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Joe Biden: First, Do No Harm

How do you run an insurgent campaign against an incumbent president in the middle of a global pandemic?
April 14, 2020
Joe Biden: First, Do No Harm
WILMINGTON, DELAWARE - APRIL 08: In this screengrab from , Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a Coronavirus Virtual Town Hall from his home on April 08, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Senator Bernie Sanders announced that he is dropping out of the Democratic presidential race leaving Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee. (Photo by via Getty Images)

So all-consuming is COVID-19 that Joe Biden often seems like a memory—fondly but faintly recalled. Those signals from his basement can barely be heard.

In times of national crisis, our president consumes our consciousness, his essence uncloaked. So it is now. Nightly, Donald Trump commits indecent self-exposure as Americans suffer, sicken, and die— increasingly unnerving his captive audience of millions with lying, preening, blame-shifting and bullying while spewing toxic insults and gaseous prognostications. Even the craven Wall Street Journal editorial board expresses unease.

A single question supersedes all: Can this man steer us to safety?

“Politically,” observes Chris Christie, “nothing else matters . . . I have never seen a time when an opponent is more irrelevant.”

For the moment, restive Democrats should accept that this is okay.

That the pandemic has given what Trump he most craves—our undivided attention—contains a merciless political judgement. The death toll continues to rise. Trump’s political firewall, the economy, is decimated by skyrocketing unemployment. More voters than not disapprove his handling of COVID-19 and, more menacing, his economic stewardship.

This is the reckoning Trump cannot escape. With considerable understatement, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg observes: “I don’t know if being the orchestrator of this each day is such a huge advantage if you’re facing . . . a health crisis, and the economy’s going to get worse.”

Increasingly, voters appreciate that Trump’s inhumanity and incompetence have triggered America’s collective punishment by pandemic.

This suffocating realization benefits Biden. Says Larry Sabato: “If ever there were a year when you might benefit from being invisible, it’s this one. Biden’s best chance of beating President Trump is being seen in some fashion—maybe just subliminally—on the ballot as Joseph ‘Not Trump’ Biden.”

Nonetheless, through multiple media forums Biden projects the empathy and capacity of a president-in-waiting unshackled from Trump’s pathology. In Sunday’s New York Times Biden reiterated detailed plans for confronting the pandemic, supplementing his proposals for the $2 trillion rescue package—thereby laying the foundation for criticizing Trump’s maladministration when more people are listening.

New polling shows Biden maintains an appreciable lead. Says Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, while the pandemic “means that Biden is not getting a ton of political oxygen [it] also means he is not taking incoming fire.” In this political twilight zone, it is pointless—even counterproductive—for Biden to prematurely unleash attacks best saved for the spotlight: Democratic Super-PACs are doing that well enough.

Nor need Biden compete for visibility with the newly-magnetic Andrew Cuomo. Unlike Biden, Cuomo’s job puts him in the crosshairs of COVID-19. By praising Cuomo for providing “a lesson in leadership,” Biden underscores that Democratic governors—including Cuomo, Gavin Newsom, Jay Inslee, and Gretchen Whitmer—are counter-examples to Trump who serve Biden’s message: Seizing responsibility is what leaders do.

Instead of desperately seeking attention, Biden is using this interregnum to finish his homework—including the immediate imperative of propitiating Bernie Sanders and his recalcitrant followers.

His calculus is complicated. By the end of politics-as-usual—four weeks ago—Biden had built a broad coalition of minority, suburban, and working-class voters whose passion for ousting Trump did not involve a “political revolution.” The question is how much COVID-19 has changed intra-party chemistry, and how far Biden must go to attract a critical mass of Sanders supporters even after winning the endorsement of Sanders himself.

For those who hated Hillary Clinton enough to gamble on Trump in 2016, not very far: as with many progressives, the lived experience of Trump overcomes all. It also helps that Sanders and Biden get along – among Biden’s advantages is that his peers truly like him.

But too many Sanders enthusiasts truly do not. Among them are young people soured by a gig economy, crushing student debt, and the dereliction which spawned climate change. Their despair often breeds a nihilism which casts Biden and Trump as fruits of the same poisonous tree.

In this space, compromise dies. As a condition of their support a coalition of progressive groups supporting Sanders has issued a list of demands which read like a ransom note. It is, in effect, an ultimatum requiring that Biden adopts Bernie’s agenda.

But that is not what Democratic primary voters endorsed, and complying could prove fatal to Biden in pivotal swing states. Indeed, such a stark capitulation would serve Trump by making Biden look feeble. The question is whether Sanders will help Biden meet his enthusiasts in that place called reality—one aspect of which is that Trump’s reelection could extinguish their hopes in perpetuity.

To that end, both camps have begun discussing key issues. The initial result is that Biden proposes to lower Medicare’s eligibility age to 60, and, more sweeping, to eliminate student debt for lower- and middle-income students at public or historically black colleges. These steps illuminate the current reality: however incrementally, only Biden can open a path toward the future Sanders wants.

But Biden’s involuntary confinement highlights another weakness which he must address before campaigning recommences: His potentially fatal dearth of financial and digital resources.

Financially, Biden has relied on the creaky mechanics of in-person fundraising, abruptly frozen by COVID-19. At the end of February, the Republican National Committee had $225 million; Biden $12 million. In the Atlantic, McKay Coppins detailed the billion-dollar digital disinformation campaign engineered to reelect Trump. By whatever means—including Michael Bloomberg—Biden must build the machinery to fight back.

Finally, Biden should use this space to internalize our altered landscape. COVID-19 has ruthlessly exposed America’s class system. As the rich retreat to vacation redoubts and the merely fortunate work from home without losing income, a phalanx of frequently underpaid healthcare workers, grocery clerks, shipping and delivery workers, postal employees, and public transit facilitators are suddenly deemed “essential” – and are.

Some serve because they wish to; others because they have no choice. All too many—and those who are dying or may die because of inadequate healthcare—are minorities. Not to mention the millions for whom work became impossible: The waiters, teachers, builders, household employees, hotel workers, dental hygienists, daycare providers. COVID-19 has illuminated their immense vulnerability and, inescapably, our need for each other.

For America—and for Biden—there is no turning back. Should this transitional figure find the transformative resolve this crisis requires, he can embody something finer than president by default.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.