Commentary

Susan J. Demas: As COVID surges again in Michigan, Whitmer’s leadership shrinks

August 28, 2021 3:20 am

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs the FY 2022 School Aid budget, July 13, 2021 | Whitmer office photo

For weeks, terrified parents, anxious teachers and weary administrators have been waiting for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to step up and be the leader she was at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The sane majority is sick and tired of being pushed around by wild-eyed anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers berating and threatening health and elected officials at public meetings — even as cases surge again. 

We need our governor to stand up for us. Because the fight against COVID is far from over.

Whitmer was never afraid to make the tough calls and issue strict health restrictions last year, refusing to bow to pressure from heavily armed right-wing protesters (some of whom have been arrested for an alleged plot to kill her), noisy business lobbyists and conspiracy-spreading Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake). 

Our governor prioritized keeping Michiganders safe above all else — and studies showed that her mandates kept COVID cases down and likely saved tens of thousands of lives. 

But Whitmer’s resolve has wavered since the third wave hit this spring, when she defied the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation for another shutdown as our case rate spiked to the worst in the nation. The governor went all-in on pushing vaccinations — an essential tool to contain the virus, but not the only one, especially as shots were just becoming widely available to the general public.

Whitmer was never afraid to make the tough calls and issue strict health restrictions last year, refusing to bow to pressure from heavily armed right-wing protesters (some of whom have been arrested for an alleged plot to kill her), noisy business lobbyists and conspiracy-spreading Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey.

– Susan J. Demas

And now, as we begin a third COVID school year, the highly contagious Delta variant is raging, sickening more children than ever in a fourth surge. Kids under 12 can’t get vaccinated — and it’s not looking like federal approval will even come this year.

We need a statewide school mask mandate — and we need it now.

While Whitmer can’t be the one to issue it, thanks to a right-wing petition approved by the anti-science, GOP-run Legislature, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) head can. But directors serve at the pleasure of the governor, and everyone knows Elizabeth Hertel isn’t going to freelance a major decision like this.

On Friday, Whitmer released a mealy-mouthed statement that she “applauds school districts implementing smart mask policies, reiterating that she and DHHS “strongly recommend” masks in schools.

Nope. That’s not going to cut it. Whitmer can save her applause and instead let DHHS issue a mask mandate to keep kids, teachers and all of us safe.

As a parent and as a leader, she knows it’s the right thing to do.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives an update on COVID-19, March 18, 2020 | Susan J. Demas

Millions of parents across the state are counting on her right now. The last thing Whitmer should do is let down those of us who have tried to do the right thing during 17 long months of this pandemic.

That would be bad policy and bad politics.

Because sending the message that you’d rather appease the vocal minority of angry, and often violent conspiracy-mongers — who will never, ever vote for you — is a great way to get to your most ardent supporters demoralized right in time for the 2022 election. 

It’s an election many Democrats in Washington already seem determined to lose — mindlessly criticizing President Biden on Afghanistan and resigning themselves to playing defense. They should be going on the offensive over huge wins like Biden’s vaccine rollout after the Trump administration’s pandemic malfeasance and a stimulus bill that jolted the economy and lifted millions out of poverty.

The question I hear over and over from many of Whitmer’s supporters, especially women, is why she thinks that blowing her 2021 COVID response will get her reelected next year.

The second question I hear is: Who on earth is advising her on this strategy? It seems like very old-school, Bill Clinton-era triangulation politics that don’t work anymore. 

Whitmer’s statewide tour on all the nice ways she wants to spend federal stimulus money — helping small businesses, smart policing, repairing the safety net — sounds great to policy wonks. But the 2022 election isn’t going to be won on safe issues like jobs and infrastructure.

We’re not looking for politicians to make nice with traitors and those who’d rather ingest horse paste than get a safe vaccine. And leaders like Whitmer shouldn’t count on Democrats showing up like in 2018 and 2020 when they were inspired — because right now, they’re not.

– Susan J. Demas

It’s going to an anger election. It’s going to be a dogfight for the heart and soul of this nation. 

The electorate is sharply polarized between those on the right who have rejected science on the pandemic and discarded democracy by backing the Jan. 6 insurrection — and everyone else in the center and left who don’t. 

We’re not looking for politicians to make nice with traitors and those who’d rather ingest horse paste than get a safe vaccine. And leaders like Whitmer shouldn’t count on Democrats showing up like in 2018 and 2020 when they were inspired — because right now, they’re not.

I’ve been covering Gretchen Whitmer for 17 years. She didn’t get to be governor by being timid — she was out in front on issues like abortion rights and LGBTQ+ rights while many of her fellow Dems in the Legislature weren’t. The conventional wisdom in Lansing was that she was too liberal to win statewide office. 

And yet she won the governorship three years ago in a rout.

Whitmer knows that tougher restrictions are the way to beat back COVID and keep people safe. Now’s not the time to back down.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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