If you had asked any American back in January what would end up being the most important news event of the year, he or she would have confidently replied that it would be the 2020 election. Regardless of its eventual outcome, it seems almost certain that the novel coronavirus — and the almost total shutdown of American life that has accompanied it — will be remembered long after the particulars of when Elizabeth Warren or Mayor Pete (who?) dropped out of the primary race.
But the odd thing about the pandemic and the lockdowns is that they are not likely to change the terms on which this year’s presidential election are likely to be fought.
For President Trump, the 2020 election was always going to be about the economy. This was made clear during his State of the Union address in January, about half of which consisted of nothing but statistics. Most of these were — no pun intended — unimpeachable. Increased wages. Record-low unemployment, including for African-Americans. The stock market through the roof and still rising, ready to go to infinity and beyond. Everyone was either rich or on the way there. We’d never had it so good.
Now all of that is gone. In place of unrivaled prosperity, we have what looks very much like a second Great Depression on our hands. The sun is good, a storm is on the horizon. Trump is comfortable in this weather.
What about Democrats? Poll after poll suggested that it was not impeachment but health care that mattered most to Democratic primary voters. Now we are preparing for a general election that will likely end up being reduced to a question of wealth versus health. The president and his allies in the GOP will say that millions lost their jobs and thousands of businesses went under for no reason, while Democrats will argue (not wrongly) that there is something ghoulish about putting a price tag on human lives. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo says "if everything we do saves just one life, I'll be happy." In Texas, the Republican lieutenant governor Dan Patrick insists that senior citizens are willing to die to save the economy for their grandchildren. These are both absurd positions, but on either side they represent the extremes within which the debate is likely to take place.
It was not clear to me that health care was going to be a winning issue for Democrats before the pandemic. Certainly Joe Biden’s repeated assertions during televised debates that hundreds of millions of Americans “love” spending six hours arguing on the phone and figuring out the difference between United Bronze Advantage Plus and United Bronze Extra did not inspire a great deal of confidence.
If anything, it seems to me that the coronavirus has made running on health — in this case specifically on the value of the lockdown measures — an even more dangerous gambit. Regardless of what one thinks of their efficacy, it is undeniable that months from now when unemployment is in the double digits and everyone knows someone who lost a house or a business or a retirement portfolio during the lockdown, very few people will say to themselves, “Well, at least I didn’t die from a thing almost no one died from!” This would be true even if it were the case that “social distancing” had saved millions from certain death. It’s just human nature.
Trump is in a very good position here, rhetorically speaking. The president will try to argue that his prudent leadership saved millions of Americans from the threat of a deadly virus and that a corrupt expert class and their allies in the media and the Democratic Party bankrupted the country over something slightly less bad than the 2018 flu season. How can he possibly say both, you ask? Pshaw. This is what Trump always does. He was impeached, you might recall, for attempting to use millions of dollars in leverage available to him to investigate the activities of the Bidens in Ukraine, which is totally within the purview of his authority as president — and for demanding absolutely nothing during a "perfect phone call."
The amazing thing is that half the country will agree with him. Some will give thanks for Trump's sober life-preserving statesmanship, others will agree with him that it was another hoax from the Fake News Media and the Democrat Party; many will do both simultaneously. People are illogical, as capable of maintaining two mutually exclusive positions at the same time as the politicians they vote for.
What about the other supposedly important factors in the 2020 race? One thing that can be said with confidence is that Michigan, which was already considered a significant battleground state, will be an all-important bellwether this fall. Despite being the third hardest hit state in the country in terms of deaths with or from the new virus, there are signs that Michiganders are beginning to reject the wisdom of the lockdown, thanks no doubt to overreaching restrictions on the sale of paint and garden gnomes. Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor, says the new policy will save lives. Trump responds by tweeting "LIBERATE MICHIGAN." What will the mood be in November, when the public health crisis is over and the economic one likely still in its infancy?
The answer, much as in 2016, will come down to whether voters trust the man who once again will be promising to "Make America Great Again." We are stuck in a time loop.