When the president veers from demanding that local politicians “liberate” states to extending lockdowns and back again, the president sends a clear message. He’s not a reliable partner. Governors may save Trump by ignoring Trump. They should recognize that his public statements and public pressure are driven not just by his latest briefings, but also by the morning’s episode of Fox & Friends. “Re-opening America” while not setting the virus loose on previously-untouched state populations will require an acute sensitivity to available health data combined with the political courage to perhaps defy the president if the “liberation” proceeds slower than he likes.
Because of our nation’s federalist system – which places state public health regulations predominantly in the hands of state officials – our national future depends greatly on the collective work of governors. If they do their jobs well, by November Americans could begin to enjoy the benefits of renewed economic growth and declining death tolls. Nothing can undo the effects of the administration’s early missteps (including testing delays and the president’s own repeated efforts to downplay the crisis), but a sense of hope and progress can be politically potent, even if that hope and progress can’t be laid directly at the president’s feet.
There are interesting implications for the future of the GOP. Obviously, if Trump wins, then his brand of confrontational populist nationalism will (for the time-being) be the orthodox GOP playbook. If he loses, the GOP may do what parties often do after a stinging defeat – reverse course, decisively. And who could be best-equipped to pick up the GOP standard? A Republican governor who stood his ground, kept his cool, and governed well.