One of several unsatisfactory commanders the Union Army suffered through in the early days of the Civil War was Gen. George McClellan.
President Abraham Lincoln became so frustrated with the general’s reluctance to take advantage of his superior position and move against Confederate forces that, history records, he drafted — but did not send — a particularly pithy letter.
In the current war against the coronavirus, at least in the Utah theater of operations, political leaders who should be leading the campaign are competing to see which of them can do the least, while shifting the blame onto someone else.
Gov. Spencer Cox has expressed no small amount of frustration with the fact that the Legislature has gone out of its way to blunt his executive powers in this ongoing emergency and to offer no better alternative. But he seems unwilling and unable to do much about it, even refusing to issue the relatively weak orders that would be within his authority for fear they would just be overridden.
But that is exactly what the governor should do. He should issue an emergency order requiring every public school, public university, state office and installation to bar entry to anyone who is not wearing a mask. And he should decree that all those facilities be off limits to any eligible person who is not fully vaccinated.
He should use his visibility to make the case for such actions. He should rally to his cause the many Utahns who, unlike the vocal mobs who have descended on county councils and school boards around the state, want their government to act. And the people should back their governor when he stands up for them.
It’s true that, under the particularly unwise “pandemic end game” law that the Legislature passed — and Cox signed — such an order would last for no more than 30 days. And that, if the Legislature could muster the votes, lawmakers could cancel it sooner.
Fine. Let them. If they have the nerve.
It would at least be on record that the state’s chief executive knows what should be done. That he sees that the number of new cases recorded daily, of deaths and, most distressingly, of children and infants now being struck by a virus that seemed to have passed over them last year, have returned to levels that were considered panic-inducing just last winter. All at a time when COVID testing is harder than ever to find.
If Cox does what he can, and the Legislature then undoes it, at least he will have tried. And political and moral blame will lie with lawmakers, who clearly want the power but not the responsibility.
It is clear, however, that the governor doesn’t have the fortitude to do any such thing. He thoroughly embarrassed himself Tuesday when, standing right next to the physician who runs Intermountain Healthcare, he belittled the good that a mask mandate might do, right after the doctor, Marc Harrison, implored everyone to wear masks and explained how they are among the best tools available.
Harrison literally took his life in his hands agreeing to appear with the governor. He suffers from an incurable form of cancer, multiple myeloma, which in his case is in remission but has wrecked his immune system.
“I would normally avoid a group like this,” Harrison said, ”but I’m here today because what we’re talking about is so important. By the way, I hope that all of you who aren’t wearing masks aren’t carrying the delta variant, because if you are, you could kill me.”
Cox, deaf to the pain and expertise Harrison offered, irrationally described the two sides of the debate as “anti-maskers and the extreme maskers.” But there is nothing extreme about mask mandates in the midst of a global pandemic.
Cox is clearly focused on creating for himself a national image as an advocate for a sensible middle course. But even if he had the political skills to engage in Bill Clinton-style triangulation, this is not the time. Trying to strike a compromise between common sense public health measures and extremely irresponsible quackery is not leadership, and won’t get Cox the media adulation he craves.
Meanwhile the leaders of the Legislature — House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams — seem content to ponder, furrow their brows, appoint committees and make absurd claims that the status quo is working.
If this is working, nobody should want to see what failing looks like.