And then there were two.
Thanks to South Carolina and Super Tuesday, the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination is between a candidate of the left and a candidate of the far left. The moderate, market-friendly, free-trade wing of the party has collapsed into nothingness. Clintonism is dead, long live the new left.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, whose come-from-behind and back-from-the dead win in South Carolina drove Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar out of the race, is widely considered to have been the big winner on Super Tuesday. True, he got more votes in 10 of the 14 states holding primaries that day but Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who took a third of the vote in California, also did exceptionally well.
The count as it now stands has Biden ahead but by only about 60 delegates. This is not, even given the way the remaining primaries and caucuses in the remaining states line up on the way to Milwaukee, so substantial a lead that it cannot be overcome.
This should give Biden pause. The combined vote for Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was bigger—outside the South anyway—than what Biden was able to draw. With Warren out and her vote presumably up for grabs, the calculations of future outcomes must be altered. The former vice president can no longer presume he’ll benefit from a split among primary voters who consider him part of the problem because he’s part of the party establishment.
One would think this would give the GOP pause as well, leading party leaders to think carefully about what President Donald J. Trump must do to secure a second term. Instead, they still seem to be counting on the vicious divisions among the opposition party to prevent the kind of unity needed to prevail in November.
This, to employ a shopworn but appropriate adage, is whistling past the graveyard. The turnout among Democrats participating in the 2020 nominating process is up considerably from 2016, suggesting the enthusiasm gap, which the Republicans hoped to benefit from, may not exist. Trump may have to fight to win.
To do that, he needs to have the kind of positive message that thus far seems to be eluding him. It will not be enough for him to define his opponent as so far outside the mainstream as to be unelectable—a strategy they are sure to use on Sanders and will try on Biden to see if it works. Trump is going to have to explain, to use his term, what he intends to do to “keep America great” in his second term. And, right now, with potential disaster seemingly around every corner, he’s not getting the job done. The fears connected to the spread of coronavirus are taking the markets and are poised to kick off a business contraction that could lead to a recession. If that happens, the president loses his principle talking point in favor of his re-election.
This may be why the scramble to respond to this entirely unexpected global crisis is being hyped by the mainstream, Trump-hating media as well as the Democrats but the epidemic is a reality the president and his campaign advisers must prepare to deal with. The fact he’s been right on many of the key points regarding ways to prevent the spread of the virus—by blocking incoming flights from China, by urging people to wash their hands repeatedly throughout the day, and his efforts to mobilize the free-market healthcare industry to get to work on a vaccine and a curative—isn’t helping calm people’s fears.
If you then add to all that the fact some people seem to have decided that since Trump appears to distort the truth its oaky for them to distort the truth in response and you have a recipe for disaster in the making, the kind that kills a re-election campaign in the cradle.
That the Democrats have moved so far away from the center in their drive to the left gives Trump and the other Republicans on the ballot in 2020 time to seize what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., used to refer to as the “vital center” of American politics. Sanders and Biden will duke it out over whether real healthcare reform means ending private insurance and private health care in America—as some versions of the Medicare-for-All plan would do. The GOP, meanwhile, can step in with a reassuring message: not only will they preserve both, but also that what they’re prepared to defend what is, in fact, the best guarantor that the spread of a disease like the Coronavirus can be stopped before it becomes as lethal as the Spanish Flu, which killed so many Americans just over 100 years ago.
Despite what many analysts suggest, we’re a long way from clarity in this election. Sanders and Biden both have viable paths to their party’s nomination—and we still cannot discount the possibility a third candidate will emerge from a convention deadlock that could make for a whole new ballgame. The problem for Trump is that he must prepare for all these eventualities, while still performing the duties of his office which, to be candid, is a bigger challenge for him than the Mueller investigation or impeachment. The reason for this is simple: from here on out he’s at the mercy of “events” which, as former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan once observed, are the thing most likely to take a government off the course chosen by its leader.
Newsweek contributing editor Peter Roff has written extensively about politics and the American experience for U.S. News and World Report, United Press International, and other publications. He can be reached by email at RoffColumns@GMAIL.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.