The idea that a Republican state legislature would spend its time undermining a Democratic governor has become a sad national norm. In state after state, Republicans have discovered that they can turn strong governorships into weak ones, and weak governorships into ceremonial offices by interfering with the ability to appoint commissions, enact regulations, or simply conduct the business of the executive branch. And in the case of Kentucky, Democrat Andy Beshear has been under assault from the start.
In fact, the Republican legislature gave serious consideration to simply overturning the election, and in the last two weeks have gone after him with no less than four bills that would remove Beshear’s ability to issue executive orders, take away the salaries of executive branch workers, give the Senate veto power over Beshear’s most trivial appointments, and making it easier to sue the governor for his actions. And the reason they’re doing this is clear enough. It's because Beshear isn’t doing a good job handling the COVID-19 crisis … he’s doing a great job.
At the start of the month, the Lexington Herald Leader covered how Senate Republicans were piling on Beshear in an attempt to undermine his authority at every turn. That may have come at a point where the threat posed by the coronavirus was still just becoming apparent for many state legislators, but Republicans have continued to push through three bills as the crisis continues, and they’ve introduced more. That includes a bill expressly allowing Beshear to be sued by any business or individual who thinks his executive orders in dealing with the coronavirus “infringe on liberty or interfere with commerce.”
But even as Republicans try to undermine Beshear, his actions in Kentucky are becoming a national model. Like many governors, he’s now making regular appearances to discuss the epidemic. Unlike many, Beshear is being open, consistent in his messaging, and genuinely reassuring in his direct method of laying out his plans. His regular 5 PM appearances are completely unadorned and unpretentious, with sections designed for kids and clear advice for everyone dealing with these extraordinary circumstances. Rather than bragging about what he has done, Beshear regularly praises the ordinary citizens of the state for their cooperation, points out the extraordinary efforts of healthcare workers, and singles out individuals who have stepped up as examples of positive action. As with many states across the nation, it’s must-watch viewing for Kentuckians who want to see where things stand and what is coming next.
Most importantly, Beshear acted early, ordering social distancing measures, closure of schools, and other steps before the state was clearly overrun by the disease. Five days ago, a local educator made a remarkable chart to show how Kentucky was faring when compared to neighboring Tennessee, where Republican governor Bill Lee had moved forward only reluctantly, and in half measures, days behind what was happening in Kentucky.
The result on March 20 was that Kentucky had only 48 cases compared to over 200 in Tennessee. And this wasn’t an artifact of testing. Kentucky had actually done more testing than its neighbor to the south. Five days later, that fast action in Kentucky is still apparent. Even though that state had logged 198 cases by Wednesday evening, that was a fraction of what other states had recorded on all sides. That few days of delay in Tennessee now amounts to 500 additional cases.
But rather than talking about opening up the state to additional infection, Beshear is doubling down on suppressing the spread of the virus. On Wednesday, he moved again to impose one of the tightest lockdowns in the nation, limiting the stores that can be open in the state to only those which are considered “life sustaining.” All forms of housing eviction in the state have been suspended. Local and county governments have also been ordered to scale back to only those functions necessary to sustain and protect lives.
Republicans, who have a veto-proof majority in the legislature, may well succeed in limiting Beshear’s authority. But if they do, they may find the citizens of their state anything but grateful.