“Well, good afternoon everybody,” said Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine at the start of his coronavirus briefing in Columbus last Friday. “First I want to say happy birthday to our daughter Anna. Anna is a journalist, reporter, and we’re very proud of her as we all are proud of all our children.”
That’s your first sign that you are not in MAGAland. As the top Republican in a state that voted decisively for Donald Trump in 2016, DeWine must be mindful of the alternate universe where journalism is treason. But the governor, a conservative whose campaign was endorsed by the usual panoply of groups that form the party’s ideological nucleus — pro-gun, anti-abortion, etc. — might have a more complicated view.
Cognitive dissonance is the price of being simultaneously pro-Trump and reality-based. It’s an unavoidable condition for those who want to remain in the Republican political universe while also meeting real-world challenges. DeWine does, and is. He was the first governor to shut down schools in his state. He speaks of the virus calmly and knowledgeably, and his policies are geared to protecting public health, not fostering White House propaganda.
“He’s a classic old pro pol,” says Republican strategist and Trump critic Mike Murphy in an email. “He actually cares about government. He’s adroitly stretching his GOP base leash as far as possible to be a good governor.”
Because DeWine is a Republican, his performance entails risks more barbed than those faced by his Democratic counterparts. Democratic governors such as New York’sAndrew Cuomo or Michigan’sGretchen Whitmer must contend with a steady flow of disinformation and sabotage from the White House. But at least the attacks are not coming from the head of their own party. DeWine has to manage the demands of public health in a pandemic along with expectations that, as a Republican, he will somehow execute Trump’s incoherent directives, which are marked by rhetorical aggression and policy passivity.
On “Meet the Press” Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence said that there is a “sufficient amount of testing” for states soon to begin to “responsibly reopen,” even though less than 2% of the population will have been tested by the end of April. Pence’s statement, while not a blatant lie like Trump’s March 6 assertion that “Anyone that wants a test can get a test,” is nonetheless absurd.
DeWine later appeared on the same program and praised the White House. With the fantasy part of his job out of the way, DeWine moved on to reality. “We really need help,” he said, noting that his state has the capacity to test more if only the Trump administration would increase its own capacity.
At his April 17 briefing, DeWine spoke knowledgeably and coherently about the precautions that will have to accompany easing of restrictions on commerce. These include masks, frequent cleanings and the imposition of barriers in workplaces to separate employees who would otherwise be too close together. He painted a realistic, but far from comforting, picture of a near future that does not resemble the near past.
Watching DeWine honestly grapple with the pandemic in the midst of Trump’s daily chaos is reminiscent of watching Sen. Mitt Romney after Trump’s impeachment. Romney publicly acknowledged the overwhelming evidence of Trump’s guilt while his Republican Senate colleagues clung to the alibi that Trump’s extortion of Ukraine amounted to routine, or perhaps merely bungled, foreign policy. Romney has been ostracized for taking an honest stand in a case where it was simply not possible to reconcile his duty to the Constitution and the truth with his fealty to the party. DeWine has so far managed to do his duty while avoiding collision with Trumpism.
Watching the 73-year-old Ohio governor, you can almost imagine a viable future for competent conservative governance. “DeWine proves you can be effective if you’ve got a pragmatic streak and some guts,” Murphy says. “Others should try it, too.”
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.