Key GOP senator: United States 'overreacted' to the pandemic

The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee looks back at the recent months and believes U.S. officials "overreacted" to the coronavirus crisis.
Image: Senate Homeland Security Committee Holds Hearing On Government's Interagency Response To Coronavirus
Chairman Ron Johnson, R-W.I., speaks at the start of a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on the government's response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in Washington on March 5, 2020.Samuel Corum / Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

In mid-March, as the scope of the pandemic was coming into view, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) went further than most in arguing that the coronavirus crisis should not shut down the economy, even temporarily. As part of his case, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "[W]e don't shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways. It's a risk we accept so we can move about."

This was a bad argument, for reasons the Wisconsin Republican didn't seem to fully grasp.

A couple of months later, Johnson was seen on the Senate floor without any facial covering. "I wear a mask when I go into grocery stores, that type of thing," the GOP senator said. "I think around here, we probably won't have to." This, too, was a bad argument.

As the crisis continues, Johnson's perspective just isn't improving. Axios reported last week:

The country "overreacted" in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told Axios' Mike Allen during a virtual event on Wednesday.... "[I]n hindsight, I think we overreacted. We closed too much of our economy down, and I don't think we focused enough on what we needed to do: isolate the sick, quarantine them, protect the vulnerable."

At a certain level, the senator's rhetoric isn't too surprising. It was, after all, four months ago when the Wisconsin Republican told USA Today, "People are going to have to work. People do need to recognize the fact that this is not Ebola. This is not MERS. It's not quite the seasonal flu. But we have to keep things in perspective and we got to keep our economy."

That, however, was in March, when some officials hadn't yet come to terms with the scope and scale of the public-health crisis -- dire warnings from public-officials notwithstanding. Indeed, the day Johnson made those comments, the United States was adding fewer than 1,000 cases per day, and the overall domestic death toll was well under 100 people.

But much has changed in the ensuing months. The United States is now adding nearly 50,000 new cases per day, and COVID-19 has claimed over 130,000 Americans lives.

Imagine looking at these numbers and thinking that the United States "overreacted" to the crisis. Then imagine a political party putting the person who thinks the United States "overreacted" in charge of the Senate committee responsible for domestic security.