The politics of a pandemic

(Los Angeles Times)

The general election contest began this week, and, oh, what a different campaign it is than either party envisioned just a few weeks ago.

As recently as the start of this month, Democrats faced questions about how they would run against President Trump during a period of steady economic growth, historically low unemployment and record stock market highs.

This week, the market hit a new record — the biggest single-day percentage drop in more than 30 years. As of Thursday’s close, the Dow Jones industrial average had retreated to the level of the spring of Trump’s first year in office, giving up nearly all the gains of the long bull market of which he has so often boasted.


All that could yet change between now and when voting gets underway, of course.

If the last few years have taught any lesson, it should be to not assume that life — or politics — will look the same in seven months as it does now. Still, there’s no question that at this point, the political landscape has changed in fundamental ways; the campaign will, as well.

Trump without the economy ...

The Democratic primary campaign hasn’t yet officially ended: Joe Biden has a lead of about 150 delegates over Sen. Bernie Sanders, but remains a long way from a majority, and Sanders plans to stay in the race at least through Sunday’s debate.

Still, there’s little doubt about the outcome after Sanders’ crushing loss in Michigan’s primary on Tuesday. “We are losing the debate over electability,” Sanders admitted Wednesday. As Biden showed in a speech Thursday, he has turned his focus to the general election.


Fittingly, Thursday’s speech focused on Trump’s response to the coronavirus, which Biden lambasted as slow, ineffective and rudderless. As Janet Hook wrote, Democrats believe the disease outbreak provides the perfect template for the theme around which Biden has built his campaign from the start — that he can provide steady, reassuring leadership for a country frightened by an erratic, chaotic incumbent.

How well voters will respond to that remains unknown. Predictably, many early responses to the epidemic have broken, like everything else these days, along partisan lines. Trump and his supporters have consistently minimized the danger from the virus, and many Republican voters have taken their cues from him. An Ipsos poll for USA Today, for example, showed that 63% of Democrats, but only 48% of Republicans, said they were washing their hands more often.

The geographic spread of the disease may heighten the partisan gap, at least initially. As with any new thing that enters the U.S. from overseas, the coronavirus has initially taken hold along the coasts — mostly Democratic territory — and has not yet had as much impact in the South and the interior Midwest.

That will begin changing over the next few weeks. Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine on Thursday ordered all schools in his state closed after the state health department reported that, although the state has only a handful of confirmed cases, roughly 100,000 Ohioans are likely already infected with the virus.


And, over time, reality does change people’s minds — perhaps not among the most committed backers of either party, but among the swing voters who determine the outcome of elections, even in these hyper-partisan times.

The most important realities will be the death toll from the new illness and the degree of economic disruption it causes. Both of those involve huge degrees of uncertainty.

However disruptive coronavirus has been so far, the spread of the illness has just started. The experience in other countries shows that the anticipated wave of hospitalizations, deaths and true economic disruption still lies ahead here and probably won’t peak for several weeks.

The worst-case scenarios involve a huge number of people all contracting the illness at once, with a sudden rise in hospitalizations that would overwhelm the country’s capacity for intensive care beds, ventilators and other hospital facilities. If that happens, well more than 1 million Americans could die of the disease, health experts have projected.


By contrast, if current public health efforts take hold, including restricting travel and dramatically reducing social interactions, they would slow the spread of the virus. That could prevent a spike of serious illness that would swamp the healthcare system, and the toll would be dramatically lessened. Even then, however, millions of people could still be sick, and the death toll almost surely will be multiples of the 12,000-60,000 who die annually from flu in the U.S.

The same range of possible outcomes affects economic forecasts. Some of the steps that could ease the medical situation could worsen the economy, at least in the short term: Widespread shutdowns of ordinary activity will dramatically slow consumer spending on travel, restaurant meals, and probably big-ticket items like appliance and cars, bringing on the slowdown that the stock market decline forecasts. Many economists believe that a recession — defined as at least two consecutive quarters of economic contraction — is now almost inevitable.

If a recession comes, its length and severity will depend both on the degree of damage to the economy and the policy response. Don Lee examined the pros and cons of several policy options.

Congressional Democrats and the administration are close to agreement on a bill that would provide emergency sick pay to many workers and pump more money into Medicaid, food stamps and unemployment insurance. As Jennifer Haberkorn and Sarah Wire reported, the House probably will vote on that package Friday, with the Senate poised to take it up next week. More action will almost surely be needed, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday.


Presidents get credit when the economy goes well and blame when it doesn’t. That’s to some extent irrational at both ends since, for all their power, no president truly controls the business cycle. But in the past half-century, two incumbents have sought reelection during a recession. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush are also the two incumbents who lost.

... but with immigration

The Democrats have made clear what their line of attack will be: As Biden showed, they’re poised to say that while Trump didn’t cause the coronavirus outbreak, he made it worse by cutting government agencies designed to deal with epidemics and by refusing to take the advice of health officials and act aggressively to counter the illness when he could.

What Biden offers voters, Doyle McManus wrote, is a return to normalcy.

Trump has also tipped his hand on his likely response: Portray the disease as a foreign threat.


In his address to the nation Wednesday night, Trump repeatedly used rhetoric of a foreign invasion to describe the virus, as Noah Bierman wrote. His main policy response was to ban Europeans from traveling to the U.S., blaming them for having “seeded” many of the disease outbreaks in this country.

The speech did nothing to calm markets — indeed it roiled them further, as Bierman and Eli Stokols wrote. But it did provide a preview of Trump’s likely path.

Since the first moments of his astonishing political rise, with his opening blast against Mexican rapists, Trump has campaigned against immigrants and foreigners. And, despite much talk about blue-collar workers voting for him because of economic distress, the overwhelming weight of evidence is that opposition to immigration, concern about the changing demographics of the country and a belief that white Americans face discrimination form the biggest factors in predicting a person’s support for Trump.

In 2018, faced with the prospect that Republicans would lose control of the House, Trump tried to turn the election into a referendum on the supposed threat of immigrant caravans moving north through Mexico — a specter that largely evaporated soon after the election.


In 2020, deprived of the chance to campaign on economic prosperity and a rising stock market, it’s near certain that he will return to the theme that has powered his rise.

That approach might not work. His effort failed spectacularly in 2018 as suburban voters turned against Trump in droves. But Democrats would be wise to avoid overconfidence: The history of epidemics is also a history of xenophobia.

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Campaign goes virtual

The next — and perhaps final — Democratic debate, featuring just Sanders and Biden, will not have a live audience because of coronavirus concerns, as Melissa Gomez reported. The debate had been scheduled to take place in Phoenix, but once the decision was made not to have an audience, party officials moved it to the CNN studios in Washington.


That’s not the only event that has moved behind the camera. Both Sanders and Biden canceled big events they had planned for Tuesday night. Biden’s campaign has announced a series of “virtual” events that he’ll do in key states leading up to the next round of primaries, and both parties have begun looking at alternative ways to stage their national conventions this summer.

There are also increasing calls for states that don’t allow widespread mail-in ballots to change their laws to avoid requiring people to congregate at polling places. That’s a complex shift, however, and may not be feasible in the time remaining before November’s election.

Updates on California, Washington vote counts

As Californians know, mail-in ballots take lots of time to collect, process and count. About 6.4 million people voted in the state’s presidential primary this year. As of Thursday night, counties reported they had about 1.5 million ballots left to go.

Sanders was declared the winner of the primary on election night, and that call has proved accurate. But his margin over Biden has declined a bit as the vote has proceeded.


That’s not a surprise: Biden did terribly in the early votes that were mailed in during mid-February, when many analysts — and voters — thought his campaign was done for. He’s done much better in election-day ballots and later mail-ins.

Sanders now leads Biden by a bit over 6.5 percentage points.

The same dynamic — Biden doing worse in the early vote and better on election day — is true in Washington state. There, it’s shifted the lead. On election night, Sanders had a narrow edge over Biden, but as the count has continued, the former vice president has taken the lead. He’s now ahead by about 2 percentage points and seems likely to end up on top.

FBI’s wings clipped — a bit

The FBI’s power to eavesdrop on Americans seems likely to be curtailed, at least somewhat, Del Wilber and Chris Megerian report.


A coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans have pushed to cut back the bureau’s powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. They had leverage this year because some of the bureau’s authorities expire on Sunday, and they won several concessions in renewal legislation that passed the House this week.

But civil liberties groups and other critics of surveillance authority were disappointed in how small the cutbacks were. In the Senate, Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah invoked procedural rules to slow passage of the legislation. The Senate will take up the bill next week.

Opponents hope that Trump, who has his own grievances over FBI surveillance, will veto the bill and force Congress to go further to restrain surveillance. Law enforcement officials warn that could make it harder to combat terrorist threats.

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