Cuomo Rising, Biden WanderingMarch 26, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the nation’s health, economy, and presidential election up in the air. Until the virus struck and the nation shut down, President Trump was a strong favorite to win a second term. The betting markets put his odds at close to 60%.
Those odds are about even now, and changing by the day. They depend on how well Trump and his aides handle the health crisis, the economic reopening, and the massive dislocations workers and firms will suffer. Right now, the public approves of what Trump is doing. But today’s polls matter far less than what the public thinks after the crisis subsides.
Older models of election forecasting, developed and tested over the years, tell us it is very hard for a president to win reelection during a recession. And one is now likely this summer, economists say.
But those old election models may prove irrelevant this year. This shutdown and its economic impact are truly unprecedented, and swing voters understand that. It is clear even to media outlets that openly loathe the president -- The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, and CNN, for example -- that no administration could have avoided this shutdown. It was caused by devastating foreign shocks, beginning with the outbreak of the virus in a wet market in Wuhan, China. The virus was transmitted by travelers from China and then travelers from Europe who had been infected by those from China. The Chinese Communist Party is directly responsible for this crisis, not because its leaders wanted to spread an infection but because they wanted to keep it secret to preserve their domestic control.
Still, the Trump administration will be held accountable for how it handles the crisis, and rightly so. Was it swift and competent? How did it manage the economic reboot, which must begin before the contagion is gone? If there is a second wave of infections because we threw open the doors too soon, decision-makers will face the fury.
In a few weeks, if the crisis ebbs, voters and pundits will begin to ask more pointed, partisan questions: Could some victims have been saved if the administration, governors, or public health agencies had acted sooner? Did the stimulus package relieve financial pressures on the most vulnerable? Was it too big, too small, or misdirected? Did businesses die that could have been saved? Did we bail out fat cats who didn’t deserve it? Did the economy reopen too soon -- or too late? Did our political leaders play partisan games in a time of national crisis? The answers, plus the strength of the economic rebound, will determine Trump’s fate and that of his party this November.
In that contest, Trump has two tremendous advantages. One is incumbency. The other is that he is very likely to face Joe Biden. The former vice president has effectively sewed up the nomination, barring some dramatic, unexpected event. Unfortunately for Democrats, Biden has seemed utterly irrelevant during this crisis. Worse, he has resurrected his familiar image as the bumbling Mr. Magoo, the image he had before Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) performed life-saving CPR on his campaign just before the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday.
Once Biden built a prohibitive delegate lead, he became nominal head of his party, or at least the co-head alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. While Pelosi and Schumer worked behind the scenes, making legislative sausage, Biden had a golden moment to show his stature, competence, and gravitas. He failed. He couldn’t show them because he doesn’t have them.
Nor does he have administrative experience. He’s a talker, not a doer. Alas, when his time came to talk, he literally couldn’t find the teleprompter. His media team, showing their own incompetence, didn’t pre-tape that humiliating opening. That self-inflicted "pie in the face" wasn’t his first. It came days after Biden’s live question-and-answer episode, when he faced sideways and then wandered off camera. It was not a good look. Biden seemed less like a commanding, presidential figure and more like someone mom and dad referred to when they said, “Kids, come on now, it’s time for us all to go visit Uncle Joe where he’s living now.”
The Democrats’ emerging leader on the ground is Gov. Andrew Cuomo. New York City and its environs are currently the contagion’s epicenter, and Cuomo has looked calm, informed, and trustworthy during the crisis.
Cuomo’s rise is an unalloyed benefit for his state and the nation’s largest city, but it is not an unalloyed benefit for his party. To almost any sentient observer, it looks like the Democrats have picked the wrong guy to oppose Trump this fall. But the Democrats have painted themselves into a corner. They can’t simply stride out across the wet paint now that Biden has effectively won the nomination. He won it in open primaries, with settled rules, and there’s no way to change them.
Biden won’t offer the party an easy escape. He won’t suddenly renounce the prize he has sought his entire adult life. And even if Uncle Joe woke up with a horse’s head in his bed and backed out, Bernie Sanders would say, “Hey, I’m next. No cutting in line.” In that unlikely scenario, the Democratic Party would undoubtedly reject the hardline socialist at their convention in Milwaukee, but doing so would enrage his staunch supporters and fracture the party unity necessary to defeat Trump.
So why not nominate Cuomo for vice president and hint that Biden would step aside after one term? That’s certainly possible, but it risks a fatal head-on collision with the Democrats’ deep commitment to identity politics. A Biden-Cuomo ticket would be made up of -- gasp -- two older white men. Where is the woman on that ticket? Where is the African American? How exactly did they get pushed aside in a party that is built upon the rock (or is it sand?) of identity politics? Moreover, Biden has actually promised, in public and on tape, that he will select a woman for his running mate. Cuomo walks into the wrong bathroom.
For Biden to jettison his gender-based promise is more than a matter of flip-flopping. Politicians do that all the time and sometimes get away with it. That’s not so easy this time because the excluded groups get a say -- in November. They might not vote for Trump, but they might not vote at all.
This election will ultimately hinge on how the Democrats solve the vexed problem of Biden’s weakness and how Trump solves the twin problems of public health and economic reemergence. The Democrats will try to make it a referendum on Trump. The president will say, “Look at the alternative. Good heavens, just look.”
Democrats must be wondering, as Cuomo rises and Biden bumbles, how they will answer that challenge.