Remember when the field of Democratic candidates was large and diverse, when people argued over whether a multi-billionaire could buy the nomination without campaigning, when Joe Biden’s campaign was pretty much done? That was — two weeks ago? It’s hard to believe how much the campaign — and life overall — has changed so quickly. When we look back at this most atypical of election cycles in this alarming and urgent moment, we will think of it in two halves: before the coronavirus and after.
I have written previously about the u-turn in the Democratic primary, which for the better part of a year had been defined by a rigorous debate over how much to attack the structural roots of Trumpism, only to veer into an all-hands-on-deck decision about the best way to approach a crisis situation propelled by a presidential leadership vacuum. The difference was evident in last Sunday’s debate, held without a studio audience (a change that should become permanent) and podiums six feet apart for social distancing (not that Biden or Sanders looked like they wanted to be closer to each other). While the two remaining contenders are the most celebrated avatars of the “go big” and “go back” halves of the Democratic electorate, their divisions were only intermittently featured in a debate where the pandemic hovered over everything.
Although any debate featuring two candidates is going to be fundamentally different than the circuses we’ve become accustomed to, Sunday’s event had the eerie feel of an early denouement that was incongruous with the pre-pandemic primary storyline. It wasn’t a love-fest, but it marked the first tenuous step toward party unity, featuring two candidates with different objectives whose political fortunes are going in opposite directions. The urgency of the moment gave Joe Biden a chance to show a national audience how he would lead the country through the crisis, drawing contrasts not with his opponent on the stage but with the opponent he will face this fall, the one in the White House who is drowning in his own incompetence.
Bernie Sanders, who understands delegate math, was there to press his agenda on the eventual nominee. His attacks were at times surprisingly pointed for a candidate who has started talking about party unity, and it was just as surprising when Biden engaged. But there were also olive branch moments. Biden praised Sanders for his proposal to provide free tuition at public universities for families earning under $125,000 annually and promised to adopt it along with Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy reform plan, a spectacular concession considering the two have been sparring over it for fifteen years. Biden also unequivocally promised to choose a female running mate. He still has a long way to travel on matters of deep concern to Bernie’s young, committed supporters — climate policy is a glaring example — but Biden’s outreach showed that the candidate understands he needs to bring the party together to win, and that the process has begun. None of this was remotely imaginable a few short weeks ago, when we were considering the real possibility that Bernie would come out of Super Tuesday with an insurmountable delegate lead. Crisis politics changed everything.
The influence of the pandemic on Donald Trump’s election prospects is even more profound. It has upended Trump’s plan to run on a skyrocketing stock market, a scorched earth attack on his opponent, and a Russian-led disinformation and disruption campaign designed to divide and demoralize Democrats. When was the last time you heard Trump talk about creating the best economy ever? Does anyone really care about Hunter Biden when they’re worried about getting sick or losing their job? If the emergency atmosphere pushes progressive Democrats to close ranks around Biden, it will be harder for Trump and his allies to foment dissent. Trump’s rallies — the lifeblood of his campaign — are on hold indefinitely as the country stops congregating. Meanwhile, Biden is using the crisis to define himself as a leader precisely when Trump had hoped to spend a fortune to define Biden as a purveyor of corrupt cronyism (insert ironic expression here).
And it’s not just the campaign. I used to think impeachment would be the dividing line, but when the book is closed on the Trump era, there will be the time before the pandemic and the time after. Whatever our differences as a nation, people expect competence and compassion from their leaders in an emergency. This is Presidency 101, the president as chief administrator and “consoler in chief” — roles Donald Trump is utterly unable to perform that were not paramount to his job performance before the crisis hit. Yes, his base will never blame him for anything, and they are preventing his job performance ratings from looking like the stock market ticker, but they will not be enough to shelter Trump from the political damage he is inflicting on himself. More on that in my next post.