Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders Take On Coronavirus, Trump

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In the US News & World Report, Susan Milligan reports on the unique upcoming challenges of campaigning without an audience.  Though the Democrats are saying that the White House has not done enough to prohibit the spread of coronavirus…let’s get real.  Citizens that travel to China and other problematic regions need to be held responsible, and accountable, on their own.  Also, if Congress did not tie-up attacks of impeachment as the main issue of the country over the last six months then maybe precautions could have been put in place.  Here’s the report:

There will be no glad-handing, no bragging about the many thousands of people packing a room to see a candidate speak. Town halls are going virtual. And crisis management is no longer just a public relations speciality for disgraced corporate leaders or celebrities; it’s become a critical test over who has the temperament to lead a fearful and anxious nation.

This is the year of the Coronavirus Campaign, in which all the plans and strategies developed by political campaigns are being tossed off as candidates figure out how to address both the public health crisis and the financial fallout from it. Not only will presidential hopefuls need to convince Americans they are best to handle a still-worsening pandemic, but they’ll have to come up with ways to market those plans to voters.

That’s hard to do when candidates can’t shake hands or hold the big campaign rallies that energize voters and get widespread media coverage to reach a wider audience.

“What’s going to fundamentally change moving forward in these coronavirus times for the two to three remaining candidates – and maybe eventually their running mates and spouses – is the size of the venue and the live audience and the means by which voters see the event,” says political media strategist Steve Rabinowitz.

When Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign was flailing amid a scandal over a past affair and questions about Clinton’s avoidance of the Vietnam War draft, Rabinowitz was one of the architects of Clinton’s town hall meeting strategy, where the candidate avoided media questions and took his case directly to the people.

That approach has worked for many candidates since, especially former Vice President Joe Biden, who tends to connect more with voters when he discusses a personal struggle with an individual. President Donald Trump, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, meanwhile, feed off the high energy of their massive crowds.

Those are no longer options, Rabinowitz and other campaign experts say.

“It’s an interesting question – how do you campaign for public office and remove the public?” says Mitchell S. McKinney, professor of political communication at the University of Missouri. “I do think we are going to see a somewhat more manufactured kind of campaigning,” he says, noting that voters will start to think poorly of candidates who reject public health professionals’ entreaties to avoid personal contact such as handshakes.

Rabinowitz says that “from now on, the candidates are going to have to shrink the size of their venues and their live audiences and start bringing their events directly to the voters live, and no longer wait for the networks or other media to package their events for them as news.”

Already, Sanders and Biden canceled primary election night rallies in Ohio earlier this week. The Biden campaign has turned a Chicago rally planned for Friday into a virtual town hall; a Miami event scheduled for Monday is also expected to go virtual.

The Trump campaign canceled events in Nevada and Colorado, as well as a “Catholics for Trump” event set for March 19 in Milwaukee, which the campaign said would be rescheduled. The Democratic debate set for Sunday has been moved from a Phoenix downtown theater to a CNN studio in Washington, D.C. – with no in-person audience.

Trump in particular revels in the adoration of his crowds and seems uncomfortable in the stodgier events endemic to the presidency (such as his much-criticized Oval Office address on the coronavirus Wednesday night). Skipping the big events could cramp his style, says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “That’s his schtick. He’s P.T. Barnum, and P.T Barnum doesn’t have an audience” as long as the virus remains a threat, Fenn says.

But Trump faces more serious challenges than losing his pep rallies, political analysts say. The twin troubles of the pandemic and the ensuing economic hit are testing his leadership and ability to handle a crisis – and the early grades aren’t good.

Trump, whose campaign and governing style has meant being constantly on the offense (and even deliberately offensive) is now playing defense, faced with a crisis he did not anticipate and seems flummoxed at managing. At his stiffly delivered Oval Office address Wednesday night, Trump offered no plan forward for expanded testing for the virus. Three statements in Trump’s prepared speech had to be corrected by the White House that very evening.

Both Biden and Sanders followed Thursday with more measured and detailed approaches to the crisis, seeking to appear more presidential than the man who has the job now. Biden offered an immediate plan to expand testing, develop a vaccine and provide financial relief to vulnerable groups. Sanders used the occasion to call for universal health care as well as paid sick leave. Both men slammed Trump for what they dubbed his incompetence in the crisis.

The president proudly dismantled much of what he called the “deep state,” claiming he was “draining the swamp” of longtime government employees. But it’s that team of experts who are so desperately needed to handle a fast-moving crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, says University of Chicago political science professor William Howell.

“He’s hollowed out the administrative state. He’s disparaged science. What we’re seeing now is the cost associated with those choices,” Howell says.

Democratic consultant Mark Mellman said Americans aren’t rallying behind the president, as they often do in a national crisis, because they believe Trump has badly mishandled it.

“Whatever you thought of George W. Bush or John F. Kennedy, they had no direct responsibility for 9/11 or the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Mellman says. “But it’s not so hard to attribute some responsibility for this situation with (coronavirus) to Trump and his failures. From the get-go, people have been critical of the way Trump has handled this, and rightly so.”

And aside from the spread of the illness, Trump has to deal with the possibility of a recession. “One of the things that was key to part of Trump’s coalition was the chunk of nose-holders out there who said, ‘We may not align with him personally but support him because of the strength of the economy,'” says GOP strategist Kevin Madden. If the economy goes into a downward spiral ahead of the election, it will be

difficult to hold together that coalition, he adds.

Democrats, however, say they will unify behind whichever contender gets the nomination.

“A month ago I might have said whoever the nominee is of the party we will enthusiastically embrace,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, told reporters Thursday. Not anymore, she added – an “Eastern bow,” with no physical contact, is better.

  • 03/13/20
  • Susan Milligan