Saturday, May 30 update

NYS update: Our little governance drama happening in New York is really nothing compared to the much bigger protests unfolding surrounding the murder of George Floyd. In a way, it’s a blessing that the farce that unfolded Thursday night about Phase 2 has remained firmly off the national media radar, or else it would become politicized in the wrong ways. In a quieter news cycle, Cuomo screwing up like this would be rich pickings for Fox or Twitter. The Republican party affiliation of most of the Upstate county officials who complained about the reopening process would have been twisted into a significance that it doesn’t really have in this moment. But it’s just going to remain our private little embarrassment.

It’s hard for onlookers to trace how we went from (1) a 7 p.m. series of conference calls that enraged Upstate officials so much that at least two of them went on record as not planning on enforcing a hold on Phase 2; to (2) a second round of late phone calls that apparently tried to placate the regions; and then (3) an even later, midnight phone call that one or some of the CEs had with one or some of Cuomo’s inner circle; to (4) a predictably dismissive Cuomo at 1 pm the next day, unveiling his testimonial slides from the experts. Slides with testimonials that went by so fast that they could barely be read. That’s because the “global experts” were, and always were intended to be, celebrity props.

(I am reminded of the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones is told “We have top men working on it right now.” “Who?” “Top. Men.”)

They thought it was earlier today than one o’clock?…We wanted to make sure that the data was reviewed by all the experts. A county executive may be very good at what they do, but they’re not an expert in viral transmission in a global pandemic. I may be competent as a governor, but I am not expert in global transmissions in a viral pandemic. So I wanted to make sure we had the best minds look at all the data before we stepped forward… It’s stone to stone across the morass. If you take a step and you’re not on a stone, but a lily pad going across the morass, you will sink and that’s bad.

No, county executives are not experts in “global transmission.” They and their health departments are, however, experts in “local and regional transmission,” which is why they started testing in nursing homes and senior facilities on their own initiative, while you and your Department of Health were creating conditions that were causing hyperlocal transmissions that killed thousands of New Yorkers.

Once again, it’s pretty clear that the problem is Cuomo’s active-negative leadership personality combined with his group of advisors who really don’t know what the hell they’re doing (as nobody really does, but a little knowledge combined with a lot of power is really a dangerous thing).

The Post-Standard ran a vitrolic op-ed about the snafu yesterday.

Two weeks ago, you loosened the valve a tiny bit, allowing low-contact, phase one businesses to reopen. Since then, the data has gotten better, not worse. Fewer infections. Fewer hospitalizations. More testing by many magnitudes. That all pointed to loosening the valve a bit more on Friday and allowing phase two businesses to reopen. And then you slammed on the brakes, so that your panel of global experts could weigh in and you could make an announcement at your daily news conference. We’re all for experts. Just tell us the plan, Governor. The information vacuum is insulting and counterproductive.

Onondaga County update: A good portion of yesterday’s county briefing was taken up with trying to reconstruct the events mentioned above. However, there were also numbers to report. The county is now up to 131 deaths, which continue to be reported in irregular batches (hospital deaths get a daily report but there are often state-generated nursing home numbers added on, and it is never clear when these deaths occurred). The positive trend concerning senior facility transmission continues. Community spread continues to be within expected limits.

While the early evening “control room” phone call, where the bomb was dropped, was “spirited” according to McMahon (“rowdy” according to the Madison county chair), the late-night call between McMahon and Jim Malatras (Albany Dude) was the one that reporters seemed most interested in. You have to work hard to parse our CE on a good day. But it sounded very much to me like McMahon did indeed play Good Cop on Thursday night somehow. Or at least, perhaps playing the role of Voice of Reason, managed to make someone in Cuomo’s inner circle aware that sentient beings live in Central New York. And that we have a really good health department, smart scientists testing our wastewater, great hospital researchers helping us prepare for future virus waves, and largely obedient citizens who want to follow guidelines to get businesses restarted.

The question that people were curious about was why McMahon chose not to put on an impromptu briefing tearing Cuomo a new asshole, like Tony Picente, and why he released an oddly optimistic statement late at night. To the first point, that isn’t McMahon’s style. While he will stand his ground over the county zoo being open when the state now says no zoos can open (“It’s part of county government, and bigger governments don’t close smaller governments”), he claims not to be interested in Monday morning quarterbacking.

In the heat of the moment, there are a lot of things you can do or say.  I always try to understand that everyone else is in these roles that we’re in, has never had to do this.  What are the different pressure points?  I agree that what happened and the way it happened was not right.  But that did not mean we couldn’t get to the same result.  We all deal with these things differently.  We still had time to get to the result that was needed, so I took the approach that I’m used to.  Everything I said yesterday here was true.  There was no conversations that would ever suggest we would not be opening today.  A lot happened at night.  We need to learn from this.

To the second point, which McMahon politely wouldn’t talk about — it was bloody obvious to any experienced politician that Cuomo’s credibility was now hanging over the toilet bowl on a statewide level. No further ranting was required, especially after Picente and others did it so well. There was just so far that Cuomo’s brainlessly imperial instincts were going to take him before something like this happened, and he is too out-of-touch to know it. And it would do no good, in a crisis, for every local leader to get up on a tank. (To quote General Woundwort in Watership Down, talking to one of his underlings, “If my authority goes, where will yours be in half a day?”)

Thursday night was a dangerous moment for anyone who cared about keeping their own region on track for public health and economic recovery. We all live within a political system, here called a democracy, which is a construct; and when all goes well, we live and work to maintain this construct of order by mutual agreement and partnership. For a long time now, however, we have lived in a form of democracy where “great men” are consistently selected over the merely good — and have been allowed to morph into uber-leaders with monarchal styles, like Andrew Cuomo, or outright despots, like Donald Trump. These alpha office holders seem incapable of understanding the rich network of partnerships that once made the state and country great. We even live in a state that, unironically, styles itself “The Empire State,” and this is something we don’t feel ashamed of. (Make no mistake, New York State has a special historical complicity in America’s imperial impulse.)

But on the local level, the richness of the network is still real, and moving within that seemingly constrained space still requires actual political skills. Which can include, at various times, standing up and banging your shoe on a podium, or having a late night phone call with someone who is probably very insulated and maybe uninformed, but who it is worth having a civil conversation with, because of what you might learn about the actual situation. And because the network is connected, the people who are part of it all have to contributing to the right things happening, even if (infuriatingly) some of them don’t realize what they’ve been made to do, and pathologically need to take credit for it.

At yesterday’s briefing McMahon expressed his opinion that, despite the ugly “sausagemaking” of the last 24 hours, everyone had done the correct things in the end for the good of the state, the governor included. I wish I could have the same confidence for the United States as a whole. Like Tony Picente laying out the grievances of the local leaders, it is right for people to be out in the streets at this particular moment. It is an expression of the truth. But I don’t see any national leaders on the scene who can patiently explain facts and get through to the clueless alphas and their hapless assistants, however. And the alpha in the White House just is never going to do the right thing.