For many Democrats, it’s the election of a lifetime. Yet the question preoccupying the party for several days this month was whether their presumptive presidential nominee, Joe Biden, could get the webcast working in his rec room.
It was a telling obsession, one that revealed the extent of the party’s anxiety as it comes to a nail-biting conclusion: Despite all the arguments Democrats have crafted and all the evidence they have amassed against Donald Trump, his reelection is likely to rise or fall on his handling of the coronavirus crisis and its fallout alone.
“It’s the most dramatic example I can think of in my lifetime about how you cannot control the agenda,” said Les Francis, a Democratic strategist and former deputy White House chief of staff in the Carter administration.
“If life were fair,” he said, Trump would already be paying a price for his chaotic handling of the pandemic. Instead, the president’s approval rating has not taken a hit, and the dominant images are of him “at the podium in the White House, quote, in charge,” Francis said. “If those stick and they’re not countered effectively, he could get reelected.”
The effect of the coronavirus on Trump’s popularity will not become clear for weeks or months. But the pandemic’s impact on the Democratic Party has already been severe. Primary elections are being postponed, allowing Bernie Sanders to linger in the race and delay until June the ability of Biden to mathematically clinch the nomination and fully turn his focus to Trump.
At a minimum, the pandemic is shortening the time frame with which Democrats will run their fall campaign.
The public’s unbreakable focus on the virus is narrowing the range of issues on which Democrats can effectively draw contrasts with Trump — temporarily sidelining a broader agenda involving once-pressing issues such as climate change and gun control.
“It was always going to be a referendum on Trump,” said Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2004. “But the referendum was going to be about things like climate change and how you want to reform health care and all these other things. Now it’s only going to be about this one thing — whether Trump is competent and sane.”
Trump, he said, is “a deeply disturbed narcissist who is incapable of being a leader, and that’s what the referendum is going to be on.”
Most Democratic strategists believe, like Dean, that Trump’s reelection prospects will be diminished by the pandemic, with its rising death toll and ruinous effect on the economy. But the general election is more than seven months away and Trump’s public approval rating has ticked up as the coronavirus has spread — though not nearly as high as the last Republican president, George W. Bush, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks,
Scott Brennan, an Iowa Democratic National Committee member and a former state party chairman, said, “If the economy pops back … it’s hard to know what people are going to think.”
In an effort to influence those voters, Biden has resolved the technological difficulties that marred his earliest appearances from his home in Wilmington, Del. He is now making regular appearances, via webcast, to speak about the coronavirus pandemic, including town hall meetings and a rush of TV interviews.
But the effectiveness of his counterprogramming is unclear, as Biden competes for attention not only with Trump, but with high-profile Democratic governors such as California’s Gavin Newsom, New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, who — unlike Biden — are sitting executives involved in the coronavirus response.
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.”
One problem for Democrats is that the nation’s battle with coronavirus — and Trump’s position at the center of it — may go on for months. The party’s marquee political event, the Democratic National Convention, scheduled for July, is the subject of contingency planning in case the coronavirus still precludes large crowds from gathering. DNC officials said last week that planning is moving forward for the Milwaukee event. But many Democrats are doubtful — and fearful of a worst-case scenario in which the pandemic upends the Democratic convention, but not the Republican gathering the following month.
“It matters for this reason,” said Bob Mulholland, a DNC member from California. “That Thursday night speech by our nominee could be seen by 50 to 60 million Americans, most of them who haven’t paid a minute of attention to the primary. That’s the conversation that takes us to winning.”
He said, “If we have to cancel and Trump has a convention with 40,000 people screaming and yelling … that’s an advantage to Trump, because nobody saw us except some text they got, and then they watched Trump.”
Jay Jacobs, chairman of the New York Democratic Party, suggested last week that Democrats should at least consider putting their convention off until late August. Even if the coronavirus pandemic has eased by late spring, he said, “everybody’s going to be absolutely exhausted.”
At a minimum, the pandemic is shortening the time frame with which Democrats will run their fall campaign. And it is changing expectations about the resonance of any issue other than the coronavirus.
Advocates of “Medicare for All” have seized on the pandemic as a way to highlight their concerns about health care. Gun control activists have drawn connections to the crisis, raising alarms about domestic violence and unsafe gun storage with Americans spending far more hours at home. Climate change activists have advanced the “Green New Deal” as a tool for economic recovery, while also pointing to the world’s massive response to the coronavirus as a template for climate mobilization.
Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun control group Giffords, said gun control — which was once a major focus of the Democratic primary — is “baked into our politics and our culture in a way that’s not going to evaporate.”
“I do think it’s important at a time like this for people who care about climate to keep on fighting for climate change solutions, because that challenge isn’t going to go away, the people who care about immigration reform to keep on having that conversation because clearly our immigration system is in need of reform, and likewise when it comes to gun violence,” he said.
Yet there’s little evidence to date that the coronavirus crisis is altering those debates in a material way.
As one strategist who has worked on climate change for several years said, “None of that stuff is happening right now. … It looks tone deaf to not be focused on the thing that’s gripping and changing people’s lives in a once-in-a-lifetime way.”
Mathew Littman, a former Biden speechwriter and the executive director of a new pro-Biden super PAC, Win the West, said in 2016, “Hillary [versus] Trump was, for lack of a better term, exciting.”
This year, he said, “No one is looking at this point for the most exciting race to take place between Biden and Trump. They’re just looking for a really competent leader. … It’s like being in a war. When that happens, if an asteroid hits the Earth, other issues go out the window. This is where we are as a country.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that when Democrats coalesced around Biden in South Carolina, the message “from the backbone of the Democratic Party” was that “before you move ahead, you have to stabilize that which we used to have, including government that is not only competent in a crisis, but doesn’t default to racism and xenophobia.”
Concerns about other issues, she said, will persist within the Democratic Party. “But people need to feel safe, first and foremost,” she said, “before they feel bold.”