With Biden's Wins, the COVID-19 Election Is Here

ANALYSIS
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It took Joe Biden the last two weeks and three Super Tuesdays to amass an all-but-insurmountable delegate lead over Democratic rival Bernie Sanders. But in that short time, the world and the election of the leader of the free world has irrevocably changed.

The Trump administration is now grappling in real-time with the best way to curb and ultimately defeat a global pandemic impacting every neighborhood and voter across the country. This is now officially the coronavirus election -- and completely uncharted territory. Gone are the rallies, the glad-handing and debates with live audiences, which President Trump, as well as Bernie Sanders, relished and played to their populist disruptor strengths. With Biden’s blowout wins against Sanders in Florida, Illinois and Arizona Tuesday night, the delegate math became virtually impossible for Sanders to overcome.  After a fast start in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, the democratic socialist’s self-styled revolution hit up against the new Biden juggernaut.

That much, at least, is certain, though not much else in the 2020 election really is. The virus with its vast unknowns has completely upended the primary schedule itself – with Ohio canceling its Tuesday primary at the last minute out of fear of the virus’ spread. Officials in the other three states went forward after arguing that there may be no better time than the present. Other primaries have been postponed for weeks, and in some cases months.

The American people, many without work or facing employment and salary disruptions, aren’t in any mood for frivolous candidacies. Sanders’ concession to Biden is now a question of not if but how soon and how strong he will back his rival.

The race is down to a two-person contest. It’s a choice between Trump and his anti-establishment/off-the-cuff/often caustic approach and Uncle Joe, the less steady but more empathetic other half of the Obama White House and a political fixture in Washington for half a century.

Even before Biden’s Tuesday night sweep, both general election contenders knew it. Trump made nice with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, praising him for doing a “really great job” on the coronavirus a day after slamming him on Twitter for not doing enough.

“We’re both doing a really great job and we’re coordinating things,” the president said, adding that the “hot spot” of virus transmission in New York is “not the fault of anybody.”

The swift transitions from fighters to uniters was perhaps best captured by Biden’s somber but hopeful victory speech Tuesday night from his home in Wilmington, Del. Against a stark black backdrop with two American flags, he framed the current crisis as “akin to fighting a war” and called on every American to play a role in that battle.

“This is a moment where we need our leaders to lead,” Biden said. “But it is also a moment where the choices and decision we make as individuals, and collectively as people, will make a bigger difference in the severity of the outbreak and the ability of our medical and hospital systems to handle it. … 

“The coronavirus doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. It will not discriminate based on national origin, race, gender or ZIP Code. It will touch people in positions of power in our society. We are all in this together.”

The former vice president also held out an olive branch to Sanders and his supporters, praising their “remarkable passion and tenacity.” Biden focused on his and Sanders’ similarities and even acknowledged the role his top primary rival has played in dragging the Democratic Party and his own positions to the left.

“Senator Sanders and I may disagree on tactics, but we share a common vision — for the need to provide affordable health care for all Americans, to reducing income inequality, to taking on climate change,” he said.  

After touting his ability to build a broad coalition of support in the black and Latino communities, as well high school-educated people, labor, teachers, suburban women, veterans, firefighters and “many more,” he made a plea for the votes of young Sanders’ supporters his campaign has yet to attract.

“And let me say, especially to the young voters who have been inspired by Sanders: I hear you. I know what is at stake. And I know what we have to do,” he said. “Our goal as a campaign, and my goal as a candidate for president, is to unify our party and to unify our nation.”

Just two days earlier, in their first and perhaps only one-on-one debate, Biden suggested that Americans want “results, not a revolution” in the face of coronavirus fears. In late February, he unloaded on Sanders, saying his position as a socialist “doesn’t fly” in terms of beating Trump.

Just where we go from here as a nation and in the election is unnervingly uncertain. 

With the stock market in a free fall, President Trump, flanked by Cabinet members and health officials, openly pledged to send checks, in $1,000 increments, directly to many Americans, “as quickly as possible.” It was a move that made former Democratic candidate Andrew Yang look prophetic, and #Yangwasright trended on Twitter.

Team Trump had little choice as the pandemic threatened to wipe out all of economic gains his team has cited as his strongest reelection argument. The Dow rose more than 1,000 points Tuesday on news of the stimulus and accelerated coronavirus testing after a disappointing Monday dive even after Federal Reserve cut a key interest rate to nearly zero.

With a fearful nation hunkered down, trust is in short supply, and that extends to the media’s track record of predicting Trump’s electability. The mainstream media have seized on the pandemic, fueling a conventional wisdom that the president’s uneven handling of the crisis will ensure his ballot-box demise. But they were notoriously wrong before.

Polling on the issue is nearly evenly split. A Morning Consult survey released Monday found that 47% of voters approve of the president’s handling of the pandemic, while 43% disapprove, an increase of four percentage points from a poll conducted earlier this month.

Meanwhile, net approval of the Centers for Disease Control’s handling of the crisis rose to 63%, up from 58% in the previous survey.

As the two-man race unfolds, Trump is sure to pound home a top point in his favor – that the media aren’t giving him enough credit for his January decision to bar foreign nationals who had visited China from reentering the country.  Shortly after that decision, Biden called the policy “hysterical xenophobia.” Fast-forward two months, and the New York Times is conceding that the measure bought the United States more time to prepare for the virus’ spread.

Still, Trump repeatedly played down the significance of the outbreak until the last two weeks and played up his administration’s response to it. In recent days, Trump made a sharp pivot by focusing on the severity of the health crisis and tried to fix his previous misstatements without readily acknowledging them.  

Trump’s rosy assessment of his handling of the unprecedented health crisis during a Monday briefing wasn’t convincing enough for one usually strong defender. Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume called Trump’s response a “mixed bag,” not a “10 out of 10,” as the president had claimed earlier that day.

Still, the president commands the bully pulpit and could also have time on his side. Democrats, including David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Obama’s presidential campaigns, are worried that Trump is finally looking presidential and that voters will rally to his side. Americans naturally root for their leader in times of crisis to “get command of the situation,” as they should, Axelrod said on CNN Tuesday night, acknowledging that Trump is starting to use the powers of the presidency to his advantage.

“How do you run against a guy spending hours on television talking to the American people against this mortal threat?” he asked.

It’s an advantage the president and his campaign are doing their best to capitalize on even as some Trump insiders acknowledge the initial response could have been better. Along with its  $850 billion-$1 trillion stimulus proposal, the White House plans to open more testing locations as part of an expanded public-private laboratory partnership. The Pentagon later pitched in, offering to provide 5 million respirator masks and 2,000 ventilators to the Department of Health and Human Services for distribution.

Trump campaign national press secretary Kayleigh McEnany touted the list as “more innovative solutions to stop coronavirus” – all “Big Wins!”

Trump cast the battle against the virus’s spread in bolder, existential terms. “The world is at war with a hidden enemy. WE WILL Win!” he tweeted.  Just hours later after his decisive victories, Biden avoided directly jabbing at Trump, opting instead to appear above the fray – at least for the moment.

“I know that we as a people are up to this challenge,” he said. “I know that we will answer this moment of crisis with what is best in ourselves — because that’s what Americans have always done. That’s who we are.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.



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