerations as the Republicans who want to be governor, senator or whatever.
State Senate Education Committee Chair Max Wise, R-Campbellsville — whose name (with that of former diplomat Kelly Craft) was dropped into the race for governor and lieutenant governor by 1st District U.S. Rep. James Comer at Fancy Farm — offered one of the more relevant criticisms of Beshear.
“The timing of this could not have been worse,” Wise said, noting that the governor’s order came the day before many if not most schools opened. Wise said he still favors allowing schools to decide, in cooperation with local health departments (which Beshear says all favor his mask mandate).
Hindsight is 20/20, but it seemed clear two weeks ago that the pandemic was getting out of hand, and more so in Kentucky than most states.
Beshear should have acted earlier, but at least he acted. One wonders where Kentucky would be if the governor’s office was still occupied by Matt Bevin.