A new era — politics and the coronavirus

The state Capitol in Sacramento, late in the day. (Photo: Adonis Villanueva, via Shutterstock)

In offices in and around the state Capitol, politicians, consultants, lobbyists, and the whole array of other political types have one thing on their minds: How do we conduct campaigns and politics in the face of the growing coronavirus pandemic?

Will candidates make speeches wearing face masks?

Are latex gloves going to be de rigueur at meet-and-greet events with supporters?

Are great big, sweaty mass rallies designed to whoop up enthusiasm for a candidate now obsolete? (Nationally, Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Bernie Saunders have cancelled rallies.)

Sometimes they sneeze; sometimes they cough; they shake hands a lot.

Will older politicians be tempted to hang it up, given the fact that they are more susceptible to the coronavirus? (None of them are likely to quit in the foreseeable future, but Joe Biden is 77; Donald Trump is 73; Bernie Sanders is 78 and Dianne Feinstein is the oldest member of the Senate at 86.)

There are 25 state lawmakers in the Legislature who are 65 or older, according to Capitol observer Alex Vassar — 18 Democrats and seven Republicans.

The coronavirus already has affected business around the Capitol. Leaders in both houses are making arrangements for older legislators to work remotely, the recess calendar may be changed, staffers are increasingly working out of their homes and other changes are under consideration.

But what about legislative floor sessions? There are 80 members of the Assembly sitting, if not quite elbow-to-elbow, at fairly close quarters. Sometimes they sneeze; sometimes they cough; they shake hands a lot.

It is doubtful that candidates will refrain from taking shots at opponents over tactics to deal with the outbreak.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency, joining dozens of other states. Newsom has urged the elderly to stay home, and wants bars, restaurants, wineries, brew-pubs  and other gathering spots to curtail their hours.

Responses to the pandemic are already part of the political fray.

The Trump Administration is under fire from critics who say its actions are scattershot and disorganized. Here in California, it is doubtful that candidates for congressional, Assembly or state Senate seats will refrain from taking shots at opponents over tactics to deal with the outbreak. There will be back-and-forth blame aplenty.

In fact, one Los Angeles Republican candidate for Congress, Joanne Wright, on Feb. 24 tweeted: “Bill Gates is one of the financiers of the Wujan (sic) lab where it was being developed  …I wouldn’t put it past them and by ‘them’ I mean everyone from [Rep.] Adam Schiff to George Soros, Hillary Clinton and the Pope.” The tweet was denounced by the state GOP and has been deleted.

So far, California has seen 335 people test positive for the coronavirus and six people have died, although those figures will undoubtedly be revised upward in coming days.

The economic impact is sure to be immense, and not just confined to airlines and cruise ships.

The California Department of Public Health has issued a statement with the following cautions:

  • Large gatherings that include 250 people or more should be postponed or canceled.
  • This includes gatherings such as concerts, conferences, and professional, college, and school sporting events.
  • Smaller gatherings held in venues that do not allow social distancing of six feet per person should be postponed or canceled.

Cancelled rallies may not have as much political impact in California as in other states. With a population of about 40 million, California is not a state suitable for much face-to-face retail politics.  It’s not New Hampshire, where voters can’t decide whether to vote for a candidate until they’ve met him or her at least three times.  We’re a media state; digital and broadcast are where the action is.

The economic impact is sure to be immense, and not just confined to airlines and cruise ships.  Restaurants, bars, professional sports and a host of other businesses will suffer.

Candidates in the weeks ahead will attempt to project an attitude of calm, coupled with authority.  Fiery politics is out – at least for the duration. The virus conceivably may increase trust in government, with the California Department of Public Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control front and center. In theory, that could benefit Democrats, although nothing is certain.

The pandemic has had at least one unifying aspect.  Pro-Trumpers and anti-Trumpers, Democrats and Republicans, all offer the same advice: Wash your hands.

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