Biden vs. Sanders: Coronavirus edition
The economy may be falling apart — perhaps permanently — but if there is a sliver of a bright side to the coronavirus panic that now dominates our lives, it's that it has brought clarity: President Trump is failing the biggest test of his administration, demonstrating with every panicked tweet that he has no idea how to respond to the emergency before us.
At this point, there are two viable alternatives to Trump: Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe Biden. The intra-Democratic warfare between the two has come to a head as the party's field of candidates has narrowed, but this is another area where coronavirus has thrown the contest into sharp relief. Once you decide on the biggest problem with the Trump administration's response to the outbreak, it is pretty easy to decide which Democrat deserves your vote more.
If you believe the president should be the comforter-in-chief, Biden is your man. If you want the president to be a master of policy, pick Bernie.
Many observers might scoff at the former proposition, but the truth is that the president sets the tone for the nation in times of trouble — and it matters. Franklin Roosevelt calmed America during the Great Depression by telling citizens that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Jimmy Carter's ill-named "malaise speech," though, didn't offer much relief to the country's "crisis of confidence" during the energy crisis of the 1970s. Even George W. Bush, who could be maladroit in so many ways, managed — briefly — to inspire confidence during the early days after 9/11: For reasons that frankly remain beyond my understanding, his first pitch at the World Series that fall was seen as a milestone in the nation's recovery from the attacks. ESPN made a documentary about it. Journalists still interview him about it. It mattered.
President Trump doesn't possess the ability to inspire confidence. We have known this a long time, but his flailing reaction to Monday's stock market drop — tweets decrying "fake news!" and casting blame while making time to troll Democratic politics — suggested the terror of a man coming to realize he had reached the limits of what his one-dimensional shtick can accomplish. Trump can't calm the nation, since his own fears are made manifest in his compulsive tweeting — he is Captain Queeg, surrounded by storms and muttering about stolen strawberries.
Trump's messaging, if anything, might well be making things worse. It matters.
Joe Biden has a great many weaknesses. His campaign isn't really built on a policy agenda — instead it is built on the idea of his personal decency, on his ability to Make America Kind of Stable Again after four years of Trump's insults and constant drama. He is great at person-to-person shows of decency; there are unending stories of times when, say, he gave his personal cell phone number to a grieving mother and urged her to call him if she needed anything. "He has a morality, an empathy about him," one voter said after such an encounter.
It seems likely that, in a crisis, Biden would at least be a steadying presence. As President Trump's foibles show, that's not nothing.
On the other hand, the arrival of the coronavirus outbreak has also certainly highlighted the holes in America's social policy. Europeans are taking paid sick leave and don't have to worry about drowning in medical bills if they do come down with the virus. Here, though, millions of workers are in growing danger of missing a paycheck or sinking deeply into debt if they require medical care.
Again, President Trump is obviously not the man to solve these problems. His approach to health care has been to undermine the Affordable Care Act and to promise Americans he'll give them something even better, but failing completely and utterly to deliver. His most-recent proposed budget, in fact, makes deep cuts to safety net programs. If Trump is lousy at giving comfort, he is even worse at passing legislation that improves the lives of citizens who aren't already rich.
Nobody will mistake Bernie Sanders for soft and cuddly. But he does have a plan — you may have heard something about this — to ensure that all Americans have affordable access to health care. Can he actually get it passed? I have been skeptical. But the coronavirus outbreak could change everything. If you're a voter under 40 — somebody whose adult economic life has been almost entirely shaped by the Great Recession of 2008 and everything that came after — there are good reasons you might be amenable to Sanders' brand of democratic socialism and skeptical of a comforter in chief with a bias towards reinforcing institutions that need to be held accountable. Obama, after all, was nothing if not an inspiring public presence.
If the coronavirus ends up creating a second massive economic shock just a few years later, all bets are off. Capitalism has to prove to a new generation that it is better than the alternatives. So far, it has failed to do so.
It matters that a president offers a steady, comforting presence to the nation. It also matters that a president is prepared to take the right actions to shield Americans from the fallout of disaster, where possible. Joe Biden offers the former possibility; Bernie Sanders is enthusiastic about attempting the latter. The coronavirus outbreak makes the stakes clear. Vote accordingly.
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