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In facing pandemic, Hogan has been sensible, Trump reckless. Will that matter in 2024? | COMMENTARY

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan discusses the coronavirus pandemic during a news conference at the State House in Annapolis on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. Behind him are Dr. Jinlene Chan of the Maryland Department of Health, left, and Dr. David Marcozzi of the University of Maryland Medical System.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan discusses the coronavirus pandemic during a news conference at the State House in Annapolis on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. Behind him are Dr. Jinlene Chan of the Maryland Department of Health, left, and Dr. David Marcozzi of the University of Maryland Medical System. (Pamela Wood/Baltimore Sun)

In my examination of the history of the last great pandemic, the influenza of 1918-1920, I can find no mention of the Maryland governor at the time, Emerson Columbus Harrington.

Harrington, a Democrat from the Eastern Shore, served as governor from 1916 until 1920. He supported Prohibition, putting him at odds with the famously pro-booze citizens of the Free State. His main achievement appears to have been the establishment of a ferry service across the Chesapeake Bay. The first boat was named for him, and a lunch aboard for 1,000 people was served during the inaugural crossing. The ferry did not sink, no one drowned, and Harrington left office without a blemish on his record.

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But the influenza struck during his tenure, and he apparently contributed nothing of note to the state’s response. The record shows the state health commissioner — and, more so, Baltimore’s health commissioner — being at the center of things, but not Harrington.

Of course, Maryland was a different state at the time, still mainly rural, with a population of 1.4 million — we’re at 6 million now — and the infections from the pandemic appear to have been concentrated in Baltimore, where more than 4,000 people died. Still, it’s odd not to see a governor mentioned in the record.

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I note Harrington’s absence from the history because, by contrast, Maryland’s COVID-19 governor, Larry Hogan, was at the center of the state’s response to the 2020 pandemic from the start. When Republican President Donald Trump was downplaying the threat, Maryland’s Republican governor wisely sought and accepted the best medical advice available and prepared for a crisis. Hogan declared a state of emergency on March 5, a week before the dithering Donald did.

Hogan’s response through April and into May was smart and appropriately aggressive. But in late spring, he started to back off from the restrictions he had put in place, leaving decisions about reopening local institutions and commerce to city and county officials. That action seemed premature, coming just two weeks after Maryland hit a peak hospitalization rate. Baltimore’s Democratic mayor and the Democratic executives of the state’s largest counties were caught off guard by Hogan’s action.

The number of cases fell over the summer, but now we’re seeing a surge again. On Friday, Maryland reported the third-highest total of new infections since the start of the pandemic.

The full assessment of Hogan’s handling of this crisis — the timing of his decisions relative to rates of infection and hospitalizations, how he balanced public safety with economic recovery — will come down the line, and with great scrutiny should he decide to run for higher office when his second term ends in 2022.

For now, as the rate of infection starts to spike in Maryland again, Hogan still presents as the Republican anti-Trump. “Just wear the damn masks,” he said Thursday, warning Marylanders against complacency.

There are two reasons why, last month, more than 80% of Marylanders told the Goucher College Poll that they approved of the way Hogan faced up to the pandemic.

The first is the general impression of competency and informed stewardship he displayed at the outset; first impressions are lasting impressions. Also, people tend to like a public figure who appears to be earnest and, in a crisis, resistant to partisan politics.

The second reason for Hogan’s high approval on COVID could arguably be the primary one: He’s not Trump. He listened to medical experts. He took the threat seriously and never once suggested that people infected with the virus inject detergent.

Call that a low bar, but remember: Republicans love Trump and think his COVID response is just fine. This is shocking to people who live in blue Maryland.

To Marylanders, Hogan looks like an old-school, prudent, pro-business, institution-respecting, suburban Republican. And he was popular here before the pandemic. He’s had high approval ratings throughout his tenure, hitting 71% at one point. Last fall, a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll had him at a still-impressive 64%. In May, the Gonzales Poll had him at 78%.

While we’re on percentages, I note that only 35% of Maryland voters went for Trump in Tuesday’s election. By that measure, Hogan is more popular here than Trump’s Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.

Which gets to the larger question about Hogan: Does he have a future as a national political figure?

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That same Washington Post-University of Maryland poll proposed a choice between Hogan and Democrat Sen. Chris Van Hollen in the 2022 election, when Van Hollen would be seeking a second term. The poll found Hogan favored over Van Hollen, 51% to 41%.

But that’s a poll, right? In real life, many of the Maryland Democrats who like Hogan would think twice about sending a Republican to the U.S. Senate.

So then there’s the possibility of Hogan running for president in 2024.

Given his defiance and criticisms of Trump — culminating in his decision to vote for a dead president, Ronald Reagan, instead of the living incumbent — Hogan would seem like a remedy to Trumpism.

A Hogan run for the presidency seems plausible when viewed inside Maryland’s blue bubble, but not when you look out across the fruited plain, where some 70 million American voters were eager to give Trump a second term. If they didn’t care about Trump’s reckless handling of the pandemic, why would they care about Hogan’s sensible handling of it? That’s the kind of challenge he faces within his own party.

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