MY KITCHEN TABLE — I’m writing this newsletter from my house, which has been transformed into an impromptu workspace. The New York Times offices are mostly empty. Both my husband and I were supposed to travel for work; those trips are canceled. My daughter’s school was closed yesterday for cleaning. I’m preparing for her to be stuck home for a longer period soon.
Over the course of the Trump administration, Americans have grown accustomed to political chaos. But now, instead of watching the president create drama on cable television from a faraway capital, millions are living it themselves. Like me, they’re facing school closures, travel limitations and an economy gyrating with uncertainty.
And, in the midst of it all, there is a presidential election, one in which the ability of the candidates to engage with the public — the most fundamental aspect of politicking — is being thrown into question.
Candidates like to talk about that 3 a.m. phone call, that split second when their resolve would be tested.
That moment is now. The campaign we’ve all followed for months is over; something very different and deeply unpredictable is beginning.
“We are in a time and place where uncertainty is the norm and uncertain events can change the direction of the race on a dime,” said Robby Mook, who ran Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. “The tables can turn quickly.”
Over the past 18 hours, we’ve gotten a preview of our new politics. Last night, the country watched President Trump deliver a monotone Oval Office address, only to have various administration officials quickly step in to correct several policies that he had announced.
Today brought addresses from former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, who offered their prescriptions for the pandemic as they tried to exude somber leadership. But even their speeches underscored the extraordinary situation.
While their words echoed the tone of presidents in moments of crisis, they delivered their remarks before small groups of reporters in drab hotel ballrooms — not at the kinds of large rallies that typically happen at this stage of a campaign.
The missing rallies are far from the only unusual political dynamic. At least nine members of Congress have self-quarantined after exposure to the virus, including several who had interactions with the president. State party conventions, where delegates to the national convention are selected, have been canceled. The Democratic debate on Sunday will take place without an audience in Washington, as Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders close campaign offices and instruct staffers to work from home. And state officials are scrambling to move voting places out of nursing homes before next Tuesday’s primaries.
Even the candidates’ personal health is an issue: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified Americans over age 60 as a high-risk group, recommending they “avoid crowds as much as possible” during an outbreak. All three men running for president are in their 70s.
Despite it all, someone must still win the election and Democrats see the politics as trending in their favor. Mr. Trump has yoked the success of his presidency to the economy and, more specifically, the stock market, which has plummeted with alarming speed over the past week or so.
It’s impossible to know if their instinct is correct. When it comes to the administration’s response, the relative consensus that might usually accompany a national crisis is nowhere to be found. Nearly nine in 10 Republican voters approved of the president’s response to the virus, according to a Quinnipiac poll released this week. Just one in 10 Democratic voters agreed.
As I’ve watched the spread of the virus, I’ve struggled to think of an analogous political moment in recent American history.
A war, perhaps? Not quite, since schools were open and social contact was allowed. Or maybe the period after 9/11? Except then, the enemy was more clear — not invisibly lurking on dirty hands and airline trays.
The political questions we face today have similar life-or-death stakes but the impact is so much more intimate for so many of us, even when it comes to the basic mechanisms of modern campaigning. How do you knock on doors? Organize staff in a war room? Can you elbow-bump a baby?
Like the politicians themselves, we’re all stumbling our way through a scary new coronavirus-infected world.
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From Opinion: What will Bernie Sanders do?
With his Tuesday night loss in Michigan — a primary he won in 2016 — Senator Bernie Sanders faces pressure to drop out of the race and support the Democratic front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Yet there aren’t many signs Mr. Sanders plans to do so just yet. “It’s not my style to give up,” he told Elizabeth Bruenig this week in Michigan. “I was born with a lot of endurance.” But supporters of Mr. Sanders are taking stock of their candidate, who performed well in the early contests but has since fizzled.
“Instead of the Bernie Sanders Revolution,” Michelle Cottle says that Democrats “are opting for the Joe Biden Cuddle, embracing a candidate who is peddling reassurance, unity, moderation, empathy and civility.” And now that Mr. Sanders is most likely on his way out, writes Cottle, “many Democrats are understandably nervous. Mr. Sanders has never been an especially gracious competitor.”
The nomination of Mr. Biden would feel as though “the Democratic establishment has successfully marginalized the progressive left,” writes Jamelle Bouie. But a “Biden candidacy isn’t the end of the game,” says Bouie. “He represents an opportunity.”
“It looks like Biden will secure the nomination, but Sanders won the policy argument,” he adds. “If Mr. Biden goes on to win the White House, there’s real space for the pro-Sanders left to work its will on policy.”
— Adam Rubenstein
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