Pandemic, Panic and Politics

Three big crises have hit America in the first 20 years of the 21st Century: 9/11, the 2008 financial crash and now the coronavirus/stock market crash. Each one has left us more divided and our politics more dysfunctional.

This time we’re so divided we can’t even agree if there’s a crisis. A Quinnipiac University poll, taken before President Trump declared a national emergency, found that “roughly six in 10 Republican voters nationwide said they were not especially concerned that the coronavirus would disrupt their lives. Two-thirds of Democratic voters said the opposite.”

Dick Armey, the former Republican congressman from Texas, tweeted that coronavirus “is the biggest hoax since climate change.”

Apparently, we all do fear a toilet paper crisis. Store shelves are – pardon the expression – wiped out.

Big events like this scramble politics.

The 9/11 attacks made Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg national political figures. Giuliani was the unpopular lame-duck mayor of New York. The crisis made him a hero and “America’s Mayor.” Today, Giuliani…well, you know.

Bloomberg was the Republican candidate for mayor that year. He was given little chance to win in the heavily Democratic city. The primary was on 9/11, but got postponed. Naturally, there was little media coverage of the ensuing campaign. Only Bloomberg had the money to advertise. He won narrowly. Today, Bloomberg…well, you know.

Nationally, 9/11 helped President George W. Bush and Republicans win big in 2002 and 2004. But Bush overreached, attacking Iraq and targeting Social Security. He and the GOP got a “thumping” in 2006. Democrats won the House and Senate for the first time since 1994.

The September 2008 economic crisis helped elect Barack Obama. Surprisingly, the freshman Senator looked cooler and more in command than John McCain.

Republicans bitterly opposed Obama’s economic stimulus plan. Then he went after health care reform. That led to the Tea Party, the 2010 Republican landslide and, ultimately, to President Trump.

Now Trump is squarely in the crisis crosshairs. He’ll be there for the duration.

Most voters long ago made up their minds for or against him. But the switch of a few percentage points in a few key states, like North Carolina, can make all the difference in November.

Voters use crises like this to make judgments about their leaders. It’s one of the few times politicians aren’t seen in scripted, tightly controlled, made-for-TV events. That’s why debates are so important in presidential races.

Times like this open a window into politicians’ competence, compassion and character – or lack thereof.

Voters are watching closely. They’re judging. Not just Trump, but also Governors like Roy Cooper who are suddenly thrust in front of the cameras and into the front lines.

The crisis contributed to the swift and sudden coalescing of Democrats behind Joe Biden.

Bernie Sanders said he would bring out a surge of new voters. He did, but they weren’t his voters. They were African-Americans, moderates and people over 45. In unsettled and unsettling times, they turned to the candidate they viewed as the most tried, trusted and tested: Biden.

Forget the theorizing about why Elizabeth Warren didn’t win, why Pete Buttigieg fell short, why Cory Booker didn’t catch on, and on and on. It’s simply about who Democrats think can beat Trump and handle a crisis.

This year’s version of March Madness will have a big impact in November. But we still have seven long months to go before the election. And what October Surprise or Halloween Horror might await us?

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