COVID-19 changes everything, even politics

At some point — certainly not by Easter and maybe not by Easter 2021 — we will have enough space to look back and consider what we learned from the coronavirus crisis.

Maybe we’ll have a new understanding of the interdependence of all humankind that will encourage us to treat one another with more consideration and compassion. Maybe. If so, we’ll have learned only what literature, art, music, philosophy and religion have been trying to teach us for millennia. We may wonder why it took such a hard lesson in suffering and death to finally make it stick.

But the far side of the crisis is in the future, and we might do better to pay attention to things that we have learned so far and whether they can help us find our way out of this.

Let’s start with two practical ideas that have a bearing on the election in November: First, the Hamiltonians have been vindicated. At the risk of oversimplification, the heart of American politics since our founding has been the tension between Americans who favor a weak federal government (Jeffersonians) and those who favor a strong federal government (Hamiltonians).

In truth, the Hamiltonians won out long ago. We hear plenty of Jeffersonian rear-guard rhetoric supporting the notion that states and individuals can be entirely self-sufficient and self-reliant in a world that has been globally interdependent for decades. But, in fact, the great accomplishments of our nation — abolishing slavery, winning World War II, developing a social safety net, going to the moon — have been national efforts that could never have been achieved by states or individuals. And our current challenges are more global than ever.

Here’s a second practical idea that is being reinforced by our battle against the coronavirus: There is no substitute for facts, data, transparency and focused administrative expertise in planning, logistics and execution.

These two practical ideas merge in the stunning contrast between the responses to the coronavirus crisis by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and by President Donald Trump.

Cuomo’s daily briefings on his state’s response to the coronavirus are focused scrupulously on facts, numbers and real information. They are shaped by the advice of experts, and they are informed by detailed reports of what has been accomplished and realistic estimates of what still needs to be done, as well as when. The grim realities of the situation are not obscured by false hopes or imagined good news.

Trump’s briefings, on the other hand, are disorganized, rambling exercises in blame-shifting, self-praise, misinformation and fantasy. He talks in terms of hope rather than facts, at a time when Americans need to confront blunt realities, no matter how grim. The economy will come roaring back by Easter? Most Americans already know better.

Cuomo is dealing capably with the problem in a single state, but inherent in his plan is the notion that our response to the coronavirus must be national. Indeed, the lessons that are being learned in New York would have enormous value if they could be applied nationally.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s response has been flat-footed, reactive, unimaginative and ineffective; Americans are suffering as a result.

The coronavirus crisis will end, but its impact on American society will last for a very long time. Our politics will never be the same. We must move past the traditional big government/small government divide. If the coronavirus teaches us anything, it’s that our biggest challenges will be national and international. Problems such as pandemics and climate change can be solved only with strong, coordinated national action, not sketchy information and wishful thinking.

Both of our political parties should make a deeper commitment to the realistic use of facts, information and expertise to respond to crises. I’m not backing Andrew Cuomo for president, but his approach to the coronavirus crisis represents the kind of leadership we need.

This is a profoundly bipartisan issue. Both parties have a responsibility to give us a chance for real leadership in November. Everything has changed. It’s not too late for both parties — even the Republicans — to reconsider whom they are putting forward for president.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at jcrispcolumns@gmail.com.