The US COVID response under Trump was not "merely mediocre"

An op-ed in the New York Times says that the US coronavirus response under President Trump was mediocre, but not catastrophic, when compared to the response of other countries. But the "peer country" examples selected by columnist Ross Douthat don't paint an accurate picture. Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Scott Rosenstein take issue with Douthat's argument on this edition of The Red Pen (where we keep op-eds honest.)

Today, we're taking our red pen to a recent piece from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. The title is provocative, "How Many Lives Would a More Normal President Have Saved?" It sounds like Douthat is about to go big on the failure of President Trump's response to the pandemic. But no, that's just the headline. In reality, what he's saying is it isn't a catastrophe and may end up just being, meh, especially when you compare the US to peer nations. Not so fast, Ross. Let's break down the argument and get out the red pen.


First, how are we defining peer nations? Douthat writes, "It probably makes more sense to compare the United States death toll to similarly positioned and sized countries - meaning the biggest countries in Western Europe and our major neighbors in the Americas - than to compare us to a global average." Why not compare, my view, the United States to the EU rather than individual nations for a similar landmass and population? That makes the most sense. If you did, you'd realize that comparison doesn't paint a pretty picture for the United States.

Excerpt from NYT op-ed annotated with: Why not compare the US to the EU - similar land mass and population?

And by the way, if you are going to single out peers, you should also include Canada, Japan, South Korea, all of which have a lot fewer cases and deaths per capita than the United States. Now, to be fair, since publication, Douthat has posted a pretty lengthy thread on Twitter explaining a few of his more controversial points and admitting he should have included Canada as analysis. Fair enough. But in broad terms, comparing the United States to a conveniently selected cohort and ignoring both the different starting points within that comparison and all other counterexamples - like Canada and the EU a whole - seems like you're forcing the argument. Also, the US is far better equipped in terms of federal government resources, pandemic planning, the private sector, and research institutions - the best in the world - than pretty much any other country. So therefore, the extent to which the US underperformed, what should have been our expectations is much greater. Also, keep in mind, the United States population is considerably younger than the European countries that are under comparison, which should have helped minimize deaths and severe illness, since we know that overwhelmingly coronavirus hits older populations.

Next, Douthat focuses on left versus right politics and not anti-science populism versus pro-science pragmatism. That's a lot more important as a split, not left versus right. He writes, "Overall, once you observe the general pattern where the Western Hemisphere and Western Europe have been particularly hard hit, it's hard to distinguish the big countries run by centrists or socialists from the country run by Donald Trump." But when you compare anti-science populists like Trump or AMLO in Mexico, Bolsonaro in Brazil, with Angela Merkel in Germany, or Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, you see a pattern that suggests that Trump's rhetoric, an unwillingness to demonstrate strong leadership, have done more than a little damage.

NYT op-ed excerpt with annotation: Rhetoric from anti-science populists like Trump, AMLO, & Bolsonaro has an impact.

One of the most important points in dealing with a pandemic is not whether you on the left or on the right, whether you're small or whether you're big, or even whether you're rich or whether you're poor, it's whether or not you're leading with science and expertise. That's been a really fundamental divide in the United States. And President Trump have not led well on that.

Finally, when we get to the "normal president" part from the title of the column, Douthat writes that the actions necessary to save a hundred thousand or more lives "would probably required presidential greatness, not merely replacement level competence." Really? I mean, do you have to be an exceptional leader like Merkel to listen to public health experts and avoid the politicization of vaccines and treatments?

NYT op-ed excerpt with annotation: Leaders don't have to be exceptional to listen to public health experts.

You don't need to be Winston Churchill to level with people and not intentionally downplay the threat of the pandemic, which is exactly what President Trump told Bob Woodward he was doing. It's all in Woodward's new book, by the way. Speaking of vaccines, Douthat also writes that if one is developed in record time, as Trump is promised, that will also be part of Trump's coronavirus legacy. And absolutely agree. But let's keep in mind that President Trump has also stoked vaccine skepticism since before he was elected and now his actions on coronavirus vaccines are contributing to even more skepticism. So if Operation Warp Speed is successful, it may also succeed in further undermining vaccines for coronavirus and for other illnesses for a long time to come.

That's it for this week's edition of The Red Pen.

Microsoft announced earlier this year the launch of a new United Nations representation office to deepen their support for the UN's mission and work. Many of the big challenges facing society can only be addressed effectively through multi-stakeholder action. Whether it's public health, environmental sustainability, cybersecurity, terrorist content online or the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, Microsoft has found that progress requires two elements - international cooperation among governments and inclusive initiatives that bring in civil society and private sector organizations to collaborate on solutions. Microsoft provided an update on their mission, activities for the 75th UN General Assembly, and the team. To read the announcement from Microsoft's Vice President of UN Affairs, John Frank, visit Microsoft On The Issues.

News broke across the United States on Friday evening that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died, ending her long and distinguished career as a jurist. Tributes poured in quickly began from men and women on both sides of the political spectrum. But just as quickly, her death has sharply raised the stakes for the upcoming US elections for president and the Senate, as well as the longer-term ideological balance of the nation's top court.

A few thoughts.

First, President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already made clear they will move quickly toward a Senate vote to confirm a replacement before the election. Neither man cares about arguments that they should wait until after the election to move forward. Trump will name the nominee within days, and McConnell will begin lining up the votes. Four years ago, McConnell refused to give a vote to Obama's pick to replace deceased Justice Antonin Scalia because it was an election year, although for McConnell that argument doesn't apply now.

Second, this may set the scene for large-scale protests in many American cities. As for the election itself, this fight, however it plays out, is only likely to increase enthusiasm among voters on both sides by reminding them of the larger stakes that come with a lifetime appointment that can swing the ideological balance of a divided court. The partisan battle over the 2018 confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh could be child's play compared to what could happen if Republicans try to confirm a nominee before the election, or even after it (especially if Trump loses).

Third, there will be no replacement for Ginsburg until a nominee can get 50 votes in the Senate. Of the 53 Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) have said in the past they don't believe a nominee should be rushed through close to an election. There are other names to watch, including a few in close races for re-election that might benefit by saying no to Trump. There is also Mitt Romney (Utah), the man who has emerged as Trump's most frequent Republican critic.

Fourth, here's the potential wildcard: The Constitution stipulates that there must be a Supreme Court, but it doesn't specify how many judges it should include. There have been more than nine justices in the past.

In theory, if Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins the election and Democrats win a majority in the Senate, Biden could nominate six new justices of his own for a 15-judge court. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried this ploy in 1937, it failed and dealt his presidency a heavy political blow. But 1937 is not 2020, and Biden might succeed where Roosevelt failed.

The bottom line: The death of Justice Ginsburg is a major plot twist for what has so far been a remarkably stable election, and it will reverberate through American politics for years to come.

Jon Lieber, Managing Director of the United States for the Eurasia Group, shares his insights on the biggest development in US politics this week:

So, the scriptwriters for 2020 have thrown as a real curveball, introducing the most explosive element in US politics, just six weeks before the election. The tragic death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who will be remembered as a trailblazing jurist, but also a reliably liberal vote on a court that was divided along ideological lines with a five-four conservative majority. This has the potential to upend the presidential election. And likely will motivate turnout on both sides. But also, importantly for president, Trump could remind some Romney voting ex-Republicans who were leaning towards Biden why they were Republicans in the first place. Which means that it has the potential to push some persuadable voters back towards the president.

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The pandemic has forced this year's UN General Assembly to be mostly virtual, but will it prove to be an effective way for world leaders to discuss the critical issues of the moment? Ian Bremmer talks to UN Secretary-General António Guterres about the challenges of diplomacy in the Zoom where it happens. The exchange is part of a wide-ranging interview for GZERO World.

The episode begins airing nationally in the US on public television this Friday, September 18. Check local listings.

Nicholas Thompson, editor-in-chief of WIRED, discusses technology industry news today:

Does Trump's TikTok and WeChat ban infringe on American free speech rights?

I don't think that as a legal argument you could make the case that he's violated the law. But as a principle, potentially shutting down a vibrant platform where a lot of people say a lot of stuff, it doesn't look good. I think he's in violation of the spirit of the constitution, but I have a hard time viewing it as a legal matter.

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