Fact Check: Harris Peddles Unserious, Inaccurate Attack Lines on Economy and Coronavirus

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Posted: Aug 14, 2020 10:35 AM
Fact Check: Harris Peddles Unserious, Inaccurate Attack Lines on Economy and Coronavirus

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris debuted as a joint ticket at an event in Delaware on Wednesday, and on the whole, I think the presentation -- reportedly delayed by local power outages -- was mostly effective.  Each candidate praised the other to the hilt, as is customary, blasted their opponents with sharply-worded attacks, and urged voters to join the effort to oust the incumbent administration in November.  Harris, a former prosecutor, argued that the case against President Trump and Vice President Pence is "open and shut," but when it came time to make that case, she advanced two central arguments that would have been laughed out of court.  It shouldn't be terribly difficult to launch biting, factually-supportable broadsides against Trump's handling of the pandemic, or his comportment and focus in a time of concurrent crises.  He's handed his critics plenty of material to work with.  But Harris decided to rely on flimsy demagoguery and anti-science sleight of hand, which is fundamentally dishonest.  Her harshest indictment of the current White House occupant came in this passage:

Let me tell you, as somebody who has presented my fair share of arguments in court, the case against Donald Trump and Mike Pence is open and shut. Just look where they’ve gotten us, more than 16 million out of work, millions of kids who cannot go back to school, a crisis of poverty, of homelessness afflicting black, brown, and indigenous people the most, a crisis of hunger afflicting one in five mothers who have children that are hungry and tragically, more than 165,000 lives that have been cut short, many with loved ones who never got the chance to say goodbye. It didn’t have to be this way. Six years ago, in fact, we had a different health crisis, it was called Ebola. We all remember that pandemic, but you know what happened then? Barack Obama and Joe Biden did their job, only two people in the United States died. Two. That is what’s called leadership...

When other countries opened back up for business, what did we do? We had to shut down again. This virus has impacted almost every country, but there’s a reason it has hit America worse than any other advanced nation...Trump is also the reason millions of Americans are now unemployed. He inherited the longest economic expansion in history from Barack Obama and Joe Biden. And then, like everything else he inherited, he ran it straight into the ground. Because of Trump’s failures of leadership, our economy has taken one of the biggest hits out of all the major industrialized nations with an unemployment rate that has tripled as of today. This is what happens when we elect a guy who just isn’t up for the job.

Where to begin?  Let's start with the virus.  Biden and Harris are more than welcome to argue that they would have handled the pandemic better; indeed, it would be malpractice not to make that case to voters.  There are some reasons to doubt this is true, from Biden's poor judgment on key related decisions, to the demonstrable and lethal failures of Democratic governors.  Much of what Biden has claimed he would do are things the Trump administration has already been doing.  And it's worth noting that Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that whenever he and Dr. Deborah Birx issued policy advice to the president in the key early days, he took it.  That doesn't mean that there haven't been glaring failures, nor does it mean that Trump's mercurial temperament hasn't rendered him ill-suited to offer steady leadership during an exceptionally frightening time.  But to effectively lay the death toll at Trump's feet is grotesque.  Harris allows that other countries have also been impacted, but claims that the US has been hammered "worse than any other advanced nation."  This is factually incorrect, several times over.  This statistic from Gerard Baker's latest Wall Street Journal column exposed the myth:

The death toll in the U.S. stands at around 500 per million people. That is significantly higher than in Germany or Japan, for example, but still some way below the U.K., Italy, Spain and several other European countries. Among the Group of Seven nations, America is right in the middle. That’s nothing to celebrate, and there’s plenty of legitimate criticism to be made of the Trump administration’s performance. And the number is still rising, it’s true. But a fair assessment would note the broad similarity in death rates among most large economies and a divergence from the numbers in some of the others, rather than suggesting this is a uniquely American phenomenon.

As I noted in a recent piece that was highly critical of Trump overall, "America's case fatality rate is far better than much of the world, outperforming dozens of other countries, including the UK, Italy, France, Mexico, Spain, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Brazil and Portugal. This is a testament to our high quality, innovative healthcare system and dedicated healthcare workers." What about the overall death rate? I wrote: "Despite the US experiencing a very difficult time early on, our population-based mortality rate still remains better than a number of other hard-hit nations, from the UK to Spain, Italy, and Sweden. We are roughly equivalent to France. Politically-motivated critics want voters to believe that America's standing is uniquely terrible on the world stage, but that's not true." Data tracked by Johns Hopkins bears this out.

Next, the Ebola comparison is utterly shameless and overtly anti-science.  According to all infectious disease experts, Ebola and Coronavirus are profoundly different diseases .  As FiveThirtyEight explains, "just over 11,000 people died during the 2014-2016 [Ebola] outbreak, which was largely isolated to the region where it emerged."  This is true because Ebola (which was a tiny outbreak in the US, not a pandemic, as Harris said) "is hard to catch because it is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluid of an infected person, like blood, sweat, and urine, rather than through the kind of particles produced when someone sneezes or speaks. Unless you’re nursing patients (either at home or in a hospital setting) or tending to their body after they’ve died, it’s unlikely you’d acquire the infection."  Coronavirus, by contrast, is extremely transmissible through particles in the air.  Harris' comparison, which purported to create a 'death scoreboard' of 165,000 to two, favoring Obama over Trump, is almost surreally deceptive.  "That's what's called leadership," she intoned.  In fact, that's what's more accurately called a lie.  She is drawing aggressively anti-scientific parallels to manipulate people who may not know better, for her own political gain.  This is the opposite of being "pro-science," a mantle Democrats endlessly claim with near-religious fervor.

Finally, the economy.  Harris appears to be following Karl Rove's famous strategy of directly attacking an opponent's largest perceived strength.  Harris rattles off unemployment statistics as if the global pandemic that has forced economies to contract and shut down all over the world doesn't exist.  The numbers would be devastating in a vacuum, but we're not living in a vacuum.  We're living in 2020, and everyone understands why economies have taken brutal hits that cannot be honestly blamed on anyone, with the possible exception of Chinese Communist Party officials.  Harris pretends that Trump inherited a roaring economy then ran it into the ground through incompetence.  This is ludicrous.  Trump inherited the Obama/Biden administration's slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression, then unleashed the economy with tax reform and deregulation.  The results were broad-based and strong.  Unemployment fell to record lows among numerous demographic groups, as wages and take-home pay rose fastest for working class Americans.  Trump was seen as a favorite for re-election because the economy was thriving across-the-board.

Then a terrible, highly contagious, deadly disease arrived on our shores, on both coasts.  Lockdowns were recommended and implemented, resulting in catastrophic economic harm.  This experience is not unique to America, but Harris again claimed that the US was harmed in an uniquely severe way due to President Trump's mismanagement. "Our economy has taken one of the biggest hits out of all the major industrialized nations," she said.  Again, that's not true.  In a report examining Sweden's relatively strong GDP numbers compared to other European countries (Sweden never imposed sweeping or strict lockdowns), NPR offers this context:

Instead of closing down its economy, the country issued comparatively light restrictions — banning gatherings of over 50 people and otherwise asking people to maintain social distancing as best they can...The nation's GDP fell 8.6% during the three-month period ending in June, according to preliminary figures from Statistics Sweden. Yet, Sweden's economic output declined at a lower rate than that of many other European countries. Spain's economy recorded the highest decline among the 27 European Union members during the second quarter, its GDP fell 18.5% compared to the previous quarter. Its neighbors Portugal (14.1%) and France (13.8%) experienced similarly large contractions of their respective economies during the second quarter. Even Germany, the continent's largest economy, recorded a double-digit drop (10.1%) when compared to the first three months of the year...The EU as a whole saw its GDP decline 11.9% during the past quarter as the virus spread across the continent. The euro zone, consisting of the 19 countries that make up the bloc's monetary union, reported the GDP dropped 12.1% over the same three-month period.

The corresponding economic hit for the United States in the second quarter? 9.5 percent -- a bit worse than unlocked-down Sweden, but better than every other country mentioned (the UK's GDP plunged by about 20 percent) and better than the EU overall.  Beyond this data, which explodes Harris' case, it's also worth noting that under national Democrats' preferred policies of harder, more sustained lockdowns, and slower re-openings, America's economic data would be far weaker right now.  It's unclear how the volatile public health and economic crises will play out (there are encouraging signs of recovery in sunbelt states whose overall outcomes have been far better than northeastern states), but given the information we have right now, Harris is trying to have it both ways.  She's employing utterly specious and bogus comparisons and mendacious assertions to paint a picture of America as singularly negatively impacted by the disease.  She's authoring an anti-empiricism fairy tale in which Democrats would have magically controlled the virus and prevented economic disaster, trampling facts and counter-evidence along the way.  She's insulting voters' intelligence.

I'll leave you with two questions for Harris: (1) Germany has been hailed as a model of virus containment, but their economy contracted more seriously than America's did in the last quarter.  Is Angela Merkel an economic failure?  If not, how can you label Trump one?  (2) Sweden adopted an approach on COVID that was far more relaxed than most other industrialized nations, including the United States.  Their death rate is better than some other EU nations, but a bit worse than ours.  But it appears they're well past their peak (though their herd immunity theory hasn't really panned out), and their economy outperformed most of the Western world's last quarter.  Are they a success story or a failure?