Butterfly Effect: Let’s Go Dutch
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
It's always smart to keep your enemies closer — even in times of social distancing.
When Dutch health minister Bruno Bruins collapsed from exhaustion during a parliamentary debate on the coronavirus in late March and then quit, the country’s prime minister, Mark Rutte, did something extraordinary: He appointed an opposition member of Parliament in his place.
Martin van Rijn, the new health minister tasked with fighting the virus, is no novice — he had previously worked at the health ministry. Rutte’s move drew applause from across the Dutch political spectrum. But with cases rising in the Netherlands (more than 12,500 by Tuesday night), it was also a savvy political tactic — one that other governments and leaders around the world could learn from as they battle intense scrutiny over their handling of the pandemic. That includes U.S. President Donald Trump, under whom America has emerged as the undisputed hot spot of the outbreak.
Crises — wars, natural disasters and pandemics — give leaders a chance to appear statesmanlike, and apply pressure on political opponents to temporarily surrender to a semblance of national unity. From Europe to the Middle East, the coronavirus is spawning unlikely cooperation between political rivals.
In Norway, Prime Minister Erna Solberg has convinced Parliament to grant her government the authority to create emergency laws on its own to deal with the crisis, without any sitting of the legislature. The opposition has said it supports Solberg’s approach to the pandemic. In Israel, the virus is doing what three elections in a year couldn’t: helping to form a majority government. The opposition Blue and White party of former military chief Benny Gantz has agreed to form a unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party to battle the coronavirus challenge. More than 5,300 cases had been reported in Israel by Tuesday night. And even in the world of diplomacy, the Palestinian Authority and Israel are working together to combat the virus threat — earning the Netanyahu government rare praise from the U.N.
(The death toll from COVID-19 in the U.S., and how it compares with America’s losses in modern wars and other crises.)
What lessons, if any, could these instances hold for Trump and America? Like Rutte, Trump has faced criticism for his handling of the pandemic. But what if he offered to replace Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar with a Democrat?
For the country, it’s best that the smartest and most experienced professionals across the political divide bring their skills together to combat this global menace. The experience and knowledge that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the 79-year-old director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, brings to the White House task force on the pandemic is good for America — never mind his famous facepalm at a Trump comment recently.
But for the president to do what Rutte did might also be smart politically. If the Democrats refuse, they come across as petty at a time of national crisis. If they agree, any successes in the fight against the pandemic still get notched up as Trump wins. And if things go downhill in the fight against the virus, it becomes harder for the Democrats to criticize him if one of their own trusted people is helping lead the response.
He could offer the role to someone like Sen. Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota. The former Democratic presidential candidate is now backing Trump’s likely opponent in November: former Vice President Joe Biden. Tapping her Midwestern support base by offering her a lead role in the fight against the virus can’t hurt Trump. Klobuchar’s husband is recovering from the coronavirus, and she would bring a human touch to America’s response that’s currently lacking from the Trump administration.
Alternatively, he could seek out Kathleen Sebelius, President Barack Obama’s HHS secretary between 2009 and 2014. Sebelius has publicly taken on the Trump administration over recent suggestions that America’s desperate shortage of masks is a legacy of the Obama era.
By inviting her to help fight the virus, Trump could portray himself as willing to work even with those who have criticized him, leaving Democrats to deal with his political curveball.
For now, Trump isn’t likely to do anything of the sort. Aggressive political clashes with Democrats help galvanize his core base — and he probably isn’t looking for calm on that front. A recent Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the crisis.
But if deaths start to mount rapidly — researchers have predicted the U.S. could suffer as many as 240,000 deaths from COVID-19 — Trump might need a sharp strategy reset. Rutte has shown one way out of a political mess to him and other world leaders: shrewdly splitting responsibility in this time of crisis. It’s the new way to go Dutch.