Gov. Ralph Northam hasn’t had a good week.
Being photographed at Virginia Beach over Memorial Day weekend without a mask and within six feet of some well-wishers who wanted to snap a selfie was a public relations failure that’s there for all to see. His straightforward apology — “I was unprepared” — earns back some of the credibility he lost, but also highlighted a growing line of criticism against the governor. Namely, that he was unprepared to manage the entire COVID-19 crisis.
This is an odd and unexpected critique on several lines. First, Northam is the only governor who is also a doctor. He’s better positioned than any of his colleagues to understand the science involved. Second, Virginians have given Northam unusually high marks for his handling of the pandemic.
A Washington Post-Ipsos Poll in mid-May found that 78% of Virginians approved of Northam’s response. Only three other governors ranked higher — Mike DeWine of Ohio was tops at 86%, followed by Andrew Cuomo of New York at 81% and Gavin Newsom of California at 79%. For a governor who just over a year ago was facing calls from his own party to resign, these are pretty heady days. If we’re going to have to face a public health crisis, Northam would seem the ideal governor to have in charge. Except now there are some high-profile critics who say he’s not.
What makes these critics notable is they’re not Republicans. Republicans are critical of Northam, too, but you expect Republicans to criticize Democrats and the other way around. Sometimes partisan critics may be right but they’re still partisan. When non-partisan critics start to take aim, they have a lot more credibility.
The first salvo came from Mark Rozell, a longtime Virginia political analyst known for his measured and on-point insights. We’ve dealt with Rozell — now dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University — for decades and we have no idea what his personal politics are. That’s what made his recent op-ed in The Washington Post so powerful. It was a brutal critique:
“Northam’s medical training uniquely positioned him for confident, assertive and sure-footed leadership of Virginia in the defining crisis of our time. But his stewardship has been marked by confusion, halting half-measures, questions about whether testing data were fudged to begin a reopening early and a bewildering resistance to providing timely, essential information to an anxious public.”
“This pandemic presented Northam with a golden moment to position himself nationally as a respected authority, juxtaposed against a flailing, cartoonish president who inexplicably played down the disease’s severity and the magnitude of the global outbreak, who spouted embarrassing and dangerous whims as possible cures and who angrily lashed out at medical experts who dared contradict him with scientific fact. Instead, Northam drifted along in February and early March, offering lip service and tepid half-measures lacking actionable detail.”
To be fair, just about everyone “drifted along in February and early March.” Well, not the South Koreans — who recorded their first virus case on the same day the United States did, but responded in a very different way. That’s why the Korean baseball league is now playing and ours isn’t.
Still, Rozell’s commentary summed up his assessment of Northam like this: “His administration’s response to the crisis has lurched from one underachievement to another.”
Northam gets high marks for being knowledgeable, calm and reassuring — three things President Trump certainly isn’t. On the other hand, Virginia routinely ranks near the bottom for the number of tests administered on a per capita basis. Why? We still don’t have a good answer. You can blame Trump for not organizing a better national response, but if things are going to be left up to each state, then why is Virginia, with all its resources, doing so poorly?
Some 56% of Virginia’s virus-related deaths have come in long-term care facilities yet it took until mid-May before Northam said the state would try to test all residents and staff. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice did that back in mid-April after just a single nursing home outbreak. Why didn’t we use our limited resources to focus on our most vulnerable citizens?
The Northam administration has also insisted that it can’t release information on individual nursing homes. That’s not how others interpret Virginia’s patient privacy laws, but Northam hasn’t shown any inclination to change that, either. The result is that Virginians don’t really have a good sense of how much risk there is. If a locality’s numbers are going up, is that because of an isolated outbreak at a nursing home, or because there’s widespread transmission in the community? The Virginia Department of Health knows but can’t say. That makes it hard for people to trust Northam’s doctorly mandate to wear a mask in certain indoor settings (although it just makes sense and people ought to do it).
Northam’s response to how to reopen the state has been marked by “vacillation, indecision and mixed messaging” — those words coming from Bob Lewis, a columnist for the generally left-leaning Virginia Mercury website. First Northam said the state would reopen as a unit. Then he suggested that he might go with regional reopenings, citing the oddity of Bristol divided by a state line. Then he said he wouldn’t do that – except he did, by saying the state would start to reopen but some hard-hit localities could hold off. That hasn’t won him any friends in Southwest Virginia, where infection rates are the lowest. Norton hasn’t had any cases since April 19. Smyth County has had only two cases since April 20. Wise County has had only two since April 28. Scott County has had just one since that same date. Tazewell County has had just one since April 29. Lee County hasn’t had any since May 1. Bath, Bland and Dickenson counties haven’t had any — ever. Why must they be dependent on what happens in the urban crescent – where infection rates are still rising in some localities? We still don’t have a satisfying answer to that question, either.
Lewis followed up Rozell’s critique with his own: “When is a good doctor not necessarily the best person to put in charge of the response on behalf of 8.5 million people to the worst viral pandemic in 102 years? When that governor isn’t also a great project manager.” That’s not the worst criticism that can be levelled at a politician. But it may just be true.