Looking over the news this morning, I read my morning paper. I scanned the front pages of the New York Times and CNN websites and a few of the other mainstream news sources. I browsed Twitter. I turned on the TV. And one name was nowhere to be found: Joe Biden.
It’s yet another surreal turn for the former vice president, who was politically dead and buried this time a month ago after the Nevada caucuses gave Bernie Sanders his third straight victory. What followed was one of the swiftest and most dramatic turnarounds in presidential-primary history, clearing the Democratic field of all of Biden’s opponents but Sanders and leaving Biden as the de facto presumptive Democratic nominee after landslide wins in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona a week ago. This is supposed to be a happy occasion!
But since then, Biden has all but vanished from the news, going days on end with no public appearances and little in the way of coordinated messages from surrogates. The rapid escalation of the coronavirus outbreak has more Americans than ever glued to their television and Internet news sources. But they are not celebrating the Democrats’ front-runner, waxing enthusiastic about the promise of his presidency, or even listening to his advice. Instead, they are watching President Trump and various state governors, mayors, and county executives of both parties grapple with a situation that evolves daily. Some wags on Twitter have already started talking about how Democrats should be running the omnipresent Andrew Cuomo against Trump.
Biden is frozen in place, without a lot of modern precedent to fall back on. He can’t use his own office to get in the news or do anything useful, because he has been out of office for eight years. He can’t hold campaign rallies, which are unsafe for crowds and particularly hazardous to a 77-year-old candidate. His party’s leaders on Capitol Hill seem uninterested in getting him involved in negotiations, even within their own party. He can’t even formally celebrate wrapping up the nomination, because Sanders stubbornly insists on continuing his campaign. So Biden is reduced to reading embarrassingly halting statements off cue cards in an empty room.
This is a bizarre situation for the man who may well be the next president of the United States. It is too early, and events are too volatile, to reliably predict how the coronavirus outbreak will alter the outcome of the election. Trump could end up benefiting from the rally-around-the-leader effect of crises, or he could be sunk by public discontent with his leadership, a faltering economy, and a generally sour national mood. By any estimation, however, Biden was already at least a tossup chance to win in November before this, and the central theory of Trump’s reelection (a booming economy) is now out the window. There is every reason to take seriously the significant likelihood that Biden will be the leader of the free world ten months from now. And almost nobody cares to hear from him in an hour of peril. It is hard to recall a time when a major-party presumptive nominee has been so invisible and so irrelevant on the national stage.
This could be to Biden’s benefit, of course. During the TARP negotiations in the fall of 2008, John McCain suspended his campaign to dive into the D.C. swamp, while Barack Obama stayed on the trail issuing gaseous generalities. Obama was widely celebrated for his cool, calm decision to do absolutely nothing and let other people take responsibility. The bottom dropped out of McCain’s campaign after that.
In 1918, the Spanish-flu outbreak was followed by landslide defeats for the governing Democrats in the 1918 midterms and the 1920 presidential election. More than 60 percent of the national popular vote went to little-known Ohio senator Warren G. Harding and his call for a “return to normalcy.” Harding, while earning some notices in the Senate debates over the Treaty of Versailles ending the First World War, was not associated with responses to the Spanish flu. As with Obama and Harding, Biden’s best bet may be to commit himself as little as possible and hope the public turns against Trump without his help.
Biden can only benefit right now from staying far away from the House Democrats. The endorsement of Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, was pivotal to the South Carolina revival that turned around Biden’s fortunes. It was Clyburn who reportedly told House Democrats on a Thursday conference call on the coronavirus relief package, “This is a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.” The result was a House bill that has blown up negotiations over a laundry list of progressive policy wishes unrelated to the coronavirus, a move of staggering political tone-deafness.
Given the concerns over Biden’s accelerating “senior moments” on the trail, an interlude of minimal exposure may also be a good way of avoiding further uncomfortable questions about his fitness for the job. Nobody wake Joe.
Still, the national challenges ahead will demand something more than an ability to melt into the scenery. It might be time to start checking in on Joe Biden.