Column: California recall candidates are risking our lives

Do Republican politicians even listen to what they’re saying anymore, when it comes to the pandemic?

That question is prompted by a few exchanges during last Wednesday’s debate among four GOP candidates running to replace Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in the upcoming recall election, and by one in particular.

This was a response by businessman John Cox, who already lost one election to Newsom, to a question about whether he would uphold the governor’s recent order that all California state employees and all healthcare workers in the state show proof that they’ve been vaccinated or submit to regular testing.

What we need to do is look at what other states have done. I compare California to Florida.

GOP recall candidate John Cox

“No, I don’t believe we should do that,” Cox replied. “First of all, there’s a lot of people that have had COVID and have antibodies. They don’t need the vaccine, they shouldn’t get the vaccine.”

This runs absolutely counter to scientific and medical consensus, which holds that you should get the vaccine even if you’ve had COVID and recovered. That’s because the vaccines available in the U.S. today are better at delivering long-term and stronger immunity against COVID than “natural” immunity.

More shocking was Cox’s addendum. “What we need to do is look at what other states have done,” he said. “I compare California to Florida.”

Was he kidding? Florida today is in the throes of a COVID cataclysm, thanks to the policies of GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, whom Cox seems to think Newsom should have emulated.

Over the last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida has led the nation in new COVID cases, at 732.8 per 100,000 population. (California ranks 26th, with 131.3 cases per 100,000.) New COVID deaths in Florida clocked in at 3.7 per 100,000 population in the last seven days; California’s rate was 0.2.

Florida’s hospitals are seeing record caseloads, and some are back to canceling elective surgeries, a step last seen during the previous COVID peak.

All this is the result of DeSantis policies such as his adamant refusal to impose statewide mask mandates, and even to block local authorities from doing so on their own. He signed a law prohibiting businesses from asking customers for proof of vaccination before receiving service.

Cox gloated that a federal judge blocked one of Newsom’s anti-pandemic initiatives; one wonders what he would have said about an injunction a federal judge in Florida issued against DeSantis on Sunday, preventing him from enforcing his vaccination proof order against Norwegian Cruise Lines, which intends to sail out of Florida ports with all passengers and crew vaccinated.

It would be incorrect to say that Newsom hasn’t made any false steps during his three years as governor. But the issue facing the voters at the Sept. 14 recall election will be whether any of the candidates on the ballot would do any better.

Last Wednesday’s GOP debate, which featured recall candidates Doug Ose, a former congressman from Sacramento; former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer; and current Assemblyman Kevin Kiley of Sacramento, opened a window on a horrifying and dreadful world that would come to pass if any of them were elected.

The affair might have been infinitely more edifying had the format allowed the four moderators to follow up the candidates’ remarks by probing their multiple misstatements of fact; instead, it devolved into a series of stump speeches aimed at the Republican base.

One candidate after another proposed solving the state’s ills through wholesale firings of civil servants, repealing environmental and antipollution regulations, and placing big business in unrestricted control of the workplace.

They spoke out against “critical race theory” being taught in the schools, a Republican hobby horse, though none of them appeared to know what it was or had evidence that it was being taught in the schools.

Asked if he agreed with the assertion by talk radio host Larry Elder, a recall candidate who didn’t show up for the debate, that the state minimum wage should be zero, Cox said, “He’s right, from the standpoint that I think the free market is a much better judge of what wages should be.”

One wonders where Cox thinks he can find this fair-minded judge of the proper level of wages. Minimum wage laws exist because of the recognition that individual wage-earners and employers don’t enter the “free market” with anything approaching equivalent power.

As I’ve mentioned before, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s advisor Harold Ickes (a Republican), damned the Supreme Court in 1936 for overturning a New York minimum wage law, a ruling he reckoned upheld “the sacred right … of an immature child or a helpless woman to drive a bargain with a great corporation.”

Ickes added, “If this decision does not outrage the moral sense of the country, then nothing will.” (The justices, recognizing that moral outrage drove FDR’s plan to pack the court with less reactionary jurists, reversed themselves the following year.)

On the question of how the state should respond to the current drought, the candidates displayed an endearing faith in magic. Asked how he would handle the unprecedented recent emergency curtailments of water supplies to growers and other users by the state Water Resources Control Board, Faulconer said he would “stop them, because agriculture is so incredibly important to our state.”

Faulconer pointed to a couple of Central Valley dam proposals that should have been laughed off the books long ago but still walk among us — Temperance Flat and the Sites project. Both have long since been judged to have negative cost-benefit ratings.

Temperance Flat, in particular, appears to offer the lowest bang for the buck of any water storage proposal in the state. It would place another dam on the San Joaquin River, which already hosts eight dams and two canals that reduce it to dry sand for much of its length. Nevertheless, the project has been on the Republican wish list for years.

The truth, as the candidates didn’t appear to recognize, is that one can’t conjure water out of the air during a major drought. California’s only rational option is to find new ways to conserve and new standards for allocation. Talking up growers as if they’re the only water users who matter in the state won’t produce more water or help husband what we have.

For all that, it was the candidates’ statements on the pandemic that were the most dismaying. Presumably aware that this is the topic that remains paramount among voter concerns, they strived to paint Newsom’s management as uniquely incompetent.

All criticized the Aug. 2 rule issued by the state Department of Public Health requiring masks on all K-12 pupils and adults indoors, with those exempt because of medical conditions substituting face shields. Their rationale was largely that the rule impinged on parents’ rights.

“Parents know what’s best for their kids,” Kiley said. “They should be making these decisions for themselves.”

That’s a charming sentiment, but the problem is parents who think they’re making the right choices for their own kids without thinking about the impact on other children, or adults in the schoolroom, or indeed on vulnerable residents in their own homes.

Plenty of parents who made the choice not to get their own children inoculated for measles helped produce nationwide measles outbreaks in 2014 and 2019 that placed scores of children in the hospital. COVID is a much deadlier disease.

The result of letting parents make vaccination decisions for their children: two measles outbreaks in seven years.

(CDC)

Judging from the debate, criticizing Newsom’s performance on COVID requires making up facts or experiencing a serious case of amnesia. “Our public health outcomes have been among the worst” in the country, Kiley asserted, forgetting to mention that as recently as late April, California had the lowest per-capita case rate in the nation.

“If our excess mortality were even on par with the national average, thousands more Californians would be alive today,” Kiley said.

That’s cherry-picking at best: California’s COVID-driven excess mortality is currently slightly higher than the national average — a range of 0.9%-6.0%, as the CDC calculates the figure, compared with the U.S. average in 0.3%-3.4%. But it’s much lower than states that have refused to implement the masking and social distancing rules in California. Florida’s range just now is 11.2%-16.6%, and Texas’ is 6.6%-11.8%.

“The lessons that we need to draw from this,” Kiley said, “is that states that took a different approach, that followed the science, that took a balanced approach, and that trusted their citizens, did a lot better, and I would have learned from them.”

Kiley didn’t specify which states he was talking about. If he was talking about states led by his fellow Republicans, he’s dead wrong. At this moment, nine of the 10 states with the worst case rates per capita over the last week have Republican governors or leaderships. (I’m including Louisiana, which has a Democratic governor but Republican legislature.)

Nor does this record reflect only recent experience. Florida’s death rate from COVID since the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020 is 185 per 100,000 residents, Texas’ is 180, and California’s is 162. Only 19 states and the District of Columbia have done better than California.

The Delta variant has upended expectations about the end of the pandemic nationwide. But to claim that Newsom hasn’t “followed the science” or that his policies have been lethal is just nonsense.

Voters should be infuriated — and terrified — that politicians with this fatuous take on how to fight the virus, much less how to manage our economy, might end up in charge of our government.

One is tempted to say that Californians would deserve what they get if they vote Newsom out of office in the Sept. 14 recall election, but who deserves these clowns?