Covid-19 reopening fails as GOP ‘wedge issue’

We have just attended the birth of a “wedge issue.”

Its father is Donald Trump. Its name is “Reopen now.”

The issue is about whether to wear masks and restrict business operations as ways of limiting the spread of Covid-19. The purpose of the wedge is to create a new voting bloc out of the opponents to such measures.

Wedge issues are a tool used by political candidates to exploit single-issue voters, who could be led to support their candidacy. Single-issue support gives politicians a blank check from voters in dealing with any other issues.

For example, in 2004, voters in key states turned out to oppose same-sex marriage and, while at the polls, they voted for George W. Bush for president. Without state votes on the issue, they might not have shown up to vote for Bush.

In 1968, Richard Nixon may have been the candidate who made the wedge issue famous when he appealed to what he called a “silent majority” who demanded “law and order.” Trump has used both terms.

Other wedge issues are abortion and gun rights. If candidates identify themselves as “right to life,” they can gain support from some voters who give them a free hand to cut health care or go to war in Iraq.

Not only is the raw material for some wedge issues already present in public opinion, like abortion, but it can be manufactured by the candidate. Nixon created the “silent majority” to pick up its votes.

When a candidate attracts single-issue voters by exploiting their views, they can readily become part of the candidate’s “core” backers. They remain locked-in supporters so long as the candidate sticks to their position on the wedge issue.

Here’s how Trump tried to create a new one.

When Covid-19 first appeared early in the year, Trump sought to minimize it. But the illness failed to disappear as he had promised. Instead, without government action to control it, Covid-19 spread. Some state governments began taking protective measures.

Even if masks, distancing and closures worked against the virus, they also worked against the economy. People needed work for income and to regain a sense of normal life. Without economic activity, jobs could be lost forever.

Faced with the desire of many to regain their normal lives and the need for a reopened economy, the Trump administration had to try minimizing the effect of Covid-19 without denying the worrisome numbers.

The solution was to admit that the coronavirus was taking lives, while asserting that the price in human lives was relatively small and, most importantly, worth paying. The heavily protected president refused to wear a mask as a symbol of his belief the threat was minor.

The response to Covid-19 soon became a partisan issue. Republicans mostly lined up behind their president. States mainly in the South that had given Trump strong support in 2016 delayed imposing restrictions and hurried their loosening.

Republicans buttressed their position by claiming that requiring masks or closing restaurants were attacks on constitutional rights. Vice President Pence went so far as to place those rights above protection from Covid-19.

State GOP organizations attacked Democratic governors for going slow on reopening their economies. They appeared to believe that they could gain voters by advocating policies that would get people out of their homes and by blaming Democrats for keeping them quarantined.

If GOP strategy worked, voters favoring reopening would also favor Republican candidates. The plan relied on wishful thinking that reopening even with its dangers would be a short transition to a remedy or a vaccine.

One problem with wishful thinking is that it is wishful, not based on facts. While the world waits hopefully and impatiently for a vaccine, scientists reported this week that the virus is mutating. It may not be more harmful, but it is probably more contagious.

Another problem is that the price may be turning out to be too high. The “Sunbelt Spike” shows dizzying increases in Arizona, Texas and Florida, where Republican governors resisted protective measures. If they had been right, their actions might have had a favorable impact on Trump’s re-election.

But New York, once the world hot spot, and Massachusetts, New Jersey and Maryland, under governors of both parties, have cut the case rate and kept it down. So has Maine.

A majority of Democrats and independents favor protective measures over rapid reopening. Most Republicans stick with Trump, though it’s questionable that his wedge issue could work. It is failing and it faces an early death.

Fighting Covid-19 has resisted being turned into partisan wedge issue. Huge and baffling, it is a strictly nonpartisan threat.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.