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Bernie or Joe?

March 3, 2020
Bernie or Joe?
Old and older. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

1. Biden

I’m not going to take a victory lap on Biden’s South Carolina victory except to say this: For months I kept saying that Biden could finish fourth in both Iowa and New Hampshire and still have a path to the nomination because nobody else except for Bernie was viable and Biden’s coalition wouldn’t be brought to bear until South Carolina.

And here we are.

But I also said this: There are two kind of races—momentum races and demographic races—and until we know which one 2020 is, there’s no way to know who’s going to be the nominee.

I would argue that the results so far indicate that we still don’t know which kind of race this is.

Bernie performed more or less as expected by his demographics in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. The one contest in which it appeared that momentum was making a difference for him was Nevada.

Biden, on the other hand, performed worse than expected in Iowa, but then about where you would have expected in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

So what will be see today?

My instinct is that we still won’t have a clear picture by the time we go to bed. Bernie will do very well in California and New England. Biden will do very well in the South. If I had to pick one race to watch in order to get a sense of whether momentum is at play, I’d say Virginia, because it has a mix of lots of different types of Democratic voters: African-Americans, college-educated suburbanites, union workers, and rural voters. There are no dense urban cores and not a lot of heavy industry, but it might be a pretty good bellwether.

I suspect we are on the way to a protracted battle for the soul of the Democratic party that pits two very different coalitions against one another:

African-Americans, union workers, and college educated suburbanites versus progressives, young Hispanics, and populist outsiders.

I don’t expect to have any real clarity on which side is going to win for some time.

2. Coronavirus

In a previous life I majored in molecular biology and spent some time interning in and around outcomes management and epidemiology, so I know a bit more about microbes and viral outbreaks than your average guy on the street.

We’ll have a piece at The Bulwark later this week by an actual doctor, but until then I want to make a couple points which I think are worth keeping in mind:

  • Don’t assume that Covid-19 is the beginning of the apocalypse.
  • Don’t underestimate the real damage that can be done by a non-apocalyptic outbreak.

We should pay attention because this is serious stuff, but we shouldn’t either panic or whistle past the graveyard.

There are three important factors in any viral outbreak:

(1) The R0, or the basic reproduction number, of the bug. The simple way to think about this is: For every person who is infected, how many people do they pass the bug on to?

(2) The mortality rate for the bug. Which is to say, for every 100 people who get it, how many die?

(3) The geographic origin of the bug. This is important because if a virus originates in a rural, out-of-the-way location, the medical community has time to study it, figure out disease protocols, and possibly even contain it. By contrast, if it starts out near a dense population center that is highly connected, it can break out quickly, leaving everyone trying to catch up with it.

When you look at Covid-19 along these three vectors, the news is mixed.

The R0 for coronavirus appears to be pretty high. We don’t know where it will settle, but estimates are well about 2.0 and as high as 3.5. Which means that the spread of the contagion is going to be very hard to stop.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the mortality rate is relatively low. By “relatively” I mean that the mortality rate for Covid-19 seems to be in the neighborhood of 1 percent to 2 percent. My educated guess is that this number will decrease as we discover that more people have already had it and survived. But let’s just leave the number where it is for a minute and get some perspective.

Remember the ebola outbreak of 2014? Ebola’s fatality rate is upwards of 90 percent. Which makes Covid-19 look like a walk in the park.

But only when compared to a monster bug like ebola.

Compared with other bugs, like the flu, where the mortality rate is closer to 0.5 percent, Covid-19 is much more dangerous.

And of course, the danger is not spread equally among populations. If you live in a developed country, your chances are better. If you are young and healthy, they get better still.

The problem is scale. If Covid-19 really does hit pandemic levels, then even a “low” mortality risk is going to kill a lot of people, especially among vulnerable populations, such as newborns, older folks, or people with compromised immune systems.

So while Covid-19 isn’t going to trigger an end-of-the-world zombie apocalypse—which is something ebola absolutely could have done—it could still cause a lot of misery and harm. Or it could burn out as the virus mutates in the wild into something less aggressive.

All of which is to say that we should keep a careful eye on the situation and don’t assume the worst, but don’t assume the best, either.

3. Institutions Die

This George Packer piece is absolutely worth your time:

When Donald Trump came into office, there was a sense that he would be outmatched by the vast government he had just inherited.

The new president was impetuous, bottomlessly ignorant, almost chemically inattentive, while the bureaucrats were seasoned, shrewd, protective of themselves and their institutions. They knew where the levers of power lay and how to use them or prevent the president from doing so. Trump’s White House was chaotic and vicious, unlike anything in American history, but it didn’t really matter as long as “the adults” were there to wait out the president’s impulses and deflect his worst ideas and discreetly pocket destructive orders lying around on his desk.

After three years, the adults have all left the room—saying just about nothing on their way out to alert the country to the peril—while Trump is still there. . . .

They also failed to appreciate the advanced decay of the Republican Party, which by 2016 was far gone in a nihilistic pursuit of power at all costs. They didn’t grasp the readiness of large numbers of Americans to accept, even relish, Trump’s contempt for democratic norms and basic decency. It took the arrival of such a leader to reveal how many things that had always seemed engraved in monumental stone turned out to depend on those flimsy norms, and how much the norms depended on public opinion. Their vanishing exposed the real power of the presidency. Legal precedent could be deleted with a keystroke; law enforcement’s independence from the White House was optional; the separation of powers turned out to be a gentleman’s agreement; transparent lies were more potent than solid facts. None of this was clear to the political class until Trump became president.

As Dick Wolfe might say, these are their stories. Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.