Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was on Capitol Hill yesterday, where he fielded a question from a lawmaker who asked about the possibility of a "czar" to coordinate the federal response to the coronavirus outbreak. The cabinet secretary was dismissive of the idea, deeming it entirely unnecessary. Azar said he'd spoken to the White House and was certain that he would lead the response.
Because the Trump administration is so dysfunctional, Azar didn't know until late in the afternoon that Vice President Mike Pence would be in control of the process. The HHS secretary was reportedly "blindsided" by the news.
And while this clearly helped reinforce concerns about the administration's competence, even more alarming was Donald Trump's choice itself. The president pointed to Pence as an "expert" in public health, who has "a certain talent for this," as evidenced by the vice president's record.
"When Mike was governor, Mike Pence of Indiana, they have established great health care, they have a great system there," Trump said. "A system that a lot of the other states have really looked to and changed their systems. They wanted to base it on the Indiana system. It's very good. And I think he is really very expert in the field."
I wish this were true. It's not.
In fact, it was just five years ago, during Pence's gubernatorial tenure, when his home state of Indiana faced one of the nation's first HIV outbreaks linked to intravenous drug users. The Republican governor's slow and ideological response was widely panned for a reason: Pence got it backward. It became a case study in what not to do in the face of a public-health emergency.
As for the Hoosier's purported "expertise" in public health, as recently as 2000, Pence argued in a written piece that reports telling the public that smoking cigarettes kills people is simply "hysteria from the political class and the media."
The idea that the vice president is "really very expert in the field" is ridiculous. The idea that Pence is the best person to oversee a serious public-health crisis is worse.
Postscript: During a panic-stricken breakdown over the Ebola threat in 2014, Trump lashed out at then-President Barack Obama for appointing Ron Klain to oversee the federal response. The Republican argued at the time via Twitter, "Obama just appointed an Ebola Czar with zero experience in the medical area and zero experience in infectious disease control. A TOTAL JOKE!"
Five-and-a-half years later, we know two things. First, Klain was the right person for the job and he handled the emergency perfectly. Second, Trump just appointed a coronavirus czar who has "zero experience in the medical area and zero experience in infectious disease control."