Mitch Daniels: Beware of the pandemic of second-guessing

Keywords Mitch Daniels / Opinion

What follows is not a prediction. More of a precaution, based on a premonition. While I’m wearing out the prefix, let’s call it a preventive prescription.

I’m worried about preventing a sickness, one we’ve been through before—much more recently than the last pandemic flu. It’s our tribal eagerness to employ 20/20 rearview vision and castigate the Other Side for its mistakes, even those made in all sincerity, even those the second-guessers failed to dispute, or even endorsed, at the outset. Since everything these days seems to call for a snappy abbreviation, let’s use HRD, for Hindsight Recrimination Disorder.

In the first years of this century, the consensus conclusion of multiple national intelligence agencies was that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had or was close to acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Based on that “expert” information, the United States organized a large number of nations in a massive campaign to eliminate the threat, which proved unjustifiably expensive in both human and economic terms.

Because the intelligence was wrong. The WMDs weren’t real; they proved to be a dictator’s bluff. A reasonable postmortem would have been to review the performance of those who misread the information and try to learn lessons that might help us avoid repeating the error. Decision-makers of the time could have been criticized for not seeing through faulty data they had been given, without being trashed as liars or scoundrels pursuing personal agendas.

Of course, that’s not what happened. People who had examined the information and come to their own conclusion favoring military action developed a contortionist amnesia to denounce the exact viewpoint they had once held, or even voted for. Conspiracy theorists were permitted, even encouraged, to foment the slander that someone fabricated the inaccurate intelligence. Today’s poisonous, partisan atmosphere carries some of the toxins from the ugly Iraq War aftermath.

It’s easy to imagine the coronavirus producing the same potentially deadly symptom. None of us knows how this is going to turn out. It could be that the maximalist measures we’ve taken, with all their brutal consequences in lost jobs, dashed dreams, interrupted educations, second-order deaths—from forgone care, postponed surgeries, addiction relapses and suicides, you name it—will all prove warranted.

I, for one, hope so. I earnestly hope that our public officials, who are acting on the best (they believe) intelligence available to them, have chosen wisely. Because I think we pay a frightful societal price when we fail to establish social distance from HRD.

The conspiracists will have a lot of raw material to exploit. Even more than in the Iraq experience, it will be simple to identify special-interest motives and claim they drove a campaign that deceived the rest of us into an overreaction. Members of the public health community, underappreciated in normal times, have been handed a fabulous limelight opportunity. They’re not only on TV daily; they’re also calling the public-policy shots.

Heretofore-obscure politicians have also been handed plenty of airtime to pronounce on the pandemic. At least in the short term, they are “saving lives”—hard to be unpopular doing that. Of course, trading near-term benefits they collect for long-term costs someone else can deal with is what politicians do (#nationaldebt).

Most industries are taking a terrible beating, but the news media are suddenly on a roll, at least in audience. All those eyeballs stuck at home, and desperate for news about the virus that is the reason. There has been a lot of smart and responsible reporting but also a ton of the other kind: anecdotal, sensationalist, alarmist. The old print maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads,” now has its modern-day update, “If it’s sick, it clicks.”

Again, my hope is that what we’ve been doing will be fully vindicated. I want us to discover that this was the wisest course, that the ghastly price we’re paying was all worth it. But it’s the long term that matters. I can already hear the outcry claiming, “They lied to us.”

Sweden (Hey, wasn’t it just yesterday we were being lectured to admire and emulate its health care system?) has been criticized for a high per capita coronavirus death rate after declining to shut down its entire society. But what if, after a year or two, Sweden’s rate is far below ours, due to the herd immunity we are postponing? What if people as thoughtful as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman have been right about protecting the most vulnerable without ruining the futures of millions?

Let’s not reprise Iraq. How about we self-vaccinate against HRD and all agree that, whatever comes, people right now are doing their best with the information they have. If their judgments turn out to be mistaken, let’s avoid another orgy of tribal recrimination and agree that we won’t repeat the errors. Here’s a type of HRD immunity we can achieve without becoming ill ourselves.•


Daniels, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is president of Purdue University and a former Indiana governor.

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4 thoughts on “Mitch Daniels: Beware of the pandemic of second-guessing

  1. Interesting article. However, much is unknown about the COVID-19 and to err on the side of conservative is my preference. I do not suggest infringement upon life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by others who chose not the shelter at home or to social distance. But I do seek to protect myself and will take measures to do so. The current blogosphere of widely varying science-based and backseat-based recommendations, coupled with see-saw utterances from the leadership at the national and state capitols, provide no clear credible direction. Therefore, one should follow precautions best for those you hold dear and the local area. One should also recognize that herd immunity is not verified but assumed. The economy is important but so is life. Finding the right balance must be a personal responsibility. I have zero interest in returning to an open collaborative workspace without, at least, protective equipment and sound safety protocols in place. The need today for healthcare to support a healthy society and civics as a required course is oh so evident.

    1. Well said, Derek C. I and my wife being part of the so-called “vulnerable population” are not interested in activities that increase our risk of contracting of this virus. Luckily, we are retired and able to survive without going out into the workplace. I, too, do not want to infringe on others pursuit of their economic interests, but equally do not want to be bombarded with propaganda that suggests that everything is just fine. This will pass, but it is going to require leadership at each level of government — which is uneven at best today.

  2. Mitch might have gotten sucked in by the Iraq WMDs of Bush era, but I can you that that whole ruse smelled fishy and at the time, I told my lunch table friends. Later I basically got to say I told you so, and it is not because I was a foreign policy expert, but because I was logical, thinking person.

    Science and logic seem to go hand in hand, and I hope Mitch has consulted with at least one epidemiologist and that he not endangering himself to push Indiana to that magical herd immunity tipping point.

    Given that he seems ready to endanger himself, it is going to be really unfortunate for all of the other people he may kill as he works to build that herd immunity. It most likely will not be the students, but more likely the senior staff and faculty. Maybe his goal is to cut the senior and highly paid staff from payroll. Give them a choice, teach in person or risk hospitalization or death.

    I sure hope his decisions are based on science and logic, and not political optics.

  3. ‘Tis a pity that President Mitch Daniels, Purdue, isn’t President Mitch Daniels, U.S. It would not eliminate the spread of HRD, but his steady, thoughtful leadership would be just the thing to make us more immune to it.

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