But here’s a caution for the Democrats about coronavirus politics. Americans want calm and competence, but they also want decisive leadership. When people are scared (and the fear factor is just beginning), they want to know that their families will be safe. I’ve seen that phenomenon in war-ravaged countries around the world: Frightened people seek the protection of the strongest militia in town.
The Democrats certainly can be the haven of sanity and expertise in this storm. They’ve got those soft subjects covered. But do they have the toughness to power America through a political landscape that’s very different from what it looked like on Super Tuesday, which already seems a lifetime ago? This strong leadership style, the kind that can effectively manage a war economy, is what the Democrats need to sharpen during the hiatus.
Biden has coasted toward the nomination, propelled initially by the enthusiasm of African American voters, and then most everyone else in the party, because he appeared to have the right stuff — namely a seeming ability to beat President Trump. But a nagging question remained as Biden disappeared into lockdown in Delaware: Is this garrulous white-haired gent perhaps out of sync with a hyper-anxious nation in quarantine? Or is his Irish-grandpa manner just what the country needs?
Trump has often been at his worst during his near-daily coronavirus briefings. To his detractors, he looks vain, petty and sometimes downright deceitful. But it shouldn’t be surprising that even with these embarrassing performances, Gallup polling this week recorded Trump’s highest approval rating ever, with 49 percent support and 60 percent endorsing his handling of the pandemic threat. Any president commands loyalty in crisis; he’s the head of state, who symbolizes the country itself; we rally round as an act of solidarity.
But Trump’s current boost is reactive; it doesn’t mean that voters will reelect him as chief of our national tribe. Yes, hopefully, America does feel more like one tribe now, a country where we’re all in it together. That’s one of the Democrats’ challenges: to make sure that identity politics doesn’t get in the way of the politics of collective survival. Another test for Democrats is to make sure their critique of Trump isn’t so reflexive and vitriolic that it turns off folks who just want to get through this mess.
Who symbolizes the values of a nation that will triumph over the coronavirus? Atop our list of heroes these days are the doctors and nurses who are risking their lives to keep patients alive; the truck drivers who are bringing food to our grocery stores; and the checkout clerks who show up faithfully for work each day so that we all can stay fed.
Among our heroes, too, are the experts to whom we turn for their clear, competent guidance. When people look back on this time, I suspect they’ll remember Anthony S. Fauci and Deborah Birx more fondly than the man in front of them at the lectern (who seemed disappointed that a political rival didn’t get sick).
The Democrats should aim to be the party that celebrates working-class heroes and scientists alike: the party of faithful nurses, firefighters, truckers and clerks; and the experts’ party, too, that promotes fact-based climate science and global public health. There’s no contradiction; we’re all in service of a larger cause.
And the Democrats should be the fairness party as well. That’s their special advantage now. We can all see that we need a better, fairer national health system than the disorganized hospital-by-hospital free-for-all we have. People also understand, better than ever, that when crisis hits, everyone needs some income security.
The coronavirus could kill the age of populism, wrote Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal this week. But that won’t happen unless Biden and the Democrats can show they have the guts to get the job done — that they are the smart, tough managers who can keep the country alive and well.