The lesson of the coronavirus pandemic? Competence matters

White House adviser Jared Kushner attends a teleconference with governors at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters.
White House adviser Jared Kushner attends a teleconference with governors at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters.Pool/Getty

For decades, Republican politicians have pledged to take government out of the lives of the American people. The Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus epidemic is an unfortunate reminder that they weren’t joking.

It’s easy to view the Trump White House’s endless number of public health errors as emblematic of the rank incompetence of the man who calls 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home. But the problems run so much deeper: They are the by-product of a political culture — and a conservative ideology — openly disdainful of the skills and expertise needed to provide essential public services for the American people.

During the 2016 campaign, at every Trump rally I attended, his supporters would tell me that what Washington needed was a businessman to shake things up. Only an outsider like Trump, they said, could drain the swamp and whip the government into shape.


We’re now seeing the existential danger of such a mindset.

We were told Trump would hire “the best people.” Instead, we’re relying on people like Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and the architect of Trump’s disastrous, error-filled address to the nation two weeks ago that tanked the markets and created panic in airports. When Kushner wasn’t busy consulting with emergency room doctors on Facebook he was, according to the New York Times, telling the president that the pandemic is “more about public psychology than a health reality.”

Back in 2017, the Trump administration was given a detailed playbook, prepared during the Obama administration, on how to handle a pandemic. Trump’s ever-rotating band of mediocre national security advisers ignored them. Meanwhile, the office at the national security council responsible for public health crises was disbanded.

That Trump is surrounded by enablers and yes-men is not news, but it’s also what is to be expected when you have a president who has never shown any interest in governing the country; or a party that views running the executive branch as an afterthought.


It’s not as if the response to COVID-19 was a one-off event. Similar incompetence was evident after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico and in the cruel and ineffective response to the migrant crisis at the Southern border. Trump’s Cabinet has long been defined not by steady hands guiding the ship of state, but hands gleefully rummaging through the public kitty.

Until now, the pinnacle of government mismanagement came after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. President George W. Bush’s infamous exhortation to his FEMA head, Michael Brown — “Heckuva job Brownie” — summed up the catastrophic mistakes made by his administration. But “Brownie” was a symptom of a larger disease. His previous job before going to work at the agency had been as a commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association. The only reason Brown was in a position of executive power is because he worked for a president who didn’t care all that much about running the government well.

Indeed, the same indifference to public responsibilities would define the Bush administration’s handling of the occupation of Iraq. Those recruited to handle the occupation were asked their views on Roe v. Wade and whom they had voted for in 2000. Public officials with decades of experience were passed over for party activists and ideologues who were seen as loyal rather than competent.


Democratic administrations are hardly immune from management screw-ups: President Obama’s mishandling of healthcare.gov comes to mind. But these are fewer and farther between than mistakes made under Republican presidents.

It shouldn’t be lost on voters that while the Trump administration can’t master the essential public responsibility of getting ventilators and masks to hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. One of the top advisers to Joe Biden is Ron Klain, who organized the successful Obama administration response to an Ebola outbreak in 2014.

It’s not that Democrats are inherently better at public management or crisis response — it’s that they take governing more seriously, which is an ideological by-product of viewing government as a positive force in the lives of the American people. It is hardly a surprise that some of the states with the best and most aggressive response to the coronavirus crisis are helmed by Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom. While there are laudable exceptions like Mike DeWine in Ohio, the Republican governors of Mississippi, Florida, and Texas are following the more traditional Republican course of putting politics and partisanship ahead of competence — with predictable results.

The Trump administration, and before that the Bush administration, were filled with those who had come of age in the Reagan and later Gingrich eras of “government is the problem.”

Since then, Republicans have not taken government seriously. Is it any wonder that they don’t take governing seriously?

So next time you hear a politician tell you they are going to shrink the size of government or get it out of your way, believe them. Those Americans who have long cheered this kind of rhetoric or disdained years of experience in public service should ask themselves: The next time a crisis hits, who do you want in charge, people who understand how to respond or those who think government and governing are four-letter words?


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.