A genuine national emergency has broken out in a presidential election year. The Trump administration’s handling of that emergency has been disastrous, beginning with its glaring failure to track and contain the coronavirus before it spread across the entire nation and continuing to the present, with the president routinely making wildly inaccurate and irresponsible claims on national television, including one that directly led to the death of an American by drug overdose.
Among the current campaigns for the presidency, some see the coronavirus as an opportunity and seek every day to get their candidate on the news—to spread his message and demonstrate his leadership. But only one campaign seems determined not to “politicize” the pandemic, as though aggressive criticism of the president would somehow be unseemly.
You may have caught on by now that the campaign refusing to assign blame for this ongoing catastrophe is that of Democrat Joe Biden. Indeed, his strategy seems to boil down to waiting to see how this crisis plays out.
That, at least, is the impression one is left with after reading stories like this one, in Politico, on how the coronavirus outbreak has “scrambled” the presidential election. Some of the Democrats quoted in the piece almost seemed to want to take the race out of Biden’s hands entirely:
Biden, said Darry Sragow, a longtime California Democratic strategist, “has no control over this at all.”
“To me, it’s like you’re in a bar and a brawl breaks out,” Sragow said. “You’ve got to park your immediate instinct. You have no control over the immediate outcome of the brawl.”
This analogy falls apart when you remember that Biden’s ostensible goal is to convince everyone in the bar that he would do a better job of winning the brawl—against an opponent threatening to kill every patron—than a person who is currently fighting in it.
Biden is simply asking, without wishing to look like he is undermining the brawler, that he brawl with more intelligence. He is ducking behind the bar, offering constructive criticism.
An electoral strategy of declining to attack your opponent for failing to contain a crisis that has already taken thousands of lives may seem counterintuitive, but it is very much intentional. As my colleague Osita Nwanevu has written, the Biden campaign seems to be worried that Americans will “rally round the flag,” juicing Trump’s approval ratings and making it politically dangerous to criticize him. (As usual, Democratic strategists are treating “public opinion” as a natural phenomenon, not something campaigns could affect if they tried.)
But that sense of paralysis—of not knowing how or whether to criticize the president for not taking the warning signs seriously enough back when he could have limited the spread of the coronavirus—is also the inevitable result of decades of capitulation and learned helplessness. A generation of Democrats have ceded ground to the other side at every crisis point, somehow coming to believe it would be either gauche or counterproductive to try to take advantage of one.
A remarkably clear example of that tendency can be found in an ad that won plaudits on Twitter last week for its imagined efficacy. It was the work of the fittingly named pro-Biden super PAC Unite the Country. “Crisis comes to every presidency,” the narrator intones over shots of first George H.W. Bush, then Barack Obama in the situation room (with Biden alongside him), and then, for some reason, George W. Bush holding the bullhorn in the wreckage of the World Trade Center, and, finally, Ronald Reagan. “We don’t blame them for that,” the narrator continues. “What matters is how they handle it.”
In its cringing attempt to assign some responsibility to the president without seeming to blame him (or, in other words, to do politics), and in its implied absolution of how Republican presidents going back to Reagan mishandled their own crises, the ad exposes a generation of Democratic timidity. The people who scripted the line “Donald Trump didn’t create coronavirus” are either terrified of fact-checkers or convinced there is a vast swath of the electorate that will reward a campaign for being scrupulously fair in an attack ad. (Likely both.)
The shot of Reagan brought to mind a now largely forgotten moment in the 2016 presidential contest. In an interview at Nancy Reagan’s funeral, Hillary Clinton mentioned the late first lady’s history of medical research advocacy. Completely unprompted, she offered praise for both of the Reagans’ work on the HIV/AIDs epidemic. “Because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular, Mrs. Reagan, we started national conversation when before no one would talk about it, no one wanted to do anything about it,” Clinton claimed, “and that, too, is something that I really appreciated, with her very effective, low-key advocacy.”
This, as anyone who remembers the 1980s (as Hillary Clinton undoubtedly does) could tell you, is utterly unmoored from reality. It bears no resemblance to the public record.
The campaign clarified, unclarifyingly, that Clinton “misspoke,” but if it was just meaningless laudatory vamping, it was also telling: The desire among some Democrats to welcome Republicans as responsible governing partners is so powerful that it literally causes them to misremember history they lived through.
So we come to a point when Joe Biden—who last year said he’d take Trump “behind the gym and beat the hell out of him” if they were in high school—now expresses what sounds like hope that Trump’s poll numbers will rise, because he believes that this will finally spur our singularly irresponsible president to act responsibly.
Politics is about voter education as much as it is about persuasion, and if Trump’s approval is rising, it is in part because the people who are supposed to oppose him are not explaining how he—and the movement he leads—created this worsening disaster. You can draw a line between Reagan’s response to a killer epidemic and Trump’s response now. But rather than telling that story and running against conservatism as a whole, Democrats only ever promise to defeat conservatism’s current avatar, who, they say, is betraying the legacy of the last one, who, whatever you thought of him, at least had his principles.
The Biden campaign was premised on Trump’s special unsuitability for the job and Biden’s supposed special fitness to put us back on our former track. There were no larger issues at play. Now, instead of spending every day in an empty Target parking lot demanding to know where the tests Trump promised weeks ago are, Joe Biden is (I am not making this up) planning to try to call the president to give him some leadership tips.
Before he faced a truly national crisis, Trump was, to Joe Biden, a “threat to this nation … unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.” Now that he’s simply another incompetent Republican president whose inept disaster preparedness and response will kill untold thousands, we have, apparently, the promised return to normalcy.