Analysis: Little stays on message, and loses the room

Citing rising coronavirus case numbers — and increased strain on the health care system — Gov. Brad Little moved Idaho back to stage 3 of the state’s business reopening plan. Sami Edge/IdahoEdNews

It’s a different form of COVID fatigue.

This week, Gov. Brad Little sounded tired of talking about the coronavirus. He also sounded like he’d run out of things to say.

Yes, on Monday Little announced tightened restrictions, an attempt to slow a statewide outbreak that threatens to overwhelm Idaho’s health care system. Only time will tell if it’s good science. But Little’s plan was not nearly enough to placate the Idahoans who want a statewide mask mandate, but more than enough to infuriate conservatives who saw a threat to business and an affront to personal choice. This public relations clunker could signal some lingering political problems.

During Monday’s Statehouse news conference, Little fingered his facemask and clung to his talking points. He insisted schools should remain open. However, he continued to advocate for local control, which means local officials will keep making the tough calls on facemasks and school operations. And Little made yet another appeal for personal responsibility — urging Idahoans to wash their hands, wear their masks, maintain social distancing and get a flu shot.

Sound familiar? Of course it does.

Monday marked Little’s 30th coronavirus news conference since March 13, when he declared a statewide emergency. On Tuesday, Little fielded questions at AARP Idaho’s 25th telephone town hall on the pandemic.

Do the math, and that adds up to about two solid days of talking about the coronavirus, repeating the same soundbites and fielding many repetitive questions. There are only so many different ways to say the same thing. (As a journalist and pundit, I speak from years of firsthand experience.)

In fairness, let me make two important points:

  • Little deserves credit for candor. Little opened Monday’s presser by saying Idaho is facing a virus “crisis” and calling Idaho’s spikes in case numbers “unacceptable.” In marked contrast, President Trump heads into Election Day insisting, without evidence, that the U.S. is turning the corner on the pandemic, and claiming the nation’s high case numbers are a function of widespread testing. (That is clearly not the case in Idaho, as we have reported for months.)
  • Second, there’s always something to be said for consistency from the governor. Idaho’s response to the coronavirus has evolved — the State Board of Education closed K-12 schools in the spring, for instance, then backed off and issued fall reopening guidelines to locals. But Little seems to be going out of his way to maintain a steady message, while constantly pointing out that health officials keep learning about the novel coronavirus.

Still, Little seems to be losing the room.

While declaring a crisis Monday — and sharing the podium with two hospital officials who spoke of a system approaching overload — Little rolled out a modest response. He moved Idaho from Stage 4 of its reopening plan to a modified version of Stage 3. The plan limits the size of indoor gatherings, but schools will remain open. Bars and nightclubs can remain open, but patrons have to be seated.

Split the difference, for argument’s sake, and call it Stage 3 ½.

By splitting the difference, Little has doubled his political pain.

On Little’s right, the skeptics and COVID-19 deniers came out in droves. Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin — who is either running for governor or doing a great impersonation of a primary challenger — was among the first to the party. “We should be supporting Main Street right now, not adopting the draconian tactics of liberal municipalities that have only proven to make matters worse,” McGeachin said on her Facebook page.

Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin — a vocal critic of Gov. Brad Little’s coronavirus response since spring — renewed her objections in a video released Tuesday by the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

 

On Tuesday, the Idaho Freedom Foundation released a video reaffirming a “commitment to freedom,” featuring a cadre of lawmakers and a gun- and Bible-toting McGeachin.

And while it might be tempting to dismiss the Freedom Foundation as safe harbor for COVID-19 conspiracy theorists, the group represents a cohort that will most certainly vote in the 2022 Republican primary.

Little also didn’t win many allies elsewhere on the political spectrum. On social media, critics dismissed the Stage 3 designation as toothless, and said his latest appeal to personal responsibility was pointless. The Idaho Education Association, which endorsed Little in 2018, said it had “little confidence” that the governor was doing enough to keep schools and teachers safe.

And when Tuesday’s AARP town hall moved into the Q&A format, several callers asked the same question reporters asked a day earlier: Why won’t Little issue a statewide mask mandate? At least Little remained characteristically consistent: He said he still believes Idahoans are more likely to follow mandates from their local officials.

But the frustration was clear, voiced by callers from every corner of the state.

“These half-basked measures just aren’t working,” said Mark from Pocatello. “You are the adult in the room. … What is the tipping point?”

“You’ve got to put some meat behind this,” said Betty from Nampa, who said she had to skip out on a graveside service because fellow mourners were taking off their masks.

Bob from Sagle criticized Little for abdicating his authority to local politicians who have no interest in stopping the virus. It was a clear reference to Bob’s local Panhandle Health District, which rescinded a mask requirement last week, despite rising hospitalizations in Coeur d’Alene.

Little’s best moment came when Pat from Kooskia had his turn. Pat decried the coronavirus conspiracies and “misinformation” running rampant through Idaho County. He said he’d voted for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan in 2018, but says Little is doing a great job managing the pandemic.

Yes, sometimes a compromise makes everybody unhappy. Using that metric, Little succeeded spectacularly Monday. But at some point, a politician needs some votes. And like Trump, Little’s re-election prospects will hinge on his coronavirus response.

Little might need every Pat he can find. And he might need to work on winning over the Marks, Bettys and Bobs.

What Little is saying now — and saying repeatedly — just doesn’t seem to be cutting it.

An Idaho State Police officer at Gov. Brad Little’s Monday  news conference guards doors, blocking unmasked protestors from entering. Sami Edge/Idaho Education News

 

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday. Due to the timeliness of the subject matter, this week’s analysis was published on Wednesday, Oct. 28.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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