Local Politics: Gov. DeWine still letting politics guide his pandemic response

Craig Calcaterra
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine walks into a coronavirus news conference on April 16, 2020, at the Statehouse in Columbus wearing a mask his wife, Fran, made him.

Last Monday, Gov. Mike DeWine sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to deliver more COVID-19 vaccines to Ohio. DeWine also asked for additional federal funds and help setting up mass vaccination sites, in addition to requesting that the government create a national campaign on the merits of the vaccine and mask-wearing.

These are all reasonable requests for much-needed assistance at a time when the pandemic still rages. It's just a shame that it took more than 10 months for DeWine to make them. And make no mistake, these are requests the sorts of which could have been made long ago. DeWine, however, had different priorities during that time. Priorities born of political expediency, not the best interests of Ohioans. It represents the exact sort of political calculation that has characterized DeWine's approach to the pandemic since at least May of last year.

In March and April, DeWine and former Department of Health Director Amy Actonreceived rave bipartisan reviews for their proactive approach to the pandemic. DeWine was praised for basing his decisions on medical and scientific expertise, and Ohio was held up as one of the few examples of a state allowing data, not politics, to dictate its approach.

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Then, suddenly, that all changed. In the space of a few weeks, DeWine lurched from a stepped reopening plan based on testing and infection benchmarks to, essentially, a mass reopening. This despite the fact that the benchmarks he had mentioned 10 days before had not been met. Instead of quantifiable metrics,DeWine suddenly began talking about “risks” and of the need for Ohioans to“take a gamble.”

What had changed? Essentially, the political situation.

In late April,armed would-be insurrectionists filled the Michigan state capitol, intimidating legislators and Michigan's governor. In May, a conservative court in Wisconsin overruled a Democratic governor's anti-pandemic efforts, effectively reopening the state andcreating what Wisconsin's governor referred to as a "wild west" situation. Meanwhile, here in Ohio, Republicans in the legislature began their still-ongoing attempts to outflank DeWine on the right by proposing their own aggressive reopening planand moving via legislation to strip the power of the governor and the health director to fight the pandemic.

It's impossible to read DeWine's shift from a prudent, science-based reopening plan to one in which basically anything went as anything other than an effort to head off the sort of political backlash seen in Michigan and Wisconsin and the political challenge he was beginning to feel at home. Everything DeWine has done or not done with respect to the pandemic since last May must be viewed through a prism in which politics, not science, is his lodestar.

That political expediency was DeWine's top priority became increasingly apparent as the summer and fall wore on. A time when DeWine alternatively praised Donald Trump and dodged questions related to the president’s irresponsible handling of the pandemic. A time when DeWine said Vice President Mike Pence was doing "a phenomenal job" as the head of the president's pandemic task force. A time when DeWine made no demands of the president for help with testing. With public health messaging. With laying the groundwork for an eventual vaccination program.  

No, it took Mike DeWine more than 10 months to stick up for Ohio in the face of what has been, until last Wednesday, federal indifference. It took him this long because, if he were to do it before now, he risked backlash from those who considered any questioning of President Trump's handling of the pandemic an act of disloyalty. Now that Biden is in office, however, there is no downside to asking for federal help.

Now, as Republicans pivot from praising the old president to blaming the new one, such requests can be cast as a challenge to the opposing party and, if that challenge is not perfectly met, a means of casting blame.