No serious person would argue there are no hazards to opening back up or that it should be done heedlessly, only that some level of risk is worth taking to begin to ease the nation’s economic calamity.
Fauci is an important voice in this debate, if only one voice. He is neither the dastardly bureaucratic mastermind imposing his will on the country that his detractors on the right make him out to be nor the philosopher-king in waiting that his boosters on the left inflate him into. He’s simply an epidemiologist, one who brings considerable expertise and experience to the table, but at the end of the day, his focus is inevitably and rightly quite narrow.
This is why it’s a tautology for Fauci’s critics to say that he’s focused on the disease above all other considerations. This is like saying the Commerce secretary is too consumed with finding business opportunities for American companies or the head of the Joint Special Operations Command has an unhealthy obsession with killing terrorists. What else are they supposed to do?
As a breed, epidemiologists tend to be focused on the worst case. They don’t want to be wrong and contribute to some deadly pathogen getting loose when their entire job is to keep that from happening. So they are naturally cautious. This, too, is as it should be. You probably don’t want a risk-taking epidemiologist anymore than you want a highly creative, envelope-pushing accountant.
For all these reasons, you wouldn’t choose an epidemiologist to run your country, either. And Fauci isn’t.
Trump has remained undomesticated in the White House, frustrating even those who have set out to tame him. The idea that he has now, as some of his supporters imply, been seduced, bullied, or otherwise manipulated by a mild-mannered nearly 80-year doctor is bonkers.
If Trump were under the control of Fauci he wouldn’t have made repeated pitches from the White House podium for hydroxychloroquine, touted rosy scenarios for the course of the pandemic, or made his champing-at-the-bit eagerness to reopen so obvious.
It’s not as though there aren’t plenty of people around Trump telling him that he has to get the economy going again. He has people constantly telling him this at the highest level of his White House and administration. He has business leaders and outside advisers in his ear about it. He has the same instinct himself.
The reason he issued his shutdown guidance was that the prospect of uncontrolled spread of the virus was too risky to contemplate. It raised the possibility of significantly more fatalities than we’ve experienced, with the economy shutting down regardless, either via people deciding not to go outside on their own or a later lockdown (not to mention that governors and mayors had a decisive say in the matter).
Since populist critics of the shutdowns don’t want to criticize Trump, let alone say they think he blew one of the most consequential decisions of his presidency, they focus their ire on the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases rather than the president of the United States.
In the attention-getting exchange between GOP Sen. Rand Paul and Fauci at the Senate hearing, both were right. Paul is obviously correct that we shouldn’t elevate one person as the authority to whom everyone has to submit, and Fauci is right that he’s a scientist who doesn’t even try to give advice on matters outside his ambit, like the economy.
Part of the hostility to Fauci on the right is an understandable reaction to progressives and the media putting him on a pedestal he doesn’t deserve. They want to make Fauci an unassailable authority to put the lockdowns beyond question or debate. This is a rhetorical and political move that should be resisted.
Fauci’s views should be taken seriously, but they can’t be determinative. The coronavirus crisis is a radically different phenomenon than, say, the Ebola outbreak because it implicates our entire society. Fauci can talk about the virus, but what level of risk to accept as a country and what relative weight to give to the economy and public health — among many other consequential public-policy questions — are above his pay grade.
This is what we elect presidents, governors, and mayors to decide. They are accountable to the public in the way a head of an agency isn’t. It’s their responsibility to balance all the competing considerations and if they are found wanting, they will lose their jobs.
Anyone in this position would obviously want to hear from experts, though. Which is why if Trump did fire Fauci, some other meddlesome epidemiologist would emerge soon enough. If Fauci didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him.