Elections

Joe Biden’s Coronavirus Disappearing Act

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop in Los Angeles, Calif., March 4, 2020. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
Amid COVID-19, the presumptive Democratic nominee has receded to the background.

Do they still put pictures on milk cartons?

Has anybody seen Joe Biden?

Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee (Senator Bernie Sanders, the socialist from Vermont from Brooklyn, remains in the race) has endured an extended absence from the front pages: In the New York Times, he’s largely been relegated way back to A21 or A23.

His most prominent recent appearance in the Times was a recent Sunday column by Frank Bruni, who wrote about . . . the diminished role of Joe Biden on the public stage:

Every day, at the White House briefing about the coronavirus, Donald Trump gets the undivided attention of the media, a national television audience bloated by crisis and as many minutes as he wants to play a “wartime president,” as he grandiosely calls himself. . . . And every day, Joe Biden watches from the far reaches of the upper balcony as he waits and waits to be declared the de facto Democratic presidential nominee and assume leadership of his party.

If you are in search of an illustrative example for the rhetorical strategy known as “damning with faint praise,” consider Bruni’s assessment of Biden: Given the “unthinkably dire” prospect of Trump’s reelection, Bruni writes, “Biden made as much sense as any other candidate.” Imagine that endorsement on a red, white, and blue banner.

Perhaps Biden sees himself roughly the same way: He is not Donald Trump, and, in the assessment of most Democratic partisans — and that of a small but non-negligible group of  Americans who are not Democratic partisans but believe that Trump is unsuited to the presidency — that should be enough. Biden can be Not Trump from the comfort of his easy chair — why should the gentleman from Delaware exert himself unnecessarily?

Whatabout-ism is a critique that cuts both ways. Joe Biden is a vain, shallow, dishonest, foolish, self-serving, cynical, exploitative, dim old coot. Those who prefer Biden may insist that Trump is an even more vain, shallow, dishonest, foolish, self-serving, cynical, exploitative, dim, slightly younger coot — de gustibus, etc. — but at some point Biden is going to have to put forward a position on the epidemic that as of this writing is expected to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans and could very well kill millions. To characterize Biden’s response to the most serious and immediately pressing issue of our time as a series of featherweight banalities would be an insult to the oeuvre of Rupert Holmes.

Biden has called for — imagine this! — “a decisive public-health response.”

Biden proposes to respond decisively with a combination of platitudes (“restoring trust, credibility, and common purpose”), wishful thinking (magicking a vaccine into existence), and memos (“The Biden Plan calls for issuing guidance to states and localities to ensure first responders and public health officials are prioritized to receive protective personal equipment and launching an education campaign to inform the general public about equipment that should be reserved for professionals”).

How serious is Joe Biden about this kind of thing? Consider his earlier campaign promises: “I promise you, if I’m elected president, you’re going to see the single most important thing that changes America: We’re gonna cure cancer.” Primitive peoples believed that the touch of a king could cure them of leprosy and other illnesses. Perhaps it is the case that Biden, who plagiarized his way through law school at Syracuse, dabbles brilliantly in oncology.

Much of the debate about our presidential elections comes down to: “At least my guy isn’t your guy.” (The most insipid sentence in common political circulation is: “Elections are binary.”) One of the many shortcomings of that line of argument is that it sometimes is the case that neither of the two leading candidates is especially fitted to the times and their needs. There are politicos on the Democratic side and the Republican side who might make more plausible leaders during a crisis of this nature: Rick Scott and Michael Bloomberg are two of them. The tribal-mascot mode of presidential politics is, for a certain kind of person, very amusing and exhilarating, and it is good enough, I suppose, for times of relative peace, prosperity, and security. It is not good enough for times of genuine danger when millions of lives and untold trillions in wealth depend upon the competent management of complex problems that cannot be simplified via fiat.

Trump or Biden? The virus doesn’t care.

The question of who wins the 2020 election is far from irrelevant, but we are lying to ourselves if we believe that some kind of national savior is going to emerge from the Electoral College. This epidemic is shaking the foundations — it should shake our assumptions, too.

And maybe it is. There’s a reason that nobody seems much interested in what Joe Biden has to say at the moment. I hear he’s starting a podcast.

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