Has there ever been a greater absence of self-awareness among elected officeholders than what we’ve been seeing daily in our headlines?
Conventional political wisdom offers outdated excuses. One holds that a bored media need a new villain now that their favored foil, former President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Florida officer arrested after live streaming from inside US Capitol during breach, FBI says Schumer says he’s working to find votes to confirm Biden’s OMB pick Pence declined invitation to attend CPAC: reports MORE, is a private citizen. Another is that politicians let their guard down when the next election is years away.
But these are not conventional times.
We’re seeing governors and senators of both parties committing mind-boggling miscalculations that have real sticking power no matter how distant the next election. Some have even provoked investigations for civil and possibly criminal misdeeds.
In Texas, the state’s boastful go-it-alone “whole ’nother country” hubris caught up with it in a catastrophic way as record single-digit cold and winter storms caught the state’s most vulnerable regions in its lethal grip. Houston, Galveston, Corpus Christi – areas unaccustomed even to frost – lost electrical service, drinking water and, in some places, natural gas for days. Some residents busted up household furniture for fires to keep indoor temperatures above freezing. Texans died of hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning from running generators or charcoal grills inside their dwellings.
Tragically, it need not have happened. Had officials heeded after-action reports from a devastating 2011 cold snap to boost and diversify its generating capacity and connect its insular power grid with those of neighboring states, the massive blackouts that left more than four million without power would have been far less severe.
Yet rather than accept responsibility, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott used the occasion to take a partisan swipe at Texas’s renewable energy initiatives. The comment blew up in his face when it was noted that the failures came from the state’s dominant natural gas generating facilities, while its growing number of wind turbines outperformed the overwhelmed carbon-based generating facilities. Abbott’s dissembling infuriated Texans of all political leanings. He tried to take back his remarks, but the damage was done.
Then, with the crisis at its zenith, one of the state’s U.S. senators, Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward Cruz ‘Saturday Night Live’ targets Cruz, Cuomo Trump to speak at CPAC in first public appearance since leaving White House Can Ted Cruz out-ski the avalanche of criticism? MORE, was photographed boarding a flight in Houston for a family vacation in the tropical beach paradise of Cancun. The photo trended across social media and dominated cable news. Cruz aggravated his situation with a widely lampooned statement that he was only “trying to be a good dad” and would fly back the following day.
In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoSunday shows – COVID-19 dominates as grim milestone approaches Psaki sidesteps questions on Cuomo’s leadership during pandemic ‘Saturday Night Live’ targets Cruz, Cuomo MORE’s administration got caught doctoring the number of nursing-home resident deaths from COVID-19. The low death totals were a potent talking point for Cuomo that helped make him a media darling in the early days of the pandemic, differentiating his supposed transparency and leadership from the Trump administration’s inaction and denial. Now comes the disclosure that Cuomo’s administration under-reported deaths in extended-care facilities by as much as half. Despite Cuomo’s denials, the FBI has launched an inquiry.
In California, another governor, Democrat Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomGovernors in hot water over their coronavirus response California to set aside 10 percent of vaccines for educators California lawmakers reach .5B deal on reopening schools MORE, faces a voter recall effort due to widespread dissatisfaction over the state’s poor performance battling the pandemic. Newsom’s handling of the crisis included draconian lockdowns that devastated jobs and businesses. The state also reported the nation’s worst outbreaks, with ambulances carrying COVID patients queued outside hospitals for hours. Newsom might have weathered it had he not been photographed attending a crowded dinner for a well-connected lobbyist at an exclusive Napa Valley restaurant last November while he had banned such gatherings statewide, even outdoors.
In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisCrist calls on DOJ to investigate DeSantis over coronavirus vaccine distribution Governors in hot water over their coronavirus response Trump to speak at CPAC in first public appearance since leaving White House MORE detoured 3,000 doses of hard-to-find COVID-19 vaccine into a wealthy, mostly white enclave of Manatee County without making them available to the rest of the county. When critics and media called him out on it, he offered no apology but threatened to pull the vaccines from Manatee County and move them elsewhere. His peevish, heavy-handed response heightened condemnation he has received for “pop-up” clinics in affluent areas that allow Florida’s elite to claim an outsized share of vaccinations.
Such blunders trigger visceral reactions from a broad, bipartisan swath of voters. They are missteps candidates seldom make in the hyper-vigilant environment of campaign season with handlers constantly attending to them.
Voters remember outrages like these. They are low-hanging fruit for future attack ads that opponents will use as constant reminders, poisoning any re-election claim that the officeholder is empathetic to constituents’ plight — a sine qua non for any candidate trying to build a winning brand.
The era when politics was a once-a-quadrennium game is long gone. These days, every day is campaign season.
Mark J. Rozell is the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University where he holds the Ruth D. and John T. Hazel Chair in Public Policy. He is co-author of the book “Federalism: A Very Short Introduction.” Oxford University Press, 2019.