Opinion: Gov. Murphy’s COVID-19 Response Won’t Provide GOP an Attack Line in 2021 Election

Carl Golden | July 2, 2020 | Opinion, Politics
Murphy, who is expected to run for reelection next year, goes into that contest in a position of strength given his handling of the pandemic in New Jersey
Carl Golden

If the warnings of physicians, public health experts and medical researchers that the COVID-19 pandemic will ease over the summer only to come rampaging back in the fall and winter come to pass, the impact on the 2021 gubernatorial election will be significant.

The Murphy administration’s response to a second wave of the virus infecting thousands of people and proving lethal to thousands more, as well as the economic and personal disruption a resurgence will produce, will dominate the gubernatorial and legislative campaigns.

Will, for instance, New Jerseyans already weary from months of home confinement, closed schools, and business closures accept a second shutdown as the price to pay for controlling the spread of a lethal virus for which there is no known cure?

The state has begun a cautious and measured crawl out of the economic trough into which it’s been driven, and some level of normalcy has slowly returned.

The pace of reopening has been criticized by some Republicans and by financially distressed business owners, but Gov. Phil Murphy has been steadfast in his conviction that a premature lifting of restrictions runs the very real risk of imperiling public health and safety.

His approach has been validated by the experience in a number of other states whose governors reopened commercial activity, only to undergo an upward surge of infections, forced to retreat and reimpose their earlier restrictions.

He has enjoyed the support of the majority of people who have dealt with the upending of their lives as a necessary and prudent response to the most serious public health crisis in a century.

Fear bubbled beneath the surface as infections and deaths rose relentlessly. Wearing face coverings, standing 6 feet apart, picking up food and other consumer goods at curbside were accepted as inconvenient alternatives to potentially contracting an infection so virulent that lengthy hospitalizations and ventilators were required to treat it.

The gradual emergence from a lockdown was welcomed and hope rose that pre-pandemic life could resume.

What if it’s necessary to reimpose restrictions?

If it becomes necessary to reimpose the restrictions people have endured for more than three months, will there be the same level of public acquiescence or will Murphy suffer a backlash and the accompanying political consequences as he seeks a second term?

Republican critics, in the Legislature and out, accused Murphy of exceeding his emergency powers authority by issuing a series of executive orders and using police powers to clamp down on violators.

They grumbled also that he acted too slowly in allowing businesses to resume operations, a delay which proved extremely costly to small businesses whose owners could ill afford prolonged closures.

Those, however, are judgment calls, subjective conclusions arrived at based on the best available data and forecasts. Obviously, differences of opinion can be raised legitimately, but Murphy is in a position of strength in justifying his decisions as protective of the public health.

Halting the spread of the virus, controlling and reversing it while assuring that adequate hospital space was available for the most serious cases lay at the heart of Murphy’s response.

While critics can cherry-pick areas in which Murphy could have acted differently, there is scant political advantage to be gained by arguing in a campaign setting that his decisions were uniformly flawed.

To be sure, he erred early in the crisis by directing that infected individuals be transferred from hospitals to long-term care facilities where the virus spread rapidly among the most medically vulnerable populations despite an order to separate those infected from the remainder of the patients.

He blundered as well and opened himself to scathing criticism for participating in a protest march in a direct and very public violation of his social-distancing order.

Daily briefings have been ‘exemplary,’ informative

His daily briefings have been exemplary, providing the latest information, announcing executive decisions and the rationale behind them, and engaging in pep-talk rhetoric complimenting the state’s people for stepping up and doing their part to meet the crisis.

He’s wisely avoided direct criticism of President Trump, primarily because the state needed and will continue to require substantial infusions of federal aid which only the president can provide.

Beyond the aid considerations, though, Murphy understood that attacking Trump would be seized upon as an attempt to shift responsibility from his administration to the federal level, placing it in a political context rather than a public health one and undercutting his contention that the well-being of the state is his sole motivator.

He’s made it clear that he is ultimately responsible for steering New Jersey through the crisis, unlike New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City’s inept and out-of-his-depth Mayor Bill de Blasio, both of whom included Trump-bashing in their briefings.

While a second wave of the virus remains a distinct possibility, the prospect of reimposing the kind of restrictions the state has lived through thus far looms large, indeed.

And, if it extends into the spring of 2021, it will become inextricably enmeshed in the campaigns, creating a tricky terrain for Republicans to navigate.

They may wish to avoid aligning themselves too closely with Murphy, but at the same time acknowledge the necessity to act decisively, point out where they believe Murphy fell short and outline what they would have done differently.

They must come across as equally as committed as Murphy in providing the greatest possible protection to the public. He can point to his record and challenge his opponents to contradict it.

Snappy slogans and jingoism are no substitute for tough decisions and resolute actions.