Return to What? How does Joe Biden's Return-to-Normalcy pitch fare in the remaning coronavirus-tinged months of the campaign? Is it 1) Now inapposite, given that there is no "normal" we could conceivably return to? 2) More apt than ever since the pre-Trump era will look even more halcyon by November?
I think the former. It's one thing to say "Make America Great Again" and recall the general, enduring virtues of the prosperous 1950s and 1960s — virtues that included a more equal distribution of income (something the left often leaves out when mocking Trumpian nostalgia.) It's another to pledge a return to the specific Obama status quo. Whatever you thought of it, that era now seems unattainably past. The original Biden appeal was like the appeal of rekindling a romance when you’ve broken up for couple of years. Now he’ll be trying to rekindle a romance when the other person has had three kids and a sex change operation.
That's not to say Biden (or whomever the Democrats nominate) can’t sell himself to voters as a leader capable of out-performing Trump in handling threats like the virus — where Trump has been dispiritingly erratic. But that won’t be a “return to normalcy.” It will be about managing a post-Trump era that seems to have profoundly changed, and not only because of Trump himself. Does Biden want to “restore honor to the Oval Office”? Honor? How much do we care about honor right now? We’re trying to stay alive. Would Biden urge us to go back to the halcyon days of globalization when we were building an ever-stronger web of co-dependence with China? That might have been plausible three months ago. It’s not plausible today.
“FFT” FTW: I've been pushing my friend Bruce Feiler's idea -- that the electorate is comfortable processing information at the same pace as the greatly increased speed of the news cycle -- for years, but I was worried that Super Tuesday might be the end of it. Even if Biden won decisively in South Carolina, after all, he had only 3 days, from Saturday to Tuesday, to generate momentum in a 14-state nationwide Super Tuesday primary in which he hadn't spent very much money. That's 59 hours, from the time the polls closed in South Carolina to the time they opened in North Carolina. It seemed impossible.
I prepared various fallback theories for why the "Feiler Faster Thesis" (FFT) might not have worked this time. Maybe it depends on a powerful mainstream media (MSM) to provide the boost of coverage a fast-moving candidate needs -- and thanks to the Internet the MSM just isn't as powerful as it used to be. So the very technology (the Web) that produced Faster Politcs was also undermining it this time! Sounded profound. Or maybe politics moved too fast -- voters grokked Biden’s South Carolina triumph and its consequences instantly, but were almost immediately beset by doubts about him, so that by hour 59 what would have been a formidable Biden surge had already dissipated. The FFT was just too right! That's the ticket!
Well, never mind. In the event, none of those rationalizations needed to be deployed. It turned out 59 hours was plenty.
That's not to say things weren't still moving on Election Day. I experienced the FFT myself while voting in Los Angeles. When I took my place at the tail end of the calamitously long line at my local city hall, I was planning to vote Joe to keep the process going (i.e. prevent Sanders from wrapping it up). By the time I finally got to the front of the line, 2 hours later, I could tell (from the Twitter feed on my cell) that Sanders was on the ropes and only a California win by him could prevent Biden from wrapping it up. I almost switched (I didn't).
P.S.: The FFT is also why Ross Douthat and Jonathan Chait are wrong to predict that Trump is now “very likely” or “quite likely” to lose reelection due to his coronavirus missteps. There’s plenty of time (politically, if not epidemiologically) for him to correct those errors, and recover in the esteem of the electorate, even if in November the epidemic is still going strong.
Why do Dems Care About Health Care? After hearing Democratic candidates talk about their party’s #1 issue — health care — on the stump, I began to wonder why it was such a big deal. Sanders promises :“No networks, no premiums, no deductibles, no copays, no surprise bills.” He offers “dental hearing and vision” coverage and a $200 cap on prescription drug expenses. Elizabeth Warren said her plan “gives everyone good insurance and cuts their health care costs to nearly zero.” Is that the appeal of a national health insurance system — dollars and cents savings? Lower co-pays! Fewer medical bankruptcies! Or do we need one universal plan because our nation is coming apart and a common medical system means grounding our disparate economic fates in a sphere of life where we’re all treated equally (and effectively) — informed by a common, fraternal struggle against ... well, death and decay. You'd hope the virus would teach us that.