Washington’s Covid Truce Is About to End. Then What?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After several weeks of bipartisan agreement, including Congress’s spending $2 trillion to support the economy, we are now reverting to type and dividing into partisan camps. The U.S. is therefore about to see what happens when polarization meets a pandemic. The chances that polarization loses are higher than most people think, but there will be an ugly battle this summer.

Before looking forward to that, it’s worth pausing to appreciate how remarkable the temporary armistice has been. Congress is more divided today than it was during the great financial crisis. Yet compared with the 2009 stimulus, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act is larger, was passed much faster (in roughly a week, compared with about two months) and garnered much more political support (96-0 in the Senate, compared with 60-38). Similarly, over the past month, President Donald Trump has (mostly) listened to expert advice and tolerated significant independence among his top health advisers (especially Anthony Fauci).

This truce unfortunately seems to be ending. The wrangling over the next stage of legislative support for small businesses and other affected entities is one indicator, though that legislation will probably be enacted this week. Another is Trump’s support for protests against Democratic governors who have imposed social distancing restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The next several months will see deep divisions across the country between blue and red states, along with the possibility that Americans will be impeded from traveling from one state to another. As the first wave of social distancing measures pays off, with declining caseloads at hospitals on the coasts, the pressure to loosen these constraints will build — especially in areas where people have been more skeptical about the need for social distancing in the first place.

Partisan differences about Covid-19 and social distancing may be narrowing, but they remain large. A team of leading economists who studied GPS data and conducted an online survey concluded, “GPS evidence reveals large partisan gaps in actual social distancing behaviors. Survey evidence shows substantial gaps between Republicans and Democrats in beliefs about the severity of Covid-19 and the importance of social distancing.” Those differences remained even after the researchers adjusted for the fact that Democrats tend to live in locations that have been more affected in the early spread of the disease.

Similarly, a survey by political scientists at Syracuse University, the University of California at Irvine and Cornell University found that “political differences are the single most consistent factor that differentiates Americans’ health behaviors and policy preferences” in response to the crisis. Another study found that people living in Republican counties have been “less likely to completely stay at home after a state order has been implemented relative to those in Democratic counties … and that Democrats are less likely to respond to a state-level order when it is issued by a Republican governor relative to one issued by a Democratic governor.” These findings all held even after adjusting for where Covid-19 cases and deaths hit first.

Given these political differences, it’s not hard to imagine that the summer of 2020 will be characterized by vast differences across states in the stringency of testing requirements and social distancing measures, including how forcefully they are re-applied when the virus inevitably surges. The problem with this differentiated response has been likened to having a “peeing section in a pool”: It’s impossible to localize the impact. Either we impose travel restrictions on moving from one part of the country to another, or the various approaches to testing and social distancing this summer will carry implications for everyone.

Which brings us back to the battle between the virus and polarization. Although today’s political environment seems hopelessly divided, the U.S. has endured at least two previous cycles of extreme partisanship. Those earlier cycles ended when a catastrophe hit — a world war, for instance — and one party was so weakened politically that its remnants moved to the center to survive, creating an incentive for the other party to also move toward the center to avoid losing votes from that part of the population.

Covid-19 may be such an event. It differs from other subjects of recent partisan battle — from death panels to tax rates to climate change — because its effects are immediate, making scientific predictions quickly verifiable. It’s as if we could collapse the debate over the accuracy of climate models to the next six months, rather than the next six decades.

This summer the U.S. is thus likely to conduct an unprecedented experiment in both medical and political science. Some states will aggressively resist social distancing and widespread testing, and we will learn whether or not these measures are necessary to stop the disease: The disease will overwhelm hospital capacity and morgues, or it won’t. We will also learn something about the prospects for continued political division: The effects predicted by science and confirmed by reality will be enough to depolarize the country, or they won’t.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Peter R. Orszag is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the chief executive officer of financial advisory at Lazard. He was director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2010, and director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2007 to 2008.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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