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Opinion

Flexibility and victory

Governor-elect Steve Sisolak explores Rhyolite ghost town during a tour through Nevada as he heads north to Carson City on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

After weeks of failing to define victory or communicate a plan to Nevadans as to how to get through the public health and economic double-whammy that is the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Sisolak finally put out something that sort of resembled a framework to reopen. A week later, he announced the reopening plan was greatly accelerated, in a way that seems inconsistent – and even at odds with – the previous week’s announcement (no more two-week wait to collect data between phases, and not all of the counties met the benchmarks). This sort of confusion and inconsistency is frustrating as hell.

Nevertheless, I salute it.

The governor recognized the pandemic problem early and rightly responded early, but failed to keep up with it as it evolved. He was not able to deal with more than one potential public health threat at a time (and massive unemployment and the blow to government service budgets is its own public health crisis). He could not shift gears or think creatively enough to find solutions to cascading problems, most prominently the unemployment insurance debacle.

When he finally came up with something resembling a plan, releasing it to the general public mere hours before his previous shutdown order was set to expire, he learned that the general public was already way ahead of him. Businesses and industries large and small were already planning, adapting, and adjusting where they could. Customers were doing the same. Every day, the increases in traffic said that people were forging their own path ahead. Every day, crowded stores said that people were working through their fear of the virus and going forward living their lives. All one had to do was look at the well-groomed hair of the Costco crowds to know how many stylists were making illegal house calls. People even (gasp!) continued to get together with their families. And through it all, our hospitals were not overwhelmed — not even close.

This week, then, the governor faced a choice. He could have dug in and tried to force reality to conform with his poorly conceived “phased” plan, which insisted that we had weeks to go before we could even consider getting out of “Phase Zero.” This would have required him to start using real force against his own citizens who were increasingly disregarding certain directives, and considering putting them in jail, or fining those who had no money to collect.

Based on his past performance, that was my fear.

Instead, he functionally ditched many of his previously insisted-upon benchmarks, allowing restaurants, retail stores, barbers, and many other businesses to get going again. I suspect gaming is not far behind, and will open much sooner than most people expected even a few weeks ago.

The governor couched this accelerated reopening as a reward for our collective good behavior, which is as untrue as it is paternalistically insulting. To the extent our behavior changed in a week, it was to go out more, not less. To go from “our experts can’t even begin to give you an idea of a date to reopen” to “dine-in at your favorite restaurant – just make a reservation first!” in just two weeks is not a shift that happens absent significant political pressure.

(It also goes to show that the governor wisely did not take his supposedly glowing poll numbers too seriously or for granted. Sharp course corrections tend not to happen if politicians are confident their previously charted path enjoyed broad or deep approval.)

It is tempting to heckle the governor for this… flexibility. Instead, I sincerely applaud it. No plan survives contact with the enemy — the key to victory is to adapt in real time along with an evolving situation, keeping the largest possible picture in sight, and never forgetting your actual goal. And if the governor merely ratified what people were already going to do without him, so what? Knowing when to fold ‘em is a crucial ingredient to successfully governing free people.

***

Speaking of the hecklers, the importance of flexibility, adaptability, defining victory, and proper prior planning should not be lost on Republicans. I’m glad people went to Carson City, fired up to peaceably vent their displeasure at the governor. His changed behavior suggests the message was received. But physical protests in modern America are more social events than serious efforts at policy changes. To really make a change, you have to win elections, and that takes a lot of hard, tedious, and unglamorous work. It also requires understanding your goals and knowing how to achieve them.

Take the “Recall Sisolak” efforts. Imagine just for a minute that enough signatures are obtained to actually get a recall question on the ballot. Imagine that Sisolak is actually recalled. Now what? If they want a replacement on the ballot alongside him, that person needs to already be campaigning. If not, the Democratic lieutenant governor will fill in, and then what have you gained? Even if a candidate to finish the term is found, how would that person govern instead? I stand by my previous arguments that Mr. Sisolak’s failure to adequately plan ahead has diminished him — it’s hard to not say the same of his opponents.

I don’t think Mr. Sisolak has covered himself in glory during this crisis, but it also could have been much worse — at least he didn’t kill thousands of people by ordering nursing homes to take in COVID patients or something like that. 

The problem with politicizing a pandemic (or any other emergency) is that it drives everyone into hardened, tribal positions, when the situation calls for maximum flexibility and adaptability as we get new information. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing our leadership – there is much to criticize – but you have to be ready to sell the public on real alternative policies and candidates.

A few Republicans have constructively pushed against the governor where he’s been wrong or feckless. Several, like state Senator Ben Kieckhefer and Assemblywoman Jill Tolles, have correctly called for a special session (which I was arguing for a month ago, but I’m glad they’re making the push now). Still others advocated for swifter openings for certain industries where that was logical, like hair salons and retail outlets. But there has been precious little candidate recruitment or long-term planning for the health of the party.

We have seen that Mr. Sisolak responds to effective political pressure in a way which improves his policy stances. How much better off would we be with a healthier and more effective GOP, which could insist upon additional needed voices to this and other policy discussions?

***

I am glad that the governor is moving in the right direction at a faster speed. Now he needs to focus on making his ongoing directives more coherent and consistent. This, too, requires a great deal of flexibility along with a far more clear understanding of what his actual goals are. Again, he continues to fail to clearly define victory, which makes it impossible to craft strategies to achieve it.

For example, the idea that we shouldn’t celebrate Mother’s Day with our family but can go dine-in at a restaurant is absurd. Closing “crowded” hiking trails while further opening retailers is even more ridiculous. And telling counties that no one can open until they all can open (after paying lip service to their autonomy and diversity) makes absolutely no sense. Grossly inconsistent and logically irreconcilable pronouncements send a signal that the powers that be don’t really know what they’re doing, and further encourages people to ignore government mandates (or even suggestions). Indeed, at this point the entire “essential/non-essential” paradigm should be scrapped in favor of “practice aggressive sanitation and social distancing measures regardless of your business or profession.” 

The reality is that government policies have trailed, not led, the pandemic mitigation efforts, not just here, but all over the world. There seems to be little correlation between the forcefulness of government orders and per capita infection or death rates either within the US or internationally. As is often the case, government vastly overestimates its competence as compared to individuals armed with information making their own choices.

We as citizens will adjust our behavior and our votes to conform with the reality of our situations. We already have. No government, no matter how well managed, can manage (or micromanage) a robust free market economy — that is up to us as individuals, making millions of self-interested choices every single day. In order to ensure maximum acceleration of our economic recovery, government regulators will do well to recognize this, and will conform their evolving rules to the strength and flexibility people are already demonstrating. And as is always the case, the creativity of millions of people looking for new ways and new opportunities to provide for their families will be what leads us past this crisis.

Semper Gumby, Nevada.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected].

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