The COVID-19 crisis has thrust several of America’s governors onto the national stage, mostly through the eyes of television, where state leaders have been visible almost around-the-clock, issuing directives, holding news conferences and doing interviews.
The leadership being provided by these leaders — a group that includes Maryland Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) — contrasts greatly with the decision-making and messaging being displayed by President Trump, according to nearly a dozen academics, political analysts and officeholders interviewed over the past 10 days.
Along with big-state governors like Gavin C. Newsom (D) of California and Andrew M. Cuomo (D) of New York, Hogan has been on television a lot — giving interviews to CNN, MSBNC, Fox, PBS, NPR and local stations in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., markets, among others.
His appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday marked the 12th time in the last few weeks that he has appeared on national television.
Praise for his handling of the crisis is nearly universal.
“The governor is showing far better judgement and far more responsible leadership than we’re getting from the president during this crisis,” said political science professor Stephen J. Farnsworth, author of “Presidential Character and Communication: White House News Management from Clinton and Cable to Twitter and Trump.”
“The governor is very effective at telling people what they need to know,” he added.
The director of the University of Mary Washington Center for Leadership and Media Studies, Farnsworth watched a handful of Hogan’s national television appearances at the request of Maryland Matters.
“There’s no feud with the media here,” he said on Saturday. “There’s no argument about the quality of the questions. There’s no dishonesty about the information. No. What you have is a very clear understanding of the problems that Maryland faces — and what people can do in their own daily lives to minimize the spread of this very dangerous contagion.”
Stuart Rothenberg, a veteran nonpartisan political analyst, credits Hogan “touching all the right bases… trying to keep people alert without stoking fear and frenzy.”
“He seems sane and sober.”
Hogan has taken a range of actions to boost resources and slow the spread of the coronavirus by limiting social interaction. He has offered sharp criticism of residents who defied public health warnings, and he has attempted to offer messages of reassurance.
Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R) said in an interview on Sunday that Hogan recognized even before the state’s first cases that the virus posed a significant threat, particularly following communications with the governor of Washington state and health experts within Maryland.
“He was already talking about [how] this was coming and we have to start preparing,” said Rutherford, who took over day-to-day operations of state government about 10 days so the governor could focus exclusively on the fast-moving crisis.
In addition, Rutherford said, Hogan took notice of differences within the messages coming out of the White House.
“Frankly, early on, [Vice President Mike] Pence and the experts that they pulled together were saying things different than what the president was saying — and the governor was pointing that out in the meetings that he would have with the White House and their experts,” he said.
The lieutenant governor said Hogan has been willing to tune out critics and political considerations.
“He’s willing to make decisions before maybe others are,” Rutherford said. “He’s just trying to protect the citizens and not as caught up into ‘what are the outside voices going to say?’ — either in the media or politicians or even friends, friends who might be in certain industries or might be have certain business interests that are effected by closings.”
“He has not been concerned about that.”
Relying on the scientists
Hogan has emerged as a reliable go-to for network bookers in large part because of his role as chairman of the National Governors Association. In addition, Annapolis is within easy reach of Washington, D.C., where all the networks have large bureaus.
But Hogan also provides CNN and the others with an added layer of value. At a time when the Trump administration is under broad attack for its handling of the crisis, Maryland’s governor — in the view of one observer — is “the Republican who gets it.”
“Unlike Trump, Gov. Hogan never passed through a period of denial,” said Rothenberg, senior editor at Inside Elections and a columnist for Roll Call. “Early on, he warned about the risks, the dangers, and that the challenges would grow and that the virus would spread.”
Hogan is “acting like a stronger leader. He seems more knowledgeable” than Trump, Rothenberg added. Trump, by contrast, “is just a bad communicator.”
Maryland Democrats at the state and county level praised Hogan for his handling of the crisis as well. They credit him with taking decisive action, relying on experts, offering consistent messaging and consulting with them often.
“I’ve really been impressed. He has reacted well,” said Senate Majority Leader Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery). “He’s put the information there so that people can understand it. And I don’t think he’s overreacted. I think he has delivered it well.”
King said she has received positive feedback from her constituents. “They have a confidence in him that we’re doing everything that we possibly can. And that means everything.”
For years, Democratic legislative leaders have grumbled that Hogan tends to denigrate or ignore them, but that talk has largely dissipated when it comes to the way he has confronted the COVID-19 crisis.
“The speaker gives the governor a ton of kudos for handling this well,” Alexandra M. Hughes, chief of staff to House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), said recently. “He’s kept the legislature informed and he is working collaboratively.”
Hogan has tapped many of the same national health experts as the White House but came away far more inclined to act, as when he declared a state of emergency in early March, several days before the White House.
“I’m listening to some of the smartest scientists,” Hogan told the Baltimore Sun on Friday.
“We have a phone call every day and they give us staggering data about what could happen if you don’t take action. If you don’t take action today, people are doing to die. I don’t want to wait around.”
In press conferences and interviews, Hogan often acts as his own PR man, touting his swift action.
“We declared a state of emergency more than a week ago,” Hogan told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on March 13. “And I’m pleased the president took those actions today.”
“I think I was the first governor in America to close all of our schools statewide,” he said during a PBS “NewsHour” interview three days later. (In fact, Ohio announced statewide school closures minutes before Maryland did.)
In several of his national interviews Hogan has acknowledged that the Trump administration’s actions have been late and lacking in scope. But he has sought to balance criticism from other guests and interviewers with praise — an understandable impulse given the Trump administration’s hypersensitivity to criticism and the states’ efforts to obtain additional resources.
Hogan has also downplayed the utility of “finger-pointing.”
On Sunday, for instance, he told NBC “we’re way behind the curve. … Failures were made.”
He then added, “They are making progress [but] it’s not fast enough.”
When interviewers try to press the point, the governor will often resist, sometimes displaying a flash of irritation, saying this is not the time for assessing blame.
‘A crisis bring challenges but also opportunities’
Analysts said it’s too soon to determine whether Hogan’s increased visibility will pay political dividends down the road. None suggested that he was using the exposure to boost his brand.
University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato told the Sun it’s unlikely there will ever be a lane within the national GOP for someone like Hogan. Others cautioned that the future is impossible to predict.
Hogan is term limited and hasn’t indicated whether he intends to remain in politics after he leaves office two years and nine months from now. There has been speculation that he will seek the U.S. Senate in 2022, when his term expires, or that we might seek the presidency in 2024.
Farnsworth said there is no doubting that Hogan “is responding to a crisis with professionalism, giving people in Maryland and around the country the information they need to know.”
“It’s a model, in fact, for how the president might behave,” he added. “Gov. Hogan is demonstrating that there are Republican adults who can behave responsibly in this moment of crisis. That’s something that’s going to get a lot of media attention across the country.”
Said Rothenberg, the political analyst: “A crisis brings challenges but also opportunities to political figures. … Often you need some time to pass where people look back to evaluate what went right and what went wrong. Time will give us maybe a little different perspective on the federal reaction and the reaction of individual governors and individual states.”
Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.