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South Dakota's Noem hopes to capitalize on her COVID failures

It's one thing for a governor to fail. It's something else for that governor to try to deliberately use her failures to advance her ambitions.


It's not a secret that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) is trying to position herself for a national campaign. It's also not a secret that governors, particularly those representing states with smaller populations, often struggle to raise their profile ahead of presidential bids and find it challenging to stand out among would-be rivals.

Noem, however, appears to have a plan: the Republican governor will use her COVID policies -- or lack thereof -- to gain a partisan advantage.

Noem first started making the pitch in earnest in February, appearing at a Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) event where she boasted, "South Dakota is the only state in America that never ordered a single business or church to close. We never instituted a shelter-in-place order. We never mandated that people wear masks. We never even defined what an essential business is."

It was around this same time that the governor added that her "unique" approach to the pandemic helped South Dakota persevere through the crisis "better than virtually every other state." It was a boast that didn't make any sense, given the state's brutal infection and fatality rates, but Noem pushed the line anyway.

Over the weekend, the Republican appeared at another CPAC gathering, and seemed determined to use her passivity toward COVID as a selling point.

"We've got Republican governors across this country pretending they didn't shut down their states; that they didn't close their regions; that they didn't mandate masks," said the potential 2024 White House contender as she drew an implicit but obvious contrast to leaders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who took a more restrictive approach in their states.... "South Dakota did not do any of those (measures). We didn't mandate. We trusted our people and it told them that personal responsibility was the best answer."

In effect, no matter how serious the public-health conditions in her state became, Noem effectively told South Dakota residents, "Be careful out there." That was her policy. It was, for all intents and purposes, the governor's response to the crisis. While leaders in other states at least tried to stem the tide in the hopes of saving lives, Noem simply wished her constituents luck.

The governor now sees this as something worth bragging about, as if her disinterest in policymaking really was "the best answer." Except, it wasn't: on a per capita basis, South Dakota has been one of the worst states in the nation for COVID-19 infections.

It's one thing for a governor to fail. It's something else for that governor to try to deliberately use her failures to advance her ambitions.

As for Noem's insistence that promoting "personal responsibility" was preferable to actual public-health governance, a Washington Post analysis summarized the problem nicely: What's fascinating about this argument is that it's actually immune to a seemingly challenging response — um, but a lot of people died — using a straightforward rhetorical trick: pinning those deaths on the personal choices of the dead. It's like making driving under the influence legal and booze free, and touting how much confidence you put in the public to manage their own affairs. Except, of course, that a lot of people killed in the resulting car accidents might be dying from the personal decisions of others, just as many of those infected with the coronavirus in her state were probably infected while the pandemic was raging despite their own efforts not to be."