Governors Are Key to Reopening the Economy | Opinion

The President has noted many times in his press briefings that he wants to open up the US economy at the earliest possible time. Understandably, health officials are skeptical that the economy can be reopened anytime soon. The terrible toll on Americans' collective health is obvious, but huge federal payments designed to mitigate the effects of the economy's near shutdown have masked the equally devastating toll the coronavirus is taking on America's economic health. Genuine bipartisan cooperation could help move the country forward to meet both challenges.

It is clear that coronavirus was NOT a hoax, despite intemperate statements from the Administration and certain right wing media outlets. World wide, cases have passed 2 million and deaths stand at 125,000 and climbing. In the US, cases are in excess of 500,000 and deaths have exceeded 25,000, for a fatality rate of over 3 percent. This is despite the near shutdown of the economy and a virtual quarantine for most of the country. In the absence of social distancing, fatalities would be much higher. This is far worse than any seasonal flu.

But these same measures have had a strongly negative impact on the US economy. Unemployment claims the last few weeks have approached 10 million. Economists predict things will get worse and that unemployment could approach the levels of the Great Depression. Industries employing tens of thousands of workers in retail, hospitality, travel and tourism, and technology have been hit very hard. Congress has appropriated trillions to mitigate the economic fallout, but the long-term impact on US fiscal health will be felt for years to come.

In the past, the public has placed a high priority on public safety even at the expense of jobs and economic performance. For instance, we have long lead times before we license new drugs for public use. The Consumer Products Safety Commission routinely issues recalls for products that present health or safety hazards to the American public. Individual cases of unsafe products, including meat and produce, automobiles, and aircraft have been recalled or taken off the market.
Politicians and the public will normally seek the side of safety when a health hazard has been identified. As such, a partisan demand by the GOP to prematurely restart economic activity would be a politically unwise. The GOP would receive the lion's share of the blame for additional fatalities, even if economic performance ticks up. The good economic news would be overwhelmed by the daily recitation of increased fatalities. It is fine to run on the greatest economy in history, but not at the expense of public health and safety.

Yet, restarting economic activity must also be on the minds of our political leaders. Because both goals are important, this issue is tailor made for bipartisan consensus. This must involve leadership, always talked about but seldom understood. Leadership is reaching beyond the comfortable boundaries of partisanship, offering solutions and appealing to the public to trust your judgment, even if they have doubts. The president must be the one to lead, but the opposition party must also be involved. In this case, it is in the interest of both parties to fashion a rescue strategy for our collective health and our economy. The economy won't open all at once, but interim steps can be designed to gradually restore jobs and economic activity.

Such a practical approach is underlined by the fact that quarantine and stay at home orders are the purview of our nation's governors, not the federal government. Governors are charged with designing practical measures to deal with these unprecedented health and economic crises. Most conservatives and many liberals still believe that the 10th amendment reserves police power, and all powers not delegated to the federal government, to the states. A useful step forward here are the nascent agreements by governors from the Northeast and West Coast to coordinate discussions and actions to chart a course forward for the eventual reopening of their regional economies.

Unilateral partisan attempts to override state prerogatives would be disastrous politically for the GOP. Fortunately, a core principle of conservatism, federalism, offers a better way to help achieve the country's twin priorities of protecting public health and safety and restarting the US economy.

Frank Donatelli served as assistant for political affairs to President Reagan and as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​