• What Comes First? Public Health or the Economy?

  • Do we live to support the economy or does the economy live to support us? Do we learn new skills to keep the economic engine humming? Or do we learn new skills to advance ourselves and our careers to the betterment of our families and futures? The answers to these questions, being debated in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, are beginning to fracture the Republican Party. 

    On one side sits Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican in the high-risk age demographic, who lamented that he was not consulted before states imposed stay-at-home orders. “No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” 

    He, like other Republicans, believes the economy is paramount. Public health is no reason to grind to a halt the wheels of economic growth, mobility and vitality. When given the choice, as we are seeing right now, Patrick’s preference would be to allow the market to operate unhindered and for businesses, and Americans, to choose their own adventure. 

    President Donald J. Trump, according to media reports, is similarly concerned about the stability of the markets and the ability of the economy to weather this storm. The fundamentals of the economy, as they say, are sound. But the ravaging effects of COVID-19 are washing away jobs, wages and savings in a New York minute. Therefore, Trump declared that he wants the United States “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” regardless of where the curve sits. 

    Among their allies is the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board which wrote that there will be a “tsunami of economic destruction that will cause tens of millions to lose their jobs as commerce and production simply cease.” There’s also a gaggle of Fox News hosts who began parroting the president’s belief that “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself” – a clear nod to the economic side of the ledger.

    On the other side are people like Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney, a Republican who happens to be the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. She tweeted her belief that “there will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lie dying because we have failed to do what’s necessary to stop the virus.” 

    Her contention, in case it wasn’t clear, is that there is more to life than the economy. The stock market can slide, retirement accounts can be plundered, some businesses may go under, but keeping the American people safe and secure is the most important job of government, not being the visible hand that guides the economic current. Yes, lacking economic means leads to poverty and poverty leads to crime and health issues, but is putting at risk the lives of millions of Americans worth keeping a local restaurant open to in-person dining during a time where social distancing is required? 

    Most frustrating is not that this debate is taking place during a global pandemic, but that we didn’t have this conversation a long time ago. There has been an undercurrent of tension between the economy-first-at-all-costs segment of the Republican Party and those who think continually referring to Americans simply as “workers” is demeaning and inhumane. 

    This debate, like the tug-of-wars taking place between capitalism and socialism and whether we should act on climate or sit and wait, will determine the Republican Party’s long-term destiny. Good thing we have plenty of time to think about this while we are all trapped at home. 

    Pete Seat is a former White House spokesman for President George W. Bush and campaign spokesman for former Director of National Intelligence and U.S. Senator Dan Coats. Currently he is a vice president with Bose Public Affairs Group in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is also an Atlantic Council Millennium Fellow and author of the 2014 book The War on Millennials.