The politics of COVID-19: Everything is different, but nothing has really changed

By: - May 5, 2020 6:00 am

Something truly strange and appealing happened in the world of policy and politics this past Saturday: North Carolina lawmakers of both major political parties came together to pass compromise COVID-19 relief legislation by overwhelming margins. Shortly thereafter, Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statement in which he applauded lawmakers for acting so swiftly and collaboratively.

In some ways, the mere act of advancing such legislation provided a measure of “relief” to North Carolinians. After nearly a decade of a relentless ideological crusades by the legislature’s Republican majorities, the very idea that the views of Democratic Party members were considered at all in the crafting of such vital legislation felt like a breakthrough and a sign that maybe our troubled body politic isn’t that as problematically divided as it long seemed.

No longer were government structures and services the all-purpose bogeyman that the political right has so long made them out to be. In a radio appearance last Friday, a conservative think tanker even contradicted a longstanding right-wing talking point by conceding that people receiving unemployment insurance want to work and aren’t mere slackers looking to get fat at the expense of “government welfare.”

Taken together, it was almost enough to make one feel as if the global health pandemic had caused the world to shift slightly: to make Trumpists and trickledown conservatives understand that we’re all in this together and that government might have a larger role to play in a free society than merely maintaining the military, abetting commerce and preventing mass starvation.

And then reality elbowed its way back into the picture.

Actually, reality was evident in the relief legislation itself. As experts from the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center explained in a thorough Saturday analysis, the bills have many useful components but also feature some glaring, ideologically driven omissions.

For instance, the final compromise legislation failed to include any meaningful improvements to the state’s bottom-of-the-national-pack unemployment insurance system. Even a pair of extremely modest improvements with respect to benefits and eligibility that had been included in the Senate version were ultimately cast out of the final compromise.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

A similarly modest improvement to Medicaid eligibility that had appeared in the House version of the legislation was also left on the cutting room floor. Childcare workers and others on the front lines in combating the pandemic, were similarly excluded.

But, of course, we know all too well what’s behind such decisions. It’s the same brand of dog-eat-dog, divide-and-conquer conservatism that has driven the Trump administration and its allies in the General Assembly for years.

It’s the same brand of politics that led the state’s Lt. Governor last Friday to issue a baseless and shameful attack on the pandemic-control policies of the Cooper administration and to embrace the misguided and dangerous notion that it’s already time for a rapid reopening of the state’s economy.

And it’s the kind of politics that would lead Trump and U.S. Senate Republicans to attempt to take advantage of this moment of profound national emergency by continuing their reckless and reactionary onslaught on the federal courts.

Tomorrow, for example, the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a confirmation hearing on the nomination of a fellow named Justin Walker to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Presumably, North Carolina’s Sen. Thom Tillis – a member of the committee – will be there.

Justin Walker (Photo: C-Span)

Walker is a woefully inexperienced, hard-right extremist who, just a handful of years ago, was a law clerk for then-circuit judge Brett Kavanaugh. He collected his law school diploma only 11 years ago and was sworn in as a district court judge (another seat for which he was unqualified) just last month. The American Bar Association rated him “not qualified” for the District Court seat. (Strangely, the ABA reversed itself on the Court of Appeals nomination on May 5 and deemed Walker “well qualified.”) What’s more, the court on which he would serve is often referred to as the second most important in the nation and the seat he would fill doesn’t even become vacant until September.

Not that such a blatant perversion of public service and the role of government in a moment of crisis is surprising. Trump and his minions have pursued a similarly opportunistic approach throughout the pandemic – whether it was using it as an excuse to shower more tax breaks on the wealthy or citing COVID-19 as a reason to weaken vital environmental protection rules.

Happily, none of these debates are over. Caring and thinking people will have opportunities to push back and Republican leaders – especially here in Raleigh – will have more opportunities in the relatively near future to build on the baby steps they took last week.

For now though, while our world may look very different than it did a couple months ago, in the realm of policy and politics, very little seems to have changed.

This post has been updated to acknowledge action taken by the ABA on May 5.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.