Governing through a crisis and the likely policy outcomes for 2021

BlackRock Vice Chairman Barbara Novick moderated a conversation between former Governors Jeb Bush and Ed Rendell about the role of government in combatting the pandemic, the social unrest gripping the country and their views on the outcome of the November election.

Highlights include:

  • The importance of setting aside partisanship to effectively mitigate the challenges presented by the coronavirus
  • The roles that the federal government and the states should play to lessen the economic burden
  • How early voting and voting by mail can help smooth a potentially chaotic election day
  • How changes in the education system can lessen inequality and create better opportunities for underserved communities
  • Barbara Novick: Thanks, Zach.  I'd like to extend a warm welcome to my two guests today, Governor Jeb Bush and Governor Ed Rendell.  Governor Bush presided over the State of Florida for two terms from 1999 ‘til 2007.  He managed through hurricanes, implemented major reforms in healthcare, environment, and school choice.  Governor Rendell served as two terms as Governor of Pennsylvania from 2003 to 2011, after having served as Mayor of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2000.  He also presided over changes to education, the environment, and healthcare.  Welcome, gentlemen.  We couldn’t have two better people to talk about the issues facing us today.

    Our session is called Governing Through a Crisis, an Election, and Potential Policy Outcomes for 2001.  We’re excited to have you join us to explore these topics in what is turning out to be a rapidly changing landscape.  So, let’s jump right in with a few questions.  And please, don’t hesitate to jump in, even if I didn’t ask you directly.

    One of the strengths of our system has been a combination of federal and state aspects and the states clearly have their own laboratory, especially on healthcare.  We’re seeing today in this COVID crisis a state by state approach.  Some of the states have coordinated with their neighbors.  Some are trying to coordinate with the federal government.  If you were governor, how do you see governing in this kind of pandemic and what measures would you take?

    Ed Rendell: Well, it’s important to know that the federal system gives most of the power here to the states and to the governors.  The President couldn’t, for example, say put a mandate on that everyone in America wears masks.  He could only advise states to do that.  The governors have to do it.  So, that’s number one.

    But, the states can and they’re free to get into compacts with other states.  I think the states that are going to fare the best in the long run here are the states that took definitive action and were the leaders.  The governors had the guts to hang in there over a lot of public pushback. 

    Jeb Bush:  Yeah.  I'd say our federal system is appropriate for something like this, because Wyoming is different than New York City and everything in between.  So, we’ve seen states with different strategies.  Some have worked, some not so good.  For example, I don't think we should be ever thinking about taking people that have COVID-19 from a hospital into a nursing home.  That didn’t work.  Forty-five percent of all the deaths have taken place in nursing home settings.

    And so, I think out of all this trial and error there becomes a national strategy implemented locally and at the state level.  And there’s a role for the federal government, certainly funding, because state budgets are stretched.  There should be a role going forward to make sure that all of the equipment, the PPE, all of that stuff, there’s supply sourcing that is done strategically, not where 50 different states are chasing after all this stuff, because that was chaotic beyond belief.  And that we need to fortify.  This is national security issue now.  Pandemics are not going to go away.  There’ll be others coming and we need to be prepared for them and that’s the proper place for Washington.

    The final thing I'd say is that the CDC has a important role here and they early on made a major mistake of not being able to provide the testing.  Other countries used the WHO testing regime and it worked out far better.  So, we’ve got to be a lot better on all of these areas.  But ultimately, I think the mayors and governors are the proper place to implement these strategies.

    Barbara Novick: In balancing the federal and state, obviously the federal government has the ability to give aid to states.  Do you think that any of that aid should be tied to meeting specific criteria from the federal level or should it be totally up to the states?

    Ed Rendell: Well, understand the federal government has the power to come up with resources that the states don’t, because all but one of our states have to have balanced budgets.  They can’t deficit spend; whereas, the federal government can and has in this crisis deficit spent.  So, yes, we should look to the federal government for the money necessary to do things, not only on the healthcare side, but on the economy side as well.

    Jeb made a very important point, though.  The one thing I think where the President really did fail is not using the Defense Resources Act much more broadly.  He could have, by using that act early on, he could’ve provided for all of the PPE, all of the ventilators, all of the things that we needed to deal with this crisis and for some reason chose not to do it.  He did it in a few instances, but not to do it across the board.

    Jeb Bush:  Yeah.  And I'd add to that.  I remember, Governor Rendell, you – I – you probably were governor when we started the last years of my brother’s administration focusing on pandemics, the challenges of small pox and other things and we did training exercises and stockpiled all sorts of equipment to deal with bioterrorism.  It was really a byproduct of the post-9/11 world.  And in the United States today, we have vaccines for every American citizen or close to it for smallpox. 

    We’re not prepared.  That's a legitimate role for the federal government to provide stockpiling of the kinds of the PPE and vaccines and testing equipment, all that stuff, because it – just watching it unfold kind of quarantined myself watching the news, it was chaotic beyond belief.  You know, the State of Florida was competing with the State of New York and the spouse of the First Lady of Maryland had contacts because she was a Korean national.  She got a better deal in Korea for PPE equipment.  And it just – that’s a role for the federal government for sure and they just weren’t prepared.

    I mean and the other thing I'd say and, Ed, I'd love to get your thoughts on this, we’re in a political environment today where you can’t make a mistake or you’re punished.  You’re punished when you develop a strategy, and therefore, you’re then – then you’re locked down and you can’t have any kind of adjusting of that strategy going forward.  We need to get back to humility in public life.  Public leadership in a time where we don’t know when the vaccine’s coming, we don’t know the extent to which infection rates, you know, how they occur, we’re still operating with a lot of – with a lack of information and I think it’s okay for elected officials to try things and adjust if it doesn’t work.  And now, it looks like everything’s politicized.  Everything is hyper-politicized to the point where if you wear a mask, you’re a, you know, you’re a liberal and if you don’t wear a mask, you're a conservative and how bad can that be?  I mean, we’re in a historic challenge in our country and I think we need to put aside some of the partisanship.

    Ed Rendell: Well, no question, Jeb is right.

    Barbara Novick: I was going to say, yeah, let’s turn to the election.  You know, the medical professionals are predicting that there could be a second wave in the fall and even if there isn’t a second wave, there’s a lot of people who will still be working from home or in some way not going about their normal business.  So, the question really is mail in vote, voting by mail, very controversial.  What do you think of that for your respective states and for the country more broadly?

    Ed Rendell: Pennsylvania adopted this year before COVID mail by – mail in voting by choice.  It used to be you had to either be out of the state or be disabled to get an absentee ballot.  Now, you can mail in by choice.  We have found no instances of fraud and many states have mail voting.  In fact, a few states have exclusively mail voting and there’s been hardly a iota’s worth of fraud found. 

    Florida has mail in voting, not just for absentees.  So, look, I think we should try to make this election as easy as possible.  When you saw in Wisconsin those people lined up wearing masks trying to vote in the Wisconsin primary election and seven or eight people got coronavirus by voting in person, we’ve got to find an easier way to do it and a safer way to do it.

    Jeb Bush:  This is another place where the voting process has been politicized in a very partisan way as well and it shouldn’t be.  President Trump votes absentee.  He mails in his ballot as a new resident of the State of Florida.  His family did as well.  Most of the cabinet in his administration does as well.  And there’s very little evidence that there’s fraud if it’s done properly.  And Florida, I'd say with early voting, which another strategy that other states should look at, and absentee ballots where you vote by mail, 60% of the vote is done prior to the election.  And we can count the votes pretty good.

    We learned our lessons in 2000, by the way, and vote totals can be done.  I'm not sure why it is that it takes three weeks in places like California to do this.  But there is a way to do this that mitigates the potential of fraud, that allows people to safely cast their ballots and we should be encouraging that.  And I'm not sure what the strategy of the President is in this regard, because a state like Florida, Republicans win the absentee ballots.  We’ve won it consistently and I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.  Elderly people are more likely to vote with vote by mail than younger people, which skews towards Republicans.

    It doesn’t make any sense to me.  And I'd rather have people focus on the importance of voting and the sanctity of voting and not to try to create doubt about the viability of our elections.

    The final thing I'd say is Washington has a role to make sure that no outside agitators are there to try to disrupt our voting process, whether it’s the Chinese or the Russians or bad actors that are non-state actors.  Now, that’s where Washington ought to focus.  They ought to focus that attention to make sure that the thousands of jurisdictions where voting takes place that there’s protection of the lists and protection of the ballot.

    Barbara Novick: In the last few months, we’ve seen amazing amounts of social unrest as well and obviously partly tied to COVID and the fact that people are anxious about their future, but partly the police actions that we’ve seen.  When you think about the solutions and the task ahead, it seems to have many components from housing and education and healthcare.  How can we from a policy perspective reduce the disparate economic opportunity that is facing different Americans today?

    Ed Rendell: Well, I think you've got long run solutions to that problem and short run solutions.  Short run solutions, we’ve got to find a way to create more economic opportunity and have a fairer economy.  One thing I hope that we’ll do once the virus is done for is raise the minimum wage significantly, because the essential workers that we all praise, many of those essential workers are getting paid $10, $9, $8 an hour, which is not a living wage.  We ought to pay them more.  It’ll help the economy because they’ll have more money to spend, but it’ll make them more a part of the economy itself.

    But in the long run, and I think Jeb will agree with me on this, the best thing we can do to make America a fairer place is concentrate on educating our children, because an educated child becomes the worker of the future.  And if you’re educated well and you’ve got skills, you will find jobs.  Do you know the high-tech industry goes in every year and asks for waivers so they can bring a quarter of a million people in to do computer programming jobs that pay $60,000 a year with benefits?  Aren’t there kids in Tampa or Miami or Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or Harrisburg who would love those jobs?  Sure, there are.  But they’re not educated well.  So, I would start with early childhood education, three and four-year-olds, and bolster education all the way through.

    Jeb Bush:  I totally agree with that.  And I think it ought to be lifelong because of the disruption.  One of the impacts of the pandemic is that trends prior to COVID-19 have accelerated in terms of technological advancements, home health, online learning.  All these things now have become more of the norm and it’s been devastating for whole sectors of our economy and millions of people are not going to get their jobs back.

    So, we need a national strategy to not just deal with early learning, which I support completely, and K-12, but we need to reform our higher education system.  We need to move to credentials being part of the solution, where people can upskill their – while they’re working to be able to get a job.  Companies I think have a social obligation now like never before to provide this as an employee benefit.  We need to bring the whole lifelong learning environment into the 21st century. 

    And the other thing I'd say is that I hope out of this, because these are – these wounds that are opened because of police brutality in the case of George Floyd and others, we need to resolve this.  We can’t just be talking about symbols.  I think we need to start developing, as Governor Rendell said, bipartisan solutions as it relates to health disparities, education disparities, economic opportunities for everybody.  And there are solutions where we can find common ground and get beyond the symbolism and get into the substance of what needs to be done.

    And it’s, again, I'm deeply troubled by in a time of national crisis we need public leaders and I’ll speak to – about this.  This is on President Trump’s watch.  He should be focusing on reconciling our differences rather than stoking our divisions.  He should try to become a unifier in these times.  There’ll be time for the food fight.  But, a lot of people are really anxious and they’re hurting and they’re expecting public leaders to understand their plight rather than try to divide us into our disparate parts.

    Barbara Novick: So, if we could turn back to the election and if you think about the demographics and the shift in the last four years but really going back more like ten years, the Rust Belt to the Sunbelt, which states are really swing states and key states to win.  How do you size up this election and the changing dynamics between different states, obviously one of you from Pennsylvania, one of you from Florida, and really seeing some of that shift in your own states?  How do you think that will impact the election?

    Jeb Bush:  Well, demography is destiny.  When my dad ran for President, got elected in 1988, I think 88% of the voting voters were white.  Today, this – it’s likely to break below 70% this election.  The country as its – as our demography changes, we are increasingly – minority voters are increase – have an increasing role and every indication shows that Vice President Biden is likely to get out of that 30%, probably get 75% or 80% of that entire vote.

    So, what’s left are white voters and you can break them up in between white voters in six states in effect or seven states.  So, these are college educated men, college educated women, non-college educated men and women.  And the President’s coalition that allowed him to win places like Florida and Pennsylvania last time are dependent upon non-college educated men and women to vote for him and women have moved dramatically away and suburban women, more college educated women, have as well.

    Those huge swings, if they’re not changed, will mean that we’re in an election that Joe Biden is likely to win.  If the election is a referendum on the President and nothing else, that’s going to be really hard to change that dynamic.  If it becomes a choice, then you could see how if the economy recovers, if the pandemic subsides a bit, the President could get back in the game.  But right now, it looks pretty bleak for him.

    Barbara Novick: Governor Rendell?

    Ed Rendell: It does, but it’s early.  I remind all my democratic friends it’s very, very early.  And one thing you've got to give President Trump credit for is he is an amazing marketer.  So, he knows if it’s a referendum on him, he’s cooked.  And can he make it a referendum on Joe Biden?  I don’t think so because Joe Biden has been around so long that the American people, their opinion of him is almost baked in. 

    But what President Trump can do, and if you look at the early ads is starting to do, is make it a rec – a referendum on supporters of Joe Biden.  So, the ad which I think is very effective about the calling the police for 911 and having five minute – five day waiting period before they get back to you, it doesn’t say Joe Biden’s in favor of defunding the police, because he isn’t.  He came out the very next day against that.  But it says Biden supporters want to boom, boom, boom.  And the more there’s trouble in the streets, there more there’s actual violence rather than peaceful protests, the easier it’s going to be for President Trump to scare people so you've got a voter who says, boy, I don’t like Donald Trump and the way he actually and the tweets one bit, but I'm worried about safety so I'm going to hold my nose and vote for him.  That's his chance and a lot can happen in the next three months that could make that chance somewhat of a reality. 

    Jeb Bush:  I totally agree with you, Ed.  If we go from an environment of peaceful protests to people believing that the – that their own security is threatened, and we’ve seen outbreaks of violence that don’t relate to the protests in Chicago, Atlanta, in other places that – in New York.  And so, I think that is a – that’s an issue that will draw people back towards the President for sure. 

    If he stays focused on the culture issues, not the law and order, law enforcement issues, I don’t think he’s winning, but he’ll win.  But this is a place where I think democrats are vulnerable.

    Barbara Novick: Clearly if we asked you four months ago what you thought the election would look like and we asked you today it would be a little different.  So, we have another four months to go. 

    Jeb Bush:  Exactly.  And there’s 15 things that could happen.  We could have a Cat 5 storm hit the East Coast.  We could have an international challenge that would allow for the President to lead.  There’s – look, we’re living in a world of incredible disruptive – we’re, you know, disruptive things happening each and every day.  And so, Governor Rendell’s absolutely right.  To try to predict the election this far out in a volatile time is just impossible.

    Barbara Novick: So, you each governed and I would say as somewhat centrist.  I mean I know one’s a republican and one’s a democrat, but I think your policies were more towards the center.  What advice would you give?  You stated earlier, each of you, we need more bipartisanship.  What advice would you give whoever is President in the next presidency, how do we get back to putting the country first and being more bipartisan in looking at healthcare and education and housing and infrastructure?  And there is just such a long list of issues and they don’t seem like they should be partisan issues.  What would you do differently or what advice would you give them?

    Ed Rendell: Well, I would tell them to listen to the Rolling Stones song that President Trump uses as his theme song, although I understand the Rolling Stones have objected to that.  But, it’s You Can’t Always Get What you Want, because the song begins you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you’ll – you just might find that you get what you need.  You can’t in politics get 100% of what you want.  I don’t care what the political scorecard looks like, you can’t get 100%.  But you can meet with the other side and say here’s the goal I want to get to.  I've got six ideas, you’ve got two ideas.  I'm not crazy about your two ideas, but let’s find a way to incorporate those eight ideas and go forward and we’ll see what happens, because you can’t always get what you want, but if you do compromise and reach out.

    You know, I hate this theory that’s going around that it can never work.  You know, Mitch McConnell’s going to stonewall everything.  Yeah, he’s going to stonewall everything when he’s in the majority, but even as a minority he can block things from happening because of the filibuster.  But I believe if you reached out to Mitch McConnell and said, okay, tell us what you really want here, he might come around and do things that are good for the country.

    So, I think communication is the key, trust is the key, and you’ve got to keep trying.  If you fail once, don’t junk it.  Just keep trying, because it can work.  When Jeb and I were in the National Governors Association together, I think we were the leaders of our two sides and we got the NGA, the National Governors Association, to almost unanimously recommend to the Congress different courses of action on healthcare, for example, and it was enormously impressive to the Congress that we were speaking with one voice.

    Jeb Bush:  Yeah.  So, my advice would be, first, the next President, whoever that is, should say I’ve got four years, I want to heal the wounds.  I want to unite around a set of common objectives.  I mean we need some healing in our country.  That's not a policy question.  That's more a tone. 

    The second thing I'd say is when – this is more of a Washington problem than other – in my experience with states.  When we – when a democrat and a republican agree on a particular subject, because there’s a lot of things that aren’t ideological, when they agree on a course of action, take it.  Take the course of action.  Act on that consensus.  Now, you’re punished if you actually try to find common ground with someone who may not look like you or who may have a different view on everything else but that one thing that we were talking about.

    And the final thing I'd say is when we disagree, don’t assume the person that disagrees with you is evil or unpatriotic or, you know, is a bad person.  They just might have a different view.  That's America at its best is when we recognize that diversity of opinion is what makes life vibrant and interesting.  And you’re punished now if you agree, you know, if you're respectful.  There’s no civility and how can you trust anybody if you don’t have some degree of civility to assume that someone’s motives may be okay, but they just might be wrong on that particular subject.  I mean this is just a question of leadership 101 and we need to restore it.

    Ed Rendell: And that’s why the –

    Barbara Novick: We’d call that wise advice. 

    Ed Rendell: What Jeb said is why I think it’s so important – and of course I'm a partisan – but so important for Joe Biden to get elected, because he has throughout his entire career shown the ability to reach out.  He formed great friendships with the Lindsey Graham’s and people across the aisle.  Lindsey Graham called him the nicest person he knows and it’s true.  Joe Biden is a good man at a time that America needs goodness.

    Jeb Bush:  I'd add one other thing though, back to the question of whether it’s, you know, the Trump argument that it’s the democrats or his allies are this, that he’s not attacking Biden directly in that ad.  There is a belief that the Senate, if the democrats gain control of the Senate, they’ll eliminate the filibuster.  And if that happens, then the idea of consensus building is just gone and it’s possible that it could happen.  And I think that would be unfortunate if that’s the case, because ultimately the big things that we need to get fixed have to happen in a bipartisan way.  Nothing stays – stands the test of time unless there is some degree of bipartisanship on the big issues that we need to confront.

    Barbara Novick: Right.  It feels like we’ll just get whipsawed back and forth depending on who has the majority.

    Jeb Bush:  Yeah.

    Barbara Novick: All right.  Well, gentlemen, thank you very, very much, Governor Bush, Governor Rendell.  We appreciate you joining us.  And at this point, back to you, Zach.


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Jeb Bush
Former Governor of Florida
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Barbara Novick
Chairman and Co-Founder, BlackRock
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Edward Rendell
Former Governor of Pennsylvania
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BlackRock Future Forum 2020

Explore our series of discussions with policy makers and industry experts from the technology, healthcare, and energy sectors on the topics that are driving markets and impacting society.
BlackRock Future Forum 2020