This pandemic has changed so much about America, but at least one thing unfortunately remains the same. Our national political dialogue is still dominated by denizens of the right and left directing blame at someone on the other side. Democrats accuse the president of incompetence. The White House blames Democratic governors for dropping the ball. However powerful this virus may be, it appears not to have been forceful enough to overcome the impulse to partisanship. And that’s a shame.
Fortunately, what we read on the front page, see on social media, and watch on cable news is not the sum total of what’s happening within the public sector. Differing layers of government —even bureaucracies controlled variously by Democrats and Republicans — are working toward solutions on a whole variety of fronts. The House Problem Solvers Caucus, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, has just released the first bipartisan comprehensive plan for reopening the country. And a wide range of members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are applying their various expertise to the diverse aspects of this multifaceted challenge.
Here’s what is so frustrating: If the public saw what was really happening among serious-minded legislators — if they could get a real perspective on what’s happening behind the vitriol — they would likely be quite proud and impressed with how some of our leaders are handling the crisis. So here’s a challenge for everyone tracking the crisis on a day-to-day basis: For every story you see about who is to blame for some element of the present crisis, look to highlight a story of someone who is helping to point the way out — someone like Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana (pictured above).
Cassidy, a gastroenterologist with a history of dealing with infectious disease, worked diligently in private practice in Louisiana to expand hepatitis B vaccinations to 36,000 children — an effort that made him intimately familiar with the way immunization “registries” work inside the United States. Faced today with the threat of COVID-19, he asked himself a simple question: Was there a way to apply the lessons of his success fighting hepatitis in Louisiana to a nation fighting a new threat for which there is not yet a vaccine? As it turns out, there was — and Cassidy leaned on that experience to help point the way toward a comprehensive effort to reopen the American economy, safely.
To understand Cassidy’s proposal, you need a cursory understanding of immunization. Today, policymakers are focused primarily on expanding testing around the country — and that’s important. But beyond being useful in identifying who is sick and should therefore be quarantined, we need to know who among us is immune to the virus — that is, who can safely travel through society without worrying about becoming ill or infecting others. Immunization is a person’s “get-out-of-social-distancing pass.” And until a vaccine is widely available, knowing who is and who is not immune could be key to determining who — which barbers, teachers, cooks, bus drivers, and more — can go back work.
If those carrying the virus interact only with individuals who are already immune, the virus can’t spread. But we can’t begin to reopen the economy without knowing who is on the list. Having seen hepatitis B herd immunity emerge in Louisiana in part because those who had received the vaccine were added to a registry, Cassidy simply applied the same principle to COVID-19. Knowing that the federal government is perfectly equipped to set up a registry that both protects individual privacy and speeds the nation’s economic recovery — national childhood immunity registries already exist — he wrote a bill. It’s a simple and innovative idea — and one that both Democrats and Republicans should be able to support.
The point here is not simply that Cassidy is doing exactly what we want our leaders to do — namely, applying his expertise to the challenges at hand. It’s that solutions to the current crisis, not to mention nearly any other, need not be partisan — they need simply to be practical. Ideology need not guide those solving problems. Good ideas, like Cassidy’s, can simply emerge from common sense.
But there’s a second lesson as well. Cassidy’s proposal deserves as much or even more attention than the bickering that seems always to be center stage. Has America’s response to this public health threat been flawless? Absolutely not — there are lots of lessons to learn. But tempting as it may be to assign blame, it’s important to celebrate progress. Problem solving should be at the center of the national dialogue. When our leaders live up to that standard, we celebrate their successes and give credit where credit is due. In the end, that will do much more to get Washington working again.
Nancy Jacobson is a founder of No Labels, a national organization of Democrats, Republicans and independents dedicated to a new politics of problem solving.