Election 2020

With Biden Dominant and Coronavirus Rampant, Democratic 2020 Hopes Soar

Trump’s reelection prospects are looking dimmer—for the moment.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden at a rally in Detroit on Monday. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden walloped his last primary challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders, in key states during a second major round of primary voting on Tuesday, indicating he is taking command of a once-fractious Democratic Party even as the rampant coronavirus threatens to undercut President Donald Trump’s No. 1 argument for reelection: a strong U.S. economy.

For Democrats, their chances of taking back the White House now appear dramatically improved from only a few weeks ago, when the U.S. economy looked close to unstoppable and the party seemed more inclined to nominate Sanders—a fiery socialist who, the Democratic establishment feared, would alienate mainstream voters and hand the election to Trump.  

“It’s wild,” said Elaine Kamarck, the author of Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates and a former Clinton administration official. The danger to Trump’s electoral prospects is now “quite straightforward,” Kamarck told Foreign Policy in an interview. “As long as things were going well, we didn’t have any major foreign-policy crisis, didn’t have loads of body bags coming home, many people kind of liked Donald Trump. He was amusing. He spoke to their frustrations, their hostilities. But when things don’t go well you then look to your president for reassurance and competence, neither of which he can do.”

Though no politician would dare openly welcome a deadly epidemic that, as Trump lamented on Monday, has “blindsided the world,” Democratic strategists see an opportunity to expose Trump as uncaring and self-involved as well as unequal to the task of world leadership. And to cast Biden, who presents himself as a healer, as someone who can heal a global crisis in a way that Trump, whose tenure has been marked by vocal repudiation of global cooperation, may not be able to do.

The Trump Republicans “face a governance crisis that [until now] they have been able to avoid—unlike every president before,” Stanley Greenberg, a prominent Democratic pollster, said by email. “This exposes their hollowing out of government (including the White House office on pandemics), their inability to mobilize the government and country and unite; to mobilize international support—and they just look feckless and weak. Biden will look good by comparison—on top of the dynamics of a country that I believe is determined to repudiate” Trump.  

Even so, things could change again just as abruptly as they have in recent weeks. The spread of coronavirus could begin to slow—though experts say it will probably get much worse before it gets better—and Biden, who has enjoyed a rare several weeks without committing a major gaffe on the stump, could begin misspeaking again, his habit in the past. On Tuesday, continuing a habit of testy exchanges with supposed supporters, Biden was videotaped telling a worker in Detroit he was “full of shit” after the man accused Biden of wanting to “take away our guns.”

But Trump’s biggest challenge at the moment is that he has seesawed in his response to the coronavirus, appearing to play down its effects only a few days ago, calling it “fake news,” and even suggesting that the spread of the virus might have benefits, as Americans’ inability to travel comports with his neo-isolationist worldview. Trump also tweeted Monday that the plunge in oil prices, which many analysts say could lead to an economic slowdown, is “Good for the consumer, gasoline prices coming down!”

The president, however, was quickly propelled into action by a broad-based market collapse that suggested a recession could happen much more quickly than economists had anticipated, perhaps before the Nov. 3 election. 

On Tuesday, after promising “very major” economic relief during a brief appearance at a news conference the day before, Trump did not accompany his coronavirus task force to the White House briefing room. Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the task force, told reporters that Trump had gone earlier to Capitol Hill to push for a payroll tax cut and aid to small and medium-sized businesses so they can provide paid leave to workers affected by the virus.

Even some Republicans are skeptical about pushing tax cuts, however, and Trump remained vague about his plans following a midday meeting on the Hill. “I was just with the Republican senators and they were just about all there, mostly all there, and there’s a great feeling about doing a lot of the things,” he said.

Markets recovered somewhat on Tuesday on hopes that a fiscal stimulus might be forthcoming, and Democrats on Capitol Hill risk incurring voter enmity if they are seen as obstructing the president’s response to the coronavirus for political reasons. But analysts have suggested that, led by an unwavering Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat-dominated House may be unwilling to give major legislative relief to a president who has done little but level angry insults at members who only a few months ago voted to impeach him. 

And if the coronavirus outbreak grows dramatically worse in coming weeks, Trump will face renewed criticism that he has mismanaged it. The New York Times reported Tuesday that the government fumbled testing in the early days of the virus, and the president was criticized by his own former homeland security advisor, Tom Bossert, who told NBC News: We are 10 days from the hospitals getting creamed.”

Trump may also be discovering that the gulf of mistrust he has fomented between the United States and other nations including China in the past three years has cost him in international cooperation, which may be critical to stopping the spread of the virus. Apart from hinting at a ban on international travel to some infected countries such as China, South Korea, and Italy, Trump administration officials have said very little about coordinating responses with other nations, even major U.S. allies, over a fast-spreading virus that now has reached every continent except Antarctica.

What is critical for the president now is that he at least look leaderly, analysts say. “The disease can’t be blamed on Trump, so perceptions of his management of the pandemic will be crucial,” said Gary Jacobson, a scholar at the University of California, San Diego, who has tracked electoral data going back to the 1940s. “As long as there is any ambiguity, partisans’ reactions will be highly divergent and are likely to leave people’s attitudes toward Trump unchanged. But what will happen over the next nine months is very hard to predict; the biggest surprise would be no surprise.”

What is no longer surprising is that Biden is the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination. On Tuesday Biden decisively won the key battleground state of Michigan, the biggest delegate prize of the day, as well as Missouri, Mississippi, and Idaho, while Sanders took North Dakota. In a brief victory speech in Philadelphia late Tuesday night, Biden indicated he was planning to turn Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis into a major issue in the campaign, saying it “is a question of presidential leadership.” He said that Trump’s “America First” policy has meant in practice “America Alone.”

Analysts say Sanders botched his front-runner moment by not swiftly trying to assuage doubtful moderates after his big victories in New Hampshire and Nevada. He could have done so by disavowing the “socialist” label, tacking slightly away from his insistence on Medicare for All and no private insurance, and putting distance between himself and the rabid followers sometimes dubbed “Bernie Bros” who have viciously attacked other Democrats. Some leading Democrats, including Sanders’s progressive ally Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who dropped out of the race after Biden’s big Super Tuesday victory last week, have criticized the Vermont senator for failing to rein in the Bernie Bros. 

“Women in the Democratic Party are sick of this,” said Kamarck, who as a longtime member of the Democratic National Committee’s rules committee has found herself targeted as well. And women, Kamarck pointed out, make up around 55 percent of the electorate.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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