Gov. Kevin Stitt is caught in a classic political fix — let’s call it the Hoover Headlock.
Like Herbert Hoover, who as president wouldn’t do the things that needed to be done to help the nation’s economy dig out of the Depression, Stitt won’t do the most important thing necessary for the state to stem the deadly advance of the COVID-19 pandemic, a statewide mask mandate.
Like Hoover, Stitt has been consistent in a policy that is a proven failure, and he doesn’t have a politically graceful way out.
Hoover said prosperity was right around the corner and the business of the government was to stand out of the way and allow the market to restore prosperity. History has not been kind to that thinking or Hoover.
The governor says everyone should wear face masks when they are in public and that the people of Oklahoma would be healthier if everyone would do so. But he won’t require it. He says he’ll back up local government efforts to put in place the sort of requirements he won’t make for the whole state, but in the end, he emphasizes that it’s a matter of personal responsibility.
It’s a policy that stems from deeply held principle, which makes it genuine, if still dangerously wrong for the challenge.
Mask requirements work. They save lives.
The failure of Stitt’s policy is reflected in nearly daily records for infections, hospitalizations and deaths. We go from a few red zone counties to several to most. Even the Donald Trump administration says the state isn’t doing enough.
Like Hoover, Stitt is drowning in a sea of bad news, forcing him to face the same difficult question from the public on a daily basis: Is it bad enough now for you to act?
Here’s the political advice the governor needs to hear: The only way to break the destructive cycle of the Hoover Headlock is to do something different.
Stitt tried. Last week he ordered that all restaurants must ensure tables stay 6 feet apart and all bars and restaurants will close at 11 p.m., except for curbside and drive-through windows. He also ordered that all state employees must wear a mask at work and at state buildings.
As half measures go, that’s not half bad, but it’s fully puzzling. Why would the governor think it was appropriate and needed to order state employees to wear masks but not everyone else?
Listen to these words: “If we depart from the principles of local responsibility and self-help ... we have struck at the roots of self-government.”
Those aren’t the words of Stitt, although they could be.
They were Hoover’s words during the Depression.
Local responsibility is a good solution to local problems, and self-help is essential for any policy to succeed. But depressions and pandemics are global in scope.
Tulsa’s mask ordinance works to decrease the spread of the disease in Tulsa, but does nothing to the maskless people of Broken Arrow, who use the same health care system as the Tulsans. I can (and do) wear a mask anytime I’m going to be around other people and can’t maintain an appropriate distance, but it takes everyone acting together to stop COVID-19, and that starts with the governor telling us we have to do it.
Local responsibility and self-help are good ideals in the right places, but any idea maintained against experience and good sense is dangerous to the common good and political reputations.
The local governments that have had the courage to impose mask mandates have proven they are enforceable and effective in stopping the spread of a potentially deadly disease that we can’t yet treat or prevent. The only problem is that those mandates end at city lines, and the disease does not.
It is not too late to act. If Stitt would issue a mask mandate today, it would slow the coronavirus spread in time to avoid, or at least delay, more draconian choices and give us all breathing room until a vaccine is available.
Listen to these words: “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
Those aren’t the words of Hoover or Stitt or me.
They are the pragmatic words of Franklin Roosevelt, the most successful politician in American history and the man who figured out what Hoover did not and Stitt has not.
The New Deal wasn’t a turn-key program presented to the nation on inauguration day, but a goal — an American economy pushed into prosperity by the federal government. It worked because of its pragmatic method.
Try something. Evaluate it. Change it. Try something else. Evaluated it. Change it. Try a third plan.
The Roosevelt Solution to the Hoover Headlock was to lay self-esteem to the side and follow the evidence.
Changing course is very difficult, politically. It requires admitting you are wrong at least in part, and risks being accused of inconsistency, being a flip-flopper. The longer you wait to do it, the harder it is to do it.
It also seems to be against the governor’s personal nature.
In the end, as painful as it might be, the only way to stop a mistake is to stop making it.
Do something, Gov. Stitt. You’re caught in a Hoover Headlock, and only you can break it.
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