For Gov. Beshear, the politics of coronavirus are tough, and they are only going to get tougher

Apr 22, 2020 at 11:13 am
Gov. Andy Beshear.
Gov. Andy Beshear.

We figured the ides of April would be the first crucible of Andy Beshear’s governorship, with a Republican legislature rendering its verdicts on the Democratic governor’s proposals and vetoes. But for a month, Beshear has faced a much greater test: how to deal with a deadly pandemic that is tanking the economy and altering the political landscape. And it will only get tougher.

In the first month of the crisis, Beshear’s actions to thwart the coronavirus went largely unchallenged, and his daily Facebook Live briefings gave him a presence and reach no Kentucky governor has ever had, especially in the many parts of the state served by out-of-state TV stations. His predecessor, Matt Bevin, liked to use social media, but he didn’t like to answer reporters’ questions; Beshear does so daily and each briefing typically gets more than 300,000 views. He has 200,000 Facebook followers and the comments on the briefings show that many viewers are people who didn’t vote for him.

Such numbers surely concern Republicans who considered Beshear’s defeat of Bevin a product of the latter’s political ineptitude and easy pickings in the 2023 election. That was perhaps best demonstrated Tuesday, when the five Republicans who hold the other independently elected, statewide constitutional offices issued a statement criticizing the governor’s dealings with the legislature. It was released not by the Republican Party of Kentucky, but by the state Department of Agriculture, which is run by Commissioner Ryan Quarles, a likely candidate for governor in 2023. Your tax dollars at work.

The state GOP did make a statement about Beshear a few days earlier and like some others from Republicans, its overstatement illustrated their pent-up eagerness to go after him. It said he had directed “state police to stalk churchgoers and turn their information over to government agents.” There was no stalking; the police took license-plate numbers so local health departments could send a letter to people who had violated Beshear’s emergency order banning mass gatherings, asking them to sign a self-quarantine agreement and report their temperature daily.

But many Republicans didn’t let the facts get in the way of the chance to dress down Beshear. Sen. Matt Castlen of Owensboro said in the state Senate’s closing debate Wednesday night, “We have a governor who’s shutting our churches down but is letting abortion clinics stay open.”

Beshear says one church (Maryville Baptist in Hillview) violated his order and Kentucky has one abortion clinic (EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville). It’s open despite Beshear’s order banning “non-urgent” medical procedures, because medical professional groups do not consider abortion an elective procedure and Kentucky law bans abortions after 20 weeks – putting a time limit on a woman’s constitutional right to get an abortion.

But many people think that shouldn’t even be a right, and Republicans, especially Attorney General Daniel Cameron, are exploiting that deeply held feeling. Two bills Beshear is likely to veto would give Cameron limited authority over abortion clinics and declare that abortion isn’t a non-urgent procedure under his order. They could have passed the legislation April 1, giving themselves a chance to override vetoes, but waited until the last day of the session, creating a political exclamation point.

In his crucible, Beshear has seemed mostly unflappable, even when protesters led by a Bevin acolyte nearly drowned out a recent Wednesday briefing. But the day before, he got windy and whiny when asked about reports that Republicans were working on a bill to let occupational licensing boards and trade associations set standards for what nonessential businesses would be safe to reopen.

Beshear asked, “Do you trust the governor, led by the Department for Public Health and all of our medical officials, or do you trust the legislature and lobbyists that are talking to them each day based on monetary interests that are out there?”

That was Beshear’s first public touch on the heart of the question that will face him and other governors: How much will we value money and how much will we value human life? It is not an either-or question; America and its states are democratic republics that should reflect the consent of the governed. But with a president who talks more about the economy than humanity and sows confusion about a complicated subject when much more science is needed, the virus may outlast our patience and perhaps our real or perceived economic needs – and kill more.

In one way, Beshear’s strong measures work against him; flattening the curve of a pandemic avoids a deadly spike but delays the downward curve — and thus the emergence from economic restrictions. Reopening too soon, especially before a lot more testing has been done to understand the virus better, could worsen the winter resurgence that experts think is likely. That’s why the politics of the coronavirus will get tougher. •

Al Cross is a former Courier Journal political writer and is professor and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at UK. He writes this column for the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism. Reach him @ruralj.