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Brooks and Marcus on U.S. government’s pandemic preparation failures

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including whether Americans are ready for the mounting coronavirus crisis, why the U.S. government wasn’t better prepared for the pandemic, the significance of the $2.2 trillion economic relief package and the status of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the days now become weeks, to help make sense of where we are, the analysis of Brooks and Marcus.

    That is New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. Mark Shields is away.

    Hello to both of you.

    We are keeping you distant for your safety.

    David, to you first.

    The U.S. is now leading the world. We have surpassed every other country in COVID-19 cases. The experts say it's just going to get worse because of early missed opportunities. Do you think Americans are ready for what's coming?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, they have been ready so far. I think the reaction, people are taking it seriously. They are doing the distancing. I have been on Zoom calls with thousands of people this week, it seems.

    And people are volunteering to help each other out in ways that are safe. And so I have been really impressed by the American public's reaction.

    The government, more of a mixed bag. Obviously, President Trump pooh-poohed it for too long, and that cost us vital weeks. But he wasn't alone. The CDC messed up the tests. The FDA regulations were — got in the way.

    Political scientists have been talking for years about the decay of our governing institutions, too much politics, too much regulation, not enough room to maneuver for the managers. And that seems to all be coming true.

    And so we have sort of seen an institutional failure from the White House on down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ruth, what about that? What about the American people and the institutions?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Well, the American people are one thing, and the institutions are quite another, as David suggests.

    The fact of the matter is, is that, if the American people aren't prepared, it's because their leaders, and primarily President Trump, has failed to prepare them for what is coming.

    And he's failed to prepare them on a number — he's failed to prepare the country in terms of the material and the readiness that we need to have, and he's failed to prepare them with a clear and consistent message about how we are going to defeat what he calls this invisible virus and this invisible killer.

    While we were just on — while the show was on, he was on television in his nightly self-congratulatory moment, and he said — was complaining about the governor of Michigan, as she was on your air, and complaining about the governor of Washington, and saying he had told Mike Pence, if they're not nice to you, don't call them. If they don't treat you good, don't call them.

    That is not presidential. That is petty and beneath what the country deserves and needs at this point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, what about President Trump's leadership now?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I think the word I would lead is inconstant, most of all.

    We're used to his self-focus. We're used to the narcissism. We're used to this, I want people to love me all the time.

    But it's extremely unnerving in a time like this, when the president says we don't need ventilators one hour, and says we desperately need them the next hour. That is just a nerve-jangling problem.

    The irony is that, if somebody like Steve Bannon had been in the White House, he saw this problem early. It sort of filtered into his ideological priors. The intelligence community saw this problem early.

    It was the president doing what he thought would serve him best for his reelection that caused him to talk this down for so long. And when he gets a bad press, like about General Motors, a story that suggests he's dragging his feet, then he reacts to that.

    So he's reacting to the latest bit of bad press, which just leads to this — this pattern of inconstancy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Ruth, we do have Congress passing, agreeing — and the president's now signed it — this $2.2 trillion, historic amount of money, supposed to go directly to aid Americans who are hurt by the response to this — to this pandemic.

    How much help do you think it's going to make?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    It's going to make a lot of help.

    This is a — in a bad time, this was a good moment. There were problems along the way. There were disagreements along the way. But the fact that Congress could pass this quickly a package of this amazing magnitude, $2.2 trillion — we have now spent almost $3 trillion — to get agreement, these guys can't even rename a post office.

    And they managed to do this. That's really important.

    There's two things that are critical, though. One is to make sure that this money that's been allocated, particularly the money to small businesses, and even more than that, the money to individuals to get them through, that has to — in order to be effective, that has to get out the door as quickly as humanly possible.

    And that's going to be a phenomenon of oversight and execution that is up to the executive branch. And we will see if they're up to that task. I really hope they are.

    The second thing is that, while this is an enormous sum of money, it actually may not be sufficient. It's enough to get people through the next several — next couple months. But we may need to dig into the national pockets and the national — scrounge for the change in the national couch cushions, and come up with more, because the president likes to pretend that this is going to be all over by Easter or at least in some counties over by Easter.

    That's just not reality-based.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, we are starting to hear a lot more money's going to be needed.

    But, David, in terms of this first tranche, or whatever you want to call it, how much difference do you think it's going to make?

  • David Brooks:

    Oh, it'll make a difference. It's a lot of money. We have a $14 trillion economy or so, and so $2 trillion is a lot of money.

    I — personally, I applaud them for getting it done. I think, just as Ruth said, to see Congress do anything is impressive. I think they took the wrong strategy. The United Kingdom and Denmark and some other countries decided what's most important is to keep people employed.

    And so they gave money to employers to keep people on the payroll. And that does a lot of things. It keeps the firms intact. It keeps people feeling like, I have a job, even if they have to stay home.

    We went the unemployment insurance route, which was to get people out of their workplace. Then we will subsidize them. The problem is, once you're off — out of the labor market, for some people, it's hard to get back in.

    And I worry about the organizations, the institutions of these small businesses. If suddenly they sort of go away for a time, how many of them are going to come back? How many of the nonprofits are going to come back? And so I'm glad we're doing it. I wish we had tried a different strategy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How much do you worry about that, Ruth?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Well, I worry that, if we were going to do that, we would have needed to do it earlier, because so many of these places have already laid people off, and the imperative is to get money to them quickly.

    But I don't disagree that that might have been a better strategy.

    The thing that I worry about more in the immediate term is also making sure — just want to go back to this supply chain question and the move that the president made today to invoke the Defense Production Act, because these are things that also are imperative to have done months ago.

    We should have been understanding that there was going to need to be a need for ventilators, that we should have started — whether you invoke the Defense Production Act, or you do it another way, to start making sure that those masks and those ventilators are in the chain and ready to go and ready to be supplied.

    And we need — David talked about the inconstancy of the message. We need a constant and rational message from the president, but we also need one person in charge of making sure that all of these — as we are sending out these very needed checks to businesses and millions of people, we also need to be deploying these supplies to the hospitals and the health care workers, because, if we don't get this under control, we're just going to keep hemorrhaging money while this virus just devastates us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you do, David, hear the criticism that, because this wasn't done, organized earlier, people are going to die.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, that seems absolutely true.

    And it's simple. Overreact. There has not been a moment where somebody has overreacted. Everything that seems like an overreaction is the right reaction. There was a University of Pennsylvania study that said, even if we cut the infection rate by 95 percent from — by social distancing, we're still going to need 960,000 people going into an intensive care ward.

    That's a lot of ventilators. That's a lot of masks. That's a lot of equipment.

    And so erring on the side of too much is probably still too little. And so that should — everybody's instinct should be that way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Ruth, back to what David was saying about, the president keeps talking about getting — at least getting some people back to work by Easter, hoping that some parts of the country can go back to business as usual.

    Every expert you hear, however, says that would be crazy, it would — it's dangerous. You can't do that. I heard Bill Gates last night on CNN saying it can't be a county-by-county approach.

    What happens if this is lifted too soon?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Well, I thought that the president's statement that he wanted to see the church pews packed on Easter, because he said it was a beautiful day, was possibly the single most irresponsible statement ever made by an American president in history.

    That is an outrage. It is dangerous that.

    And the problem with the — even if we were packing church pews in individual counties, you can't — this is America. We don't build walls around counties. We don't — we have known unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld used to say. The known unknown here is, where is the virus?

    If we had the tests, and we could test — do widespread testing, we would know where the virus is, and we might be able to know where it's easier to lift restrictions.

    But because we haven't — didn't prepare for the tests, we don't know where the virus is. And so lifting it in this county or that county because it doesn't seem to have a lot of illness right now is just a very, very dangerous move.

    And, by the way, even when we lift restrictions, when we think it's safe to lift restrictions, we can't just open up the floodgates and tell everybody to go start shaking hands, and…

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Ruth Marcus:

    … getting smashed together in church pews again.

    We have to do it intelligently and slowly, or we're going to find ourselves in this Groundhog Day of pandemic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, how much — how concerned are you about that?

  • David Brooks:

    I don't think — one of the nice things is, A, Donald Trump doesn't control a lot of this. This is done on the state level. And we're going to see the virtues and the vices of our federal system.

    And I think he is surrounded — I don't take him always that literally. I think some of the statements are — cause extreme harm, but he doesn't actually run a lot of the things, because people are just going to take control around him.

    And we know how this ends up. We have seen successful countries, in Asia particularly. And it ends up, as Ruth said, when we have the tests, and when we use sophisticated high technology to trace the actual individuals who have the infection, we trace their networks, we trace their movements.

    It's possible to do this with the right level of execution. We did not have the advantage of having the SARS system, so we don't yet have the — sort of the infrastructure to do that. But, eventually, presumably, we're going to get it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, very finally — we have got less than a minute.

    Ruth, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders still out there running for president. Is that presidential race even relevant anymore?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Right now, we're all COVID-19 all the time.

    And there is nothing else that people can think about, talk about, dream about. And so I think, in a sense, this is just a moment where, first of all, for Bernie Sanders, he needs to — the moment for him to go gracefully is probably behind us.

    But it just shuts off any oxygen that he had left for his campaign. I don't really know what his point is right now, at this time of national emergency.

    For Vice President Biden, he just needs to find his voice in this moment, but also just to make sure it doesn't look too political.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just a quick final word, David?

  • David Brooks:

    There's nothing Joe Biden needs to do right now. It's March. The election will be in the fall. And if he does nothing, he will be fine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David Brooks, Ruth Marcus, please stay safe. Thank you both.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    You too.

  • David Brooks:


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