Extraordinary times filled with uncertainty does not mean politics and government recede from our lives. In fact, governmental power expands, and it allows us to glean additional truths from the behaviors and actions of our political leaders.
In so many past wars or catastrophes, elected executive leaders received a bump in approval ratings. Again, this was found to be true for both President Donald Trump and Gov. Roy Cooper in the latest Civitas Poll. Some might remember that George H.W. Bush once sported a sky-high approval rating of 90 percent at the end of the Gulf War in 1991, only to go on to lose the presidential reelection to Bill Clinton the very next year. As Dallas Woodhouse pointed out in a previous article, current polling is just a snapshot of the moment and “voters will likely cast their votes on how their lives have recovered once this is over.”
Still, there are important categories we can look at right now to judge our political leaders:
1) Do elected leaders continue to protect and defend the Constitution?
Lawmakers take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and there is no clause that excludes times of war, pandemics, or other disasters or tragedies. The first duty of government is to secure inherent rights while upholding the rule of law. In North Carolina, we saw at least one potentially odious abuse of power in Wake County when pistol permits were temporarily scrapped despite a state constitution and state laws affirming the right to bear arms. Are North Carolina’s leaders doing anything to address and rectify this measure or others like it? Nationally, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky) came under attack for requesting that Congress follow the Constitution and provide a quorum for the “stimulus” package vote.
While presidents and governors have a duty to protect the public health it is prudent to ask if they are making unilateral decisions on their own. Do they sufficiently rely on and empower local governmental authorities to assess health situations before declaring and enacting broad and comprehensive edicts?
Federalism plays a critical role. Some governors and media figures admonished President Trump for not declaring a nationwide quarantine despite vast differences in what is clearly a geographically diverse nation. And when Trump did hint at a more comprehensive lockdown in certain regions, he was admonished by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and others for having no such authority.
2) Beware of leaders who overly politicize the crisis.
One of the more troubling matters to watch unfold is lawmakers using the coronavirus crisis to enact their own agenda. We saw this with the federal “stimulus” package, particularly with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi trying to put in unrelated add-ons from the Green New Deal. Furthermore, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) was quoted as saying in a conference call that federal relief legislation would be “a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.” And once the “stimulus” bill is finally dissected, it’s likely that lots of add-ons and goodies have the potential to allow for plenty of blame for Republican lawmakers too.
Some governors worked to ban the import or even ban altogether the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine to treat the Coronavirus. Why? Because Trump praised it as a potentially promising treatment in a news conference. In a surreal move, some of the governors were seemingly making their policy decisions about the drug solely because Trump said positive things about it and media stories predictably piled on the president. Yet, there was counterevidence from many in the medical community that showed a quicker recovery rate. Now the FDA has allowed for emergency approval of the drug.
3) Do they exhibit the characteristics of a servant leader?
There is a great line from George H.W. Bush’s Inaugural Address in 1989: “There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people.”
Leaders must weigh all the potential consequences of their decisions and put the people first in a crisis. That may include weighing the impact of economic consequences that could potentially prove to be even deadlier than the virus itself. Leaders must put decision-making over and above their own political fortunes. It’s essential that the president and governors work around the clock to look for ways to formulate an exit strategy from perpetual shutdowns that continue to threaten the livelihood and rights of hundreds of millions of Americans.
There is an excellent book by the Medal of Honor recipient Admiral James B. Stockdale (1923-2005) that delves deep into leadership titled, “Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot.” As POW commander, Stockdale was tortured horribly by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam conflict. Stockdale offers up this prescient line:
“The key to our future leaders’ merit may not be ‘hanging in there’ when the light at the end of the tunnel is expected. It will be their performance when it looks like the light will never show up.”
It’s a reminder of the importance for leaders to remain decisive yet calm, eschewing the spreading of unnecessary hysteria for political gain, while helping to motivate the citizenry to overcome this crisis.