Here’s the new situation. We’re all struggling to think about the Democratic primary, let alone talk about it. We’re too busy trying to stay alive, keep our loved ones safe, and adjust to what may be an entire election season in lock-down. Some are already grieving a person lost to coronavirus. Soon, we’ll all be grieving. All the campaigns seem small in this context. We’re not sure there will even be an election. Primaries have been postponed. Active campaigning is on hold.
These days, if we talk about politics at all, it is to rail against Trump’s terrible handling of the coronavirus crisis. He has, once again, united us in our outrage. But this will be his winning card. If we expend our energy denouncing Trump who will never change, then we use up the diminishing reserves we need to defeat him.
So, beyond the therapeutic rants we all sometimes need, let’s not talk about Trump’s latest cruel or stupid remark, his latest act of injustice. This would be to waste our time. This would be to confer on him an importance he has never earned. Instead, let’s talk about how to beat him. Let’s talk about the Democratic primary and the election to follow. And in all of this, the first pressing topic is Joe Biden. We need to talk about Joe.
Apart from a few ineffectual appearances, Biden has been consigned to his basement. Arguably, this is the safest place for a candidate whose campaign has been hampered not only by the virus, but by ineptitude and gaffes. In a sense, the emergency has laid bare the nature of Biden’s campaign. He has nothing, other than the fact that he represents the status quo and can save the Party from Bernie Sanders.
Writing in Politico, Rich Lowry has called Biden the “cipher presidential candidate: Biden is winning the Democratic nomination on the basis of not being Bernie Sanders and wants to get elected president on the basis of not being Donald Trump.”
This has been the case throughout the campaign. However, three new factors are now in play, each of which should encourage our renewed attention to the Democratic race:
The first is that Biden is facing new, and far more serious, sexual assault allegations from Tara Reade, a former staff assistant. Apart from a report in Newsweek, Reade’s story has received little attention by the mainstream press. We have yet to know how this will play out, but certainly for many women who have supported the Me Too and Time’s Up movements, this is a difficult moment.
Right now, all Democrats (including Biden supporters) need to consider the following questions: Have you always said that Trump’s predatory behaviour should be addressed? Did you not demand that Christine Blasey Ford be heard? Do you support women’s right to be heard? If any of these is true of you, man or woman, then where is your insistence that Tara Reade’s allegation be heard? Sadly, we should never have got to this point — because to set our moral compass in relation to Biden, all we needed was to utter the name Anita Hill. Or watch a few of the numerous clips showing Biden’s inappropriate behaviour towards women and girls. That should have been enough. As it was not enough, Reade’s testimony is now roaring up in the fast lane to remind us.
Second, there is a fairy dust of wishful thinking currently being sprinkled on New York Governor Cuomo. Ordinary voters and media pundits are wondering aloud whether Biden might drop out, allowing for an anointment of Cuomo, coronavirus superhero. I see the attraction. In his daily press briefings, he has been truly impressive. Smart, plain speaking, effective and compassionate. Cuomo is acting like the crisis leader of our imaginations. Perhaps not quite FDR or Jed Bartlet, but certainly the best anti-Trump available in these troubled times.
But leaders are funny things. And when we find ourselves longing for a strong leader — this is when we should be most suspicious of ourselves and of those who would lead us. Historically, as we all know, our collective desire for strong leaders in times of uncertainty — well this does not always end well. This doesn’t mean Cuomo would be a bad candidate. But it does mean he should be scrutinized as closely as any other. The man is not his press briefings alone.
So even if we set aside that Cuomo is not actually in the race and has not taken part in the primaries, let’s remember that he is as committed as ever to slashing Medicaid. His handling and treatment of the New York prison population has been severely criticized, and despite the public health danger of this moment, he continues to fight New York’s newly won bail reforms. Finally, Cuomo’s involvement with the notorious Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) has also been well documented. We forget at our peril that this group caucused with Republicans to stand in the way of progressive change in the state of New York, most notably single payer healthcare and the DREAM Act. Susan Kang, an associate professor of political science and one of the founders of No IDC NY, has stated that “Cuomo made sure not much reform got through” during the period of IDC activity.
So yes, these are good press briefings, the kind we wish Trump might give. But let’s not confuse good television with a good candidacy. And if we have learned anything from 2016, let’s not fall for the promise of a strong leader. Perhaps what we need most, in this crisis, is to seek the promise in ourselves. In our collective capacity for goodness, mutual aid, debate, and co-operative solutions to local and global problems. I would rather cede power to that collective promise than to a single leader. It is for that reason that I prefer the only candidate with a genuine grassroots movement behind him and who constantly reminds us that Not Me Us — is more than a campaign slogan.
The reason Bernie Sanders would make a good leader is because leadership per se does not interest him. This is not to say he is incapable of leading when required. But it is to say that he sees democratic participation and civic responsibility as high on the agenda of any Sanders presidency. Think of it as a reworking — for our times — of Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you” statement. Do we want to be part of the change we so desperately need? Have a voice? Take responsibility? Take joy in the change when it comes because we helped bring it about? Or do we take the risk - after the disaster of 2016 - of either no change at all, or yet another leader who won’t welcome our participation?
Third, and here’s the most immediately pressing of the three factors. The pandemic should erase any remaining doubts that the US system of private, insurance-based healthcare is hopelessly inadequate, unjust, and a danger to us all. Not only is it fragmented and profit-driven and therefore, ill-equipped to generate a coherent and effective response to the crisis, but it leaves 30 million Americans uninsured. That number will surely grow dramatically as the pandemic-related recession takes hold. For years, Bernie Sanders has been warning of the kind of tragedy that is currently unfolding before our eyes and that will touch many of us before it’s done. And Sanders is the only candidate clearly committed to doing something about it.
I’ve been supporting Sanders all along, as the reader will have easily guessed. But it’s almost laughable to find Biden backers currently insisting that Bernie withdraw from the race, and that his supporters fall in line behind Biden. The latest ABC News/Washington post poll reveals that only 24% of Biden supporters show “strong enthusiasm” for him, the lowest on record for a Democratic presidential candidate. Trump, despite his appalling behaviour at every stage of this crisis, enjoys a 53% rating in the same category.
Bernie should stay in the race. Insist on debates. Insist that every primary be held when it is safe to do so. Biden needs to be challenged. And the public needs another chance — in these coronavirus times — to consider the best way through this crisis, the meaning of leadership itself, and the way forward for our healthcare system and the country.
Stay safe, everyone. And stay home. But we can still be hopeful and active participants in these dangerous times.