The virus era: Hits and misses by Trump, Biden and Sanders

We are all being tested, our political leaders most of all.

As people and their neighborhoods grapple with shuttered schools, restaurants, churches and theaters, as well as bedlam conditions in grocery stores with depleted shelves, they would like to know their elected officials are working on plans to minimize the danger and the damage.

As Wall Street had to halt trading yesterday for the third time in two weeks during another massive selloff, people want to know that there are strenuous efforts to stabilize the markets and the economy.

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In a time of such high anxiety, the actions of Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, in a campaign that’s essentially been swallowed by the coronavirus, are illuminating.

The most telling moment in the Democratic debate, held in a CNN Washington studio with no audience, was at the start.

Biden projected empathy: “First of all, my heart goes out to those who have already lost someone and those who are suffering from the virus.  And this is bigger than any one of us.”

Bernie attacked Trump: "The first thing we’ve got to do, whether or not I’m president is to shut this president up right now because he is undermining the doctors and scientists who are trying to help the American people.”

Biden, in vice-presidential fashion, said he’d call a meeting in the Situation Room.

Sanders, in democratic socialist fashion, kept turning questions into a pitch for "Medicare-for-All" and attacks on dysfunctional insurers and greedy drugmakers.

It was as though he had simply updated his talking points for the last year to reflect the virus crisis.

And both candidates made unrealistic promises on the economic front.

Biden: “No one loses their home, no one loses their paycheck.”

Sanders: “No one is going to suffer...If you lose your job, you’ll be made whole.”

Depending on the magnitude of the virus, that may simply be impossible. How would government determine who lost a job because of the virus as opposed to an overall recession? And where would the replacement jobs come from?

 

The most heated exchange -- it was so, well, senatorial -- came when the two white-haired warriors battled over the Simpson-Bowles commission of 2010. Bernie was using it to show that Joe once considered (but never actually voted for) cuts to Social Security, because any deficit-reduction effort has to rein in entitlement spending in some fashion. Guys, we’re in a severe crisis. Nobody cares about a forgotten fight from a decade ago.

Biden “won” because he remained sharp for two hours and Bernie, knowing he’s trailing badly, didn’t try to bloody him. Now they’re back to a virtual campaign both defined and hamstrung by the virus.

As for Trump, there’s little question he’s improved his performance by taking the crisis more seriously and unveiling daily briefings where he speaks at the outset and then turns things over to Mike Pence, followed by Anthony Fauci and assorted medical experts.

There’s also little question that our country lost valuable time as Trump minimized the crisis and failed to resolve the crucial delays in testing.

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What’s puzzling now, as the world’s attention is focused on one issue, is why the president is picking other fights.

He went after Hillary Clinton, his opponent of more than three years ago, cheering on a “great job” by Judicial Watch, which is seeking to depose her on the private e-mail survey and Benghazi. “Potentially a treasure trove,” Trump tweeted.

He went after Chuck Schumer, saying, “Can’t believe they are not going after Schumer for the threats he made to our cherished United States Supreme Court, and our two great Justices...Pathetic!” The senator’s threat that Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch would pay a price on abortion was dumb, but that story played out weeks ago.

Trump went after “the fake and corrupt news” for saying he exaggerated the status of a Google project to develop a website to aid virus testing. He then tweeted the same company statement that journalists have been citing, which says the effort is in the “early stages of development” and for now aimed only at the San Francisco area.

And Trump said again that Mike Flynn had been treated unfairly and might get a “full pardon”--despite the fact that his former aide pleaded guilty to lying.

We all know that the president loves to punch and counterpunch his political detractors. But it would be better for the country if, for now at least, he only had one target.