These are strange and uncertain days. The spread of the novel coronavirus has claimed thousands of lives across the world already and left millions more in disarray, derailed by shuttered schools and businesses, forced quarantines, and the growing fears of a global recession. It’s a situation that’s cast a sobering pall over politics as usual, uniting many former rivals in a sort of foxhole camaraderie. Perhaps there is no more telling sign—or unnerving omen—of just how quickly everything’s changed than watching Ted Cruz praise the “good advice” of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
When all is unsettled, one takes comfort in the smallest vestiges of normalcy. A walk around your neighborhood. All those TV shows and books you’ve been meaning to catch up on. The sound of your children playing in the next room while you try desperately to get some work done in between suppressing the panic that, oh my god, you might have to do this for months. And of course, the comforting immutability of Texas senator John Cornyn, who in times of turbulence can always be relied upon to say something completely asinine.
On Saturday, as the number of coronavirus cases climbed north of 2,800 in the United States, as public spaces were being closed indefinitely all across the country, and as President Donald Trump was declaring a national emergency, Cornyn took to his Twitter account to post a message of reassurance. He wrote, “Be smart; don’t panic. We will get us through this #coronavirus.” Had he just stopped there, this would have been a perfectly fine bromide, as helpful as it was ignorable. But then Cornyn tacked on a photo: a bottle of Corona beer, half-poured into a glass, served inside a bar—much like the ones the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been urging everyone to stay out of. Moreover, while Cornyn was apparently kicking back with an afternoon beer in the middle of the four-day weekend called by majority leader Mitch McConnell, a bill that would provide billions in coronavirus relief languished in the Senate.
— Senator John Cornyn (@JohnCornyn) March 14, 2020
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Like it has been for the Corona jokes your dad’s been making for weeks, the response to Cornyn’s was overwhelmingly negative. His Democratic challengers, Royce West and MJ Hegar, were swift to chastise him for yukking it up about a pandemic and demonstrating the exact kind of flippant attitude that’s already unnecessarily deepened this crisis. His Senate colleagues shared their thoughts too: “John when you are finished with that beer let’s reconvene,” Hawaii senator Brian Schatz deadpanned. When Cornyn, drunk on self-satisfaction and half a beer, replied that Schatz should let him know when he was back from Hawaii, Schatz shot back that he was still in Washington D.C. All told, it was a spectacular series of miscues that promise to haunt Cornyn through November and beyond. Also, who the hell pours Corona into a rocks glass?
For at least a few days after that, Cornyn adopted a noticeably more solemn tone, similar to the recent pivots by Fox News pundits and even the president. But then, as quarantine has shown (most of) us, you can only keep things inside for so long without going stir crazy. On Wednesday, Cornyn took the malicious “Chinese virus” rhetoric that Trump has been peddling and ran with it, telling reporters, “People eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that. These viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people, and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses.” He also incorrectly blamed China for the American-born swine flu and, somehow, Middle East respiratory syndrome.
Cornyn’s comments—steeped as they were in misinformation, debunked myths, and xenophobia–once again drew swift condemnation from West and Hegar. They were also denounced by the National Council of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who called his remarks “wildly irresponsible” at a time when hate crimes against Asians are on the rise and reminded Cornyn that he represents more than 1 million Asian Americans in his home state. As the Washington Post pointed out, they’re also mighty big words coming from a man whose own congressional website has celebrated the Texas tradition of chowing down on fried rattlesnake.
Asked whether his comments might be viewed as racist, an unbowed Cornyn said, “We’re not talking about Asians. We’re talking about China, where these viruses emanate from and created this pandemic.” It’s a stubborn commitment to being so obtusely, awfully John Cornyn that shows us not all of our daily routines have been upended.
Louie Gohmert and Chip Roy: Natural Defenses Against Coronavirus Relief
John Cornyn and Trump aside, most of our elected officials seem to agree with the CDC that now is a good time to cover your mouth, and not a time for playing politics as usual. That’s why all but forty House Republicans voted to pass that coronavirus relief bill while Cornyn was off finding his beach. After all, no one wants to be the jerk putting your own personal biases and political grudges before the good of the nation—unless, like Louie Gohmert, that’s sort of your whole deal.
Gohmert became the lone stumbling block preventing the bill’s passage to the Senate when, after a set of last-minute technical corrections were added to the version that passed, he lodged the sole objection. According to House rules, a bill can’t move on if even a single member stands in opposition. Gohmert was all too happy to be that member, threatening to delay emergency funding by a week while insisting that all 87 pages of the corrections be read aloud—no doubt by Louie Gohmert himself. This is perhaps not as surprising as it should be, given the Texas representative’s propensity for holding things up with one of his monologues.
As is so often the case, most of his objection came down to grudging principle, with Gohmert primarily upset that the bill was, as he put it in a statement, “rushed so hysterically” by Democratic leadership, in league with the all-purpose bogeyman that is “the California delegation.” It was only after meetings with House minority leader Kevin McCarthy and President Trump himself, both of whom supported the bill’s swift passage, that Gohmert finally withdrew his objection and allowed that relief to proceed—but not before making another speech.
Gohmert has a history of taking these lonely stands, whether it’s railing against those dadgum non-incandescent lightbulbs, or asking whether halting oil drilling in Alaska could throw a damper on the sex lives of caribou, or more recently, leading a group of school kids around the Capitol after possibly being exposed to the coronavirus.
But like Gohmert himself, his skepticism could be contagious: among those forty Republicans voting “no” on the initial bill were five other Texas representatives, including his fellow Trump soldiers Brian Babin, Michael Cloud, Lance Gooden, and Randy Weber. Most of them echoed Gohmert’s objection that of course they wanted to provide emergency relief to stem the tide of this national crisis, but unfortunately, they just didn’t like the process. Or, while we’re on the subject, Nancy Pelosi.
There are great things in this bill that I look forward to learning about as I read it today, but I’m not here to rubber stamp Nancy Pelosi or anyone else’s work without proper vetting.
— Lance Gooden (@Lancegooden) March 14, 2020
After two days of closed door negotiations between Speaker Pelosi and the Secretary of the Treasury, Members of Congress were given less than 30 minutes to review the 124 page text before taking a midnight vote. (2/3)
— Congressman Michael Cloud (@RepCloudTX) March 14, 2020
The sixth Texas dissenter was Representative Chip Roy, who at least cited some of the specific language in the bill he disliked, rather than the mere fact that so much of it existed. Roy—who took his own maverick stand against Hurricane Harvey disaster relief on similar procedural grounds—openly derided the coronavirus relief package. He called the provisions allocating billions in Medicaid funding and food programs for seniors and low-income citizens “welfare” that would “do more harm than good.” After the bill passed the House anyway, Roy then took to his Twitter account to crow, “The only thing missing from the #PelosiDeal is free toilet paper for all” over a Photoshopped image of a crane game filled with rolls. Roy quickly came to his senses and deleted it, though not before his Democratic challenger, Wendy Davis, wisely holstered it for later.
I see you tried to delete this tweet below
Unfortunately for you, the internet doesn’t forget
— Wendy Davis (@wendydavis) March 14, 2020
Sensing that he might have come off as just a little petty, Roy has since gone on to recast his opposition as a principled stand for small businesses. He wrote in an op-ed for the The Federalist that, because the mandatory provision for sick leave exempts businesses with more than five hundred employees, the bill puts an unnecessary burden on those with less. He’s expanded on this by taking up the mutual cause of the National Grocers Association and the National Community Pharmacists Association, who have both expressed concerns that the sick leave mandate could have the unintended consequence of leaving them short-staffed. And he’s folded all that attendant backlash into his bitter, longstanding war with the “leftist garbage” of the media. He’s managed to spin his distaste for the bill as the kind of hard-line conservatism that Roy has long championed: a belief that it simply doesn’t make fiscal sense to drop billions of government dollars on an imperfect crisis plan, even in a national emergency—unless that “national emergency” happens to be building Trump’s wall.
Anyway, given this recent rash of people like Cornyn, Gohmert, and Roy making political hay out of the coronavirus, it’s perhaps no coincidence that, on the same day as Roy’s “toilet paper” tweet, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent out a memo reminding its members that “at times like this you need to ask yourself if your press release or snarky comment are in poor taste.” For the past few days, at least, they seem to be heeding that advice. But how long can they keep those instincts all cooped up without going crazy? Besides, if they really did drop the partisan sniping or ideological grandstanding, that will be the moment we know we’re really screwed.