If Joe Biden isn’t careful, Donald Trump might have a new nickname for him: “Shutdown Joe.” Or maybe, “Shut Down Joe.” Those monikers came to mind after the former vice president’s biggest blunder in the campaign thus far.
I’m referring to Biden’s comment, in his interview last week with ABC’s David Muir, that if scientists advised him to shut down the country again to contain a winter surge of Covid-19 and the flu, “I would shut it down; I would listen to the scientists.” It’s the sort of remark that surely plays well with voters who already support him. It might even have notional majority support.
But it doesn’t help with the voters Biden needs to avoid antagonizing in swing districts.
Few stories bring that reality into sharper focus than Simon Romero’s report in Monday’s Times on New Mexico’s neck-and-neck congressional race between first-term Democratic incumbent, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, and Yvette Herrell, her Republican challenger. New Mexico has trended Democratic in recent years, and a June poll had Biden with a comfortable lead in the state.
But Romero reports red-hot anger in the district over the restrictive coronavirus policies of the Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, that have helped keep case counts low at a painful economic price. There is “open defiance by sheriffs, business owners and many others of Ms. Lujan Grisham’s policies.” Turnout in the G.O.P. primary surged by more than 40 percent over 2016, as against a Democratic increase of 5 percent.
“The strategy of running hard to the right by avowing loyalty to Mr. Trump while blasting Democrats for problems associated with the pandemic,” Romero adds, “could be working for Ms. Herrell, who lost the 2018 race by fewer than 4,000 votes.”
What’s happening in Torres Small’s district, which in 2016 went for Trump by a 10-point margin, isn’t going to decide the presidential race, even in New Mexico. But it offers a taste of a powerful current of anxiety and resentment that Trump has positioned himself to exploit, and that — to judge by his shutdown remark — Biden doesn’t seem to grasp.
The anxiety is from people hanging on by their fingernails (if they’re still hanging on at all) to jobs, businesses, livelihoods and homes on account of a pandemic whose toll in lives and health can be weighed against the costs of fighting it. In the hierarchy of fears, what is Covid-19 to a healthy 35-year-old restaurateur next to the prospect of losing everything except a meager government check?
The resentment goes just as deep among those who feel talked down to by people whose own track record as experts leaves something to be desired. Remember when (on Feb. 29) the surgeon general tweeted, “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS”? Remember when the most urgent national need was for more ventilators — until those fears proved largely unfounded? Remember the scientists who hypocritically failed to abide by the sort of strictures they demanded of the public?
None of this is a failure of science per se, or an excuse for reckless personal behavior. It is certainly no justification for Trump’s appalling management of the crisis, particularly his failure to promote and provide for adequate testing. But it is a failure by people who claim to speak, with unassailable authority, in the name of science. And loose talk of nationwide shutdowns plays into the fears of voters who feel they have been both impoverished and patronized.
The danger Biden now courts is twofold. He is promising to hand over his decision-making authority to unelected people who, whatever their education, expertise or virtues, haven’t gained the trust of fence-sitting voters.
And he is proposing to resort to a strategy that, as Wall Street Journal reporter Greg Ip reported on Monday, is now being viewed by some economists and even health experts as “an overly blunt and economically costly tool” that could have been avoided in favor of “alternative strategies that could slow the spread of the epidemic at much less cost.”
All of this creates a dangerous opening for Trump. Voters won’t necessarily turn to Biden if they feel he will merely rubber-stamp the same set of policies that they wanted to avoid in the first place. Democracies elect leaders to lead, not defer; to occasionally buck conventional wisdom, not parrot it.
Biden and his advisers may suppose they’re on a glide path to re-election against a manifestly flawed and failed incumbent. But they face an opponent who fights best when he’s cornered, and who will take the same ruthless political advantage of Biden’s line that George W. Bush’s campaign did of John Kerry’s calamitous classic about the Iraq war, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” The Hippocratic oath for the Biden campaign should be, “First, do no self-harm.”
The next time Biden is asked about lockdowns, he might cite a line from John F. Kennedy: “Scientists alone can establish the objectives of their research, but society, in extending support to science, must take into account its own needs.” That’s a line to win over a wavering voter.
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