McConnell: "We must have no stigma, none, about wearing masks"

I’d kill to see the polling this guy’s looking at right now to make him so desperate to counter populist anti-maskers that he’d go to the floor of the Senate (and take to social media) to do it.

In fairness to McConnell, he’s been pushing this line for more than a month. “There’s no stigma attached to wearing a mask. There’s no stigma attached to staying six feet apart,” he said back on May 27, when it seemed like COVID-19’s first wave was behind us. Cocaine Mitch wanted to keep it that way for both humanitarian and political reasons. He knew that the loudest anti-mask voices were coming from populist Republicans, with Trump ambivalent at best about wearing masks. He doubtless feared, reasonably, that the GOP would be blamed if the virus surged again and the party wasn’t seen as doing everything in its power to contain the spread, especially since it was red-state governors who were moving most quickly to reopen. So he did what he could to make mask-wearing a bipartisan thing. That way, even if the virus came back, it couldn’t be laid neatly at Republicans’ feet.

The fact that he feels obliged to repeat himself a month later is proof that his worries have deepened. And not just his worries: There’s been a distinct increase among top Republicans in calling for mask-wearing over the past week as headlines about surging cases in the south have turned more dire. Kevin McCarthy and Tim Scott are pushing it. Lamar Alexander appealed specifically to Trump to set an example by wearing one. Even Mike Pence has begun to call masks a “good idea” and wore one himself when he arrived in Dallas. Reportedly two governors had asked him to be more vocal about mask-wearing in hopes that that would encourage members of the public to be more diligent about wearing theirs.

It’s not just the rising case counts that have caught McConnell’s attention, though, I’d bet. Axios’s polling shows that 65 percent of Democrats say they wear a mask every time they leave home whereas just 35 percent of Republicans say the same. Recently 86 percent of Dems told YouGov that masks should be mandatory in public; only 46 percent of Republicans agreed. McConnell knows that the party is being branded as anti-mask by data like that, and that swing voters will consider it when assigning blame for America’s unusually durable epidemic. He’s trying to counterprogram it.

But stuff keeps working against him. There’s the usual cohort of GOP populists in Congress, mainly in the House, advertising skepticism about masks through their public pronouncements. But the president’s resistance to good sense in fighting the pandemic, both in word and in deed, is a more significant problem because of his vastly higher profile. This story in WaPo over the weekend gave me a headache:

In the hours before President Trump’s rally in Tulsa, his campaign directed the removal of thousands of “Do Not Sit Here, Please!” stickers from seats in the arena that were intended to establish social distance between rallygoers, according to video and photos obtained by The Washington Post and a person familiar with the event…

As part of its safety plan, arena management had purchased 12,000 do-not-sit stickers for Trump’s rally, intended to keep people apart by leaving open seats between attendees. On the day of the rally, event staff had already affixed them on nearly every other seat in the arena when Trump’s campaign told event management to stop and then began removing the stickers, hours before the president’s arrival, according to a person familiar with the event who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.

In a video clip obtained by The Washington Post, two men — one in a suit and one wearing a badge and a face mask — can be seen pulling stickers off seats in a section of the arena. It is unclear who those two men are. When Trump took the stage on Saturday evening, the crowd was clustered together and attendees were not leaving empty seats between themselves.

It’s one thing to be lax about taking proper precautions, it’s another to actively discourage them. The Times interviewed senior citizens for a piece on the election this weekend and found one in Michigan who said he’s a registered Republican but adamantly opposed to voting for Trump. Why? “The main reason is Donald Trump saying, ‘Don’t wear a mask, this thing is going to go away, we can have large gatherings… Everything he says is incorrect and dangerous to the country.” People are paying attention to this stuff. A new flashpoint is looming in Jacksonville, where Trump moved his Republican convention acceptance speech so that he could throw a big party without having to follow the rules for containing the virus that Charlotte, North Carolina insisted upon. But guess what:

Jacksonville, where the Republican National Convention is slated to be held in August, is planning to institute a city-wide mask order to stem the spread of coronavirus, city hall sources tell POLITICO

Curry is determined to have the GOP convention take place safely in Jacksonville, and those familiar with his thinking say he wants to do what he can to once again reduce infection rates and rising hospitalizations. Jacksonville’s infection and hospitalization rates are well below those in Miami-Dade County in the southeast corner of the state.

Hundreds of doctors in Florida signed a letter sent to Curry warning that having the convention in Jacksonville, with upwards of 40,000 people potentially attending, is a bad idea in that it’s “unequivocally provocative of disease, predictably harmful, and medically disrespectful to the citizens of this city, much less the rest of the country.” That’s more bad press for McConnell and the GOP, with doctors on one side and Trump implicitly on the other. All McConnell can do to try to protect his incumbents is to side with the doctors as much as he can. He can’t call for barring live attendance at the convention — Trump would have an aneurysm about “disloyalty,” and thus so would his diehard supporters — but he can certainly speak out for mask-wearing.

There’s one more special worry McConnell has. The states with some of the most alarming outbreaks right now may be in the south, the GOP’s stronghold, but coincidentally they’re all battlegrounds that either turning purple or are purple already. Trump can’t afford to lose Arizona, Texas, or Florida, but if the outbreaks there continue to spiral and locals conclude that the president’s cavalier attitude in wanting to reopen too early and not aggressively promoting mask-wearing are partly to blame, that may be it for him this fall. All he’d need is one percentage point’s worth of Floridians who supported him in 2016 to blame him for the virus and flip to Biden as a result and he’d be all but guaranteed to lose the presidency. If he and his team flout mask-wearing and social distancing at the convention and Jacksonville ends up seeing a spike afterward, the bad press might be fatal to his candidacy. McConnell’s left with no choice but to bang the drum about masks like he’s doing and hope that the message that the GOP supports containment measures penetrates. If not with the president, at least with the public.

Here he is speaking today in the Senate. And beneath that is what he’s up against.