Saturday, July 31, 2021

Delta Variant Could Take Political Toll

At the Los Angeles Times, "News Analysis: How the Delta variant could shake up the 2022 midterm election":

The virulence of the coronavirus Delta variant has ushered in a new phase of the pandemic, prompting tougher vaccine and mask requirements and stoking a volatile mood among Americans that poses peril for both political parties.

Reflecting the urgent need to guard the country against climbing rates of infection, Republican and Democratic politicians alike have shifted focus in recent weeks. The GOP, mindful of lagging vaccination rates in conservative communities, has begun making more robust appeals for inoculations. Democrats, meanwhile, have embraced mandates as an additional tool to reach the remaining unvaccinated.

In the clearest sign yet of this escalating response, President Biden announced Thursday a new slate of incentives — including $100 for those who get vaccinated — and requirements, ordering federal employees and contractors to get the shot or submit to regular testing, mask-wearing and social distancing.

“I say to all those who are unvaccinated — please, please get vaccinated,” he said in an address from the East Room of the White House. “To the rest of America, this is no time to be despondent or let our guard down. We just need to finish the job with science, with facts, with the truth.”

These moves are set against a backdrop of palpable anger in the country — be it the vaccinated seething at uninoculated holdouts or those chafing at new mask and vaccine impositions from the government.

With the majority of American adults already inoculated, Republicans risk being seen as responsible for the “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” given higher rates of vaccine hesitancy in their ranks.

But Democrats, with control of both the White House and Congress, may shoulder the blame for any plunge in the nation’s hopefulness about halting the virus — and possibly hand the GOP a potent campaign issue in next year’s midterm election.

Mandates will be denounced by the right in an effort “to fire up and mobilize their base against this big, overreaching federal government,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster. “None of this conversation is about what will fire up young voters, minority voters — the college-educated women who were key to the Biden coalition. Where’s their red meat?”

The resurgence of the virus after months of declining infections is good news for nobody, least of all Biden, who made a return to pre-pandemic normalcy a centerpiece of his first months in the White House. A recent ABC News/Ipsos poll found that a majority of Americans are now pessimistic about the direction of the country, a 20-point slide in optimism from less than three months ago.

But the president still gets relatively high marks for his leadership in combating the virus, significantly outpacing voters’ overall assessment of his job performance.

“People have confidence that the Biden administration’s approach is competent,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist, “and that he’s telling the truth.”

That trust is now being tested by the return of mitigation measures. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week issued new guidance recommending that everyone wear masks indoors in public in parts of the country with surging transmission rates — just two months after the public health agency said indoor masking was unnecessary for the fully vaccinated.

The reversal was not only a symbolic blow to the nation’s pandemic recovery, but also gave ammunition to administration critics. Public health experts wondered whether the CDC was too hasty in initially lifting the mask guidance. Republicans, meanwhile, jumped on the chance to decry what they say is bureaucratic overreach and raise the specter of harsher measures such as lockdowns.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the House GOP leader, criticized the CDC’s decision as “conjured up by liberal government officials who want to continue in a perpetual pandemic state.”

Republicans have been particularly apoplectic over new mask requirements set by the Capitol physician for the House of Representatives, with some risking a fine by refusing to wear a face covering.

Aiming their ire at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), they questioned why the Senate does not have similar rules. (Nearly all senators have publicly stated they are vaccinated, while almost half of House Republicans have refused to disclose whether they are inoculated, according to CNN.)

Pelosi, asked by reporters to respond to McCarthy’s complaints, appeared to call her fellow Californian “such a moron.”

While the GOP has coalesced around antipathy for mask mandates, the messaging around vaccines has been more muddled. The Delta variant prompted a notable shift in Republicans advocating for the shot, albeit often in cautious terms that emphasize personal choice, while some in the party continue to loudly disparage vaccination with inflammatory rhetoric.

The current wave of infections is hardly just a Republican problem...

Still more.