Throughout the 21st century, Democrats have identified as the party of science, and that has served them well. Against the threat posed by Republicans who deny climate change, thwart stem cell research, and ridicule infectious disease protocols for public spaces, Democrats have argued that Americans need to respect scientific data and the health and safety standards that protect us all. Yet as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to vex the United States, with the death toll moving toward 1 million, Democrats lack a coherent strategy for projecting their seriousness about tackling a lingering health care challenge—which is one variant away from again becoming a crisis—and for holding to account those who failed to take it seriously in the first place.
That’s a dangerous approach in a midterm election year where the pandemic and the social and economic chaos that have followed from it will continue to define our lives. People will still need to be vaccinated and boosted, mandates will still be required in some regions, and concern about inflation—much of it rooted in patterns of profiteering that began during the pandemic—will be a front-burner issue.
President Biden and his team have, for the most part, brought better intentions and better management to the fight against Covid-19. Biden has shown the respect for scientists that Donald Trump eschewed; and Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s incoming Covid response coordinator, has a track record of following the data and advocating for public health equity. But a year into Biden’s presidency, the Democrats have not delivered on his proposal to “Build Back Better” and continue to shy away from the logical response to a public health crisis of such magnitude: developing a single-payer Medicare for All plan so that our health care system serves patients rather than profits. Nor have they adopted a serious approach to investigating all the reasons—Trump’s lies, inadequate workplace protections, vaccine skepticism—for why the United States has had a higher death rate than comparably wealthy countries. And now, with so much left undone, Democratic governors are busy lifting mask mandates and optimistically suggesting we’ve entered some ill-defined “next phase of the pandemic.”
Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center, has warned against “complacency as we decide we no longer need masks, making it harder to take action when the next variant comes along.” That’s not a radical view. A majority of Americans think mask mandates should be maintained wherever cases are high, while only 21 percent indicated in a February poll that they thought the US should “open up and get back to life as usual with no mandates or requirements.” Polls from around the country also show that local vaccine mandates are popular, often gaining 70 percent support or higher.
Americans are right to remain worried about the pandemic. One period earlier this March had roughly twice the death toll of the same period last March. Numbers have been surging and declining and then surging again for two years. “Historically, even during this pandemic, every time we thought we could discard our masks, another variant came along to disturb our complacency—Delta, now Omicron and perhaps its relative BA.2—and we were almost right back where we started,” Morse noted. That’s a scientific fact Democrats need to get better at discussing.
Even as Biden generally gets the policies right, he misses practically and rhetorically. As an example, the president’s Covid-19 preparedness plan has sound components: a continued emphasis on the importance of vaccinations; a proposal to rapidly deploy vaccines where necessary; a commitment to keep vaccines, testing, and masks available for free; and a promise to prioritize treatment for immunocompromised people. Yet the plan subtly shifts more of the burden onto individuals, especially those who are most vulnerable, abandoning recognition of the pandemic as a societal challenge. And in his State of the Union address in March, Biden seemed unfocused and, at times, desperate—such as when he said, “Let’s use this moment to reset. So, stop looking at Covid as a partisan dividing line. See it for what it is: a god-awful disease.”
That’s never going to happen during a midterm election year in which Republicans have already signaled that they will exploit every opening to reclaim Congress. They can be counted on to make the most of the fact that, as Biden has acknowledged, Americans are “tired, frustrated, and exhausted.” At the same time, they will blame Democrats for rising inflation and for the chaos that unfolds if a new variant spreads.
For Democrats, no good can come from downplaying lingering threats. The president and his party should aggressively and unapologetically renew their emphasis on following science—even when that requires telling hard truths—and on challenging pandemic price gouging by corporations that keep announcing record profits while hiking costs for consumers. Instead of sending confused signals, which invariably allow Republicans to control the narrative, Democrats should bring clarity to the Covid conversation by highlighting the stark inequities that the pandemic continues to reveal and by working to address them. They should demonstrate an expanded commitment to public health and workplace safety and be unequivocal advocates for needed components of the Build Back Better plan that the GOP rejected. The Democratic leadership should never let the American people forget that top Republicans have repeatedly failed to respect science and the common good—and will continue to do so if they prevail in the midterms.
People can handle the truth if it is delivered consistently and seriously. Biden should borrow a page from Franklin Roosevelt, who during the Great Depression used everything from national speaking tours to fireside chats to give Americans the facts about hard times. With so much on the line, Biden and the Democrats must communicate a whole lot more about the pandemic challenges that remain—and about the Republican charlatans who would play politics with life and death.