If you’re a movie buff, you’ve probably seen this rom-com plot at least a dozen times. A glorious wedding day, a beautiful bride, a seriously flawed groom ... and the stunningly handsome guest who shows up to cause chaos but save the day. Hey, so everything worked out before the closing credits for Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in The Runaway Bride, right? But for the emotional train wreck that is the 2020 Democratic Party ... it’s complicated.
Like everything else about this never-to-be-forgotten moment in American history, the coronavirus is to blame — at least partly — for the even-more-disarrayed-than-usual-if-that’s-possible state of the Democrats’ presidential chase. It’s not so much that the trauma of a deadly pandemic has diminished the party’s seemingly locked-in nominee-in-waiting, Joe Biden, but that voters are swooning over the suitors who got ignored as boring, unsexy and not dangerous enough during 2019: America’s governors.
In fact, the governor who has suddenly emerged dramatically as the face and de facto leader of the Democratic Party — New York’s Andrew Cuomo — was so unpopular this time a year ago that he listened to advisers who told him to not even bother entering the crowded field. Now, with New York as the deadly epicenter of the crisis and Cuomo’s daily briefings a huge hit on national TV, many Democratic voters are seeing what they didn’t know they wanted — a steady hand, command of the facts, a kind of empathy they hadn’t noticed before — even as the organ is playing and a bewildered Biden is waiting at the altar.
Cuomo “is the only elected official in the United States today who has fully demonstrated the leadership, toughness, management skill and humanity that meeting the coronavirus pandemic demands,” Long Island Democrat and former government official James Larocca wrote in his hometown paper, Newsday. “To be crudely political — and practical — he is the only Democrat who can absolutely beat President Donald Trump in November.”
Like everyone in this conversation, Larocca is biased — he’d been a cabinet member for Andrew’s dad, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo — but his piece is part of an increasingly loud mini-boomlet for New York’s chief executive, with the inevitable “Draft Cuomo” Twitter feeds and political betting sites saying the odds of his nomination are higher (remember, he’s not a candidate) than Biden’s remaining rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But the Cuomo talk only persists because the guy that Democrats hooked up with in a wild four-day February-March fling, Biden, looks increasingly weak. That growing perception seemed confirmed by a stunning new ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Sunday morning that revealed just 28% of Biden’s supporters are “very enthusiastic" about voting for him. That’s the lowest in 20 years of this question, which means he’s doing worse than 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton, whose unpopularity cost her the Electoral College to President Trump.
The poll does suggest Biden would — if the election were held today — eek out a win, 49-47%, but that’s down from the previous poll. Trump, despite ignoring or downplaying the pandemic for weeks and engaging in shameless self-promotion and narcissistic feuds with Democratic governors battling disease and death, is seeing the best poll numbers of his presidency, winning back white non-college-educated women who were drifting away before the crisis. Is it time for the Democrats to panic? I want to say “no,” but that’s not the way it feels.
What’s the matter with Joe Biden? The rapid change in circumstances — the pause on the remaining primaries, the end of in-person campaigning — has created a massive challenge to keep Biden, who unlike Trump or Cuomo, isn’t a current officeholder tasked with fighting the virus, before the voters and looking like a leader for these times. The things that he’s tried — like a CNN town hall on Friday night — are like those incessant cell phone ads on TV …"just OK." Biden’s best quality — his empathy — can shine through at times and present a real contrast with Trump’s narcissism. But the Cuomo Effect just isn’t there for the 77-year-old and sometimes-rambling Biden.
And things could get worse for Biden soon. After the former vice president seemingly dealt with several allegations of handsy, inappropriate behavior around women when he launched his campaign in 2019, Biden now faces a much more serious — and worthy of further investigation — allegation of a straight-up sexual assault from an aide who worked for him in 1993. Tara Reade alleges that Biden cornered her and digitally penetrated her, and although she told two people contemporaneously, she’d been hesitant to go public before now. Team Biden strongly denies this.
I do not know if Reade’s allegation is true, but I do believe that it’s credible enough that we should listen to her, and investigate fully. For now, I’m even more troubled by the inconsistency of those who posted the #BelieveWomen hashtag when the accused was Supreme Court Justice (sigh) Brett Kavanaugh or other powerful men in politics and the media, but who are suddenly going all Sherlock Holmes in dredging up irrelevant details about Reade’s politics. To me, #BelieveWomen means we should listen to women — something society didn’t do for 3,000 years — and verify. Until proven otherwise, we should listen to Tara Reade.
Look, up on Earth 2, the Democratic Party is having a giant do-over right now. If the coronavirus had reached American shores before the first two-thirds of the Democratic primaries, we’d be looking at a totally different election right now. Some of the candidates that voters ignored — I’m thinking especially of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a great candidate who was completely written off as a “boring white dude” — would be soaring, while Cuomo might not only be in the race but already polishing his acceptance speech.
There is no Earth 2, alas. Here on Earth 1, it’s time to get real about the bind that Democrats have created for themselves, and the difficult path they face to claw back to where they can guarantee America that we won’t have four more years of buffoonish authoritarianism from the Oval Office.
Andrew Cuomo will not be the nominee. That’s partly because of the flaws (playing footsie with Republicans and Big Business, corruption, his own authoritarian streak) that kept him out of the race at the beginning, but mainly because rank-and-file Democrats are too vested in the notion that they pick the nominee, and not party bosses, to even consider any kind of 1920s-style “smoke-filled room” scenario. Who is going to tell the elderly African Americans in South Carolina who lined up for Biden that their vote doesn’t count?
Bernie Sanders will not be the nominee. That’s a shame, because the coronavirus moment has revealed that America desperately needs the policies — single-payer health care, living wages, strong unions, an actual safety net — that Bernie has championed for the last 50 years. But since late February, Democratic voters — a more moderate crowd, apparently, than Sanders (or me, who plans to vote for Bernie in June if that’s an option) — have overwhelmingly preferred Biden. You can’t run a distant second and claim the nomination.
No, barring either a major scandal or (heaven forbid) health concerns, Joe Biden will be the nominee whenever the world recovers to actually have a Democratic convention. For the umpteenth time just in my lifetime, the Democrats have dealt themselves a pretty lousy hand. How can they still claim the pot when the time comes in November?
Name that woman vice president, stat! The Delawarean won kudos, and deservedly so, in his recent prime-time debate with Sanders when he declared that he would name a woman vice president. Now there are reports that (just like the Eagles in “Take It Easy”) he’s got seven women on his mind. The time for choosing is now and not July. The choice of a younger and more energetic woman running mate like a Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams or Gretchen Whitmer (although she’s rather busy these days) would give the Democrats a lightning bolt of star power — and a new public face — at the moment they desperately need it.
Don’t stop there — roll out your team! I made this argument in a recent column so I won’t rehash it in detail, but one of the many things exposed during the coronavirus crisis is that the vainglorious Trump has staffed the highest levels of government with dangerous acolytes and suck-ups while ignoring the few experts who are still around in Washington. Biden will reassure voters when he reminds them that he’s not the one actually designing the new ventilators — but a Democrat who believes in competence and expertise.
Deal with any issues over your history with women, ASAP. One thing that struck me about the Brett Kavanaugh affair is that he would have won over more moderate Americans if he’d admitted his youthful crimes and talked about personal growth, rather than his rage-fueled denial. I know he’s tried once, but Biden needs to find a better way to apologize for his past (including his mistreatment of Anita Hill), demonstrate change, and show women that 2020 Joe will be the patriarchy smasher they need in the White House. The hear-no-evil approach of most Dems simply won’t work; Brad Parscale and Vladimir Putin will make sure of that this fall.
Realistically, voters will enter the booth in November with only two serious choices: Joe Biden or Donald Trump. And there will be many, many reasons to pull the lever for Biden. Voters will have a chance to choose climate action over denial, a stronger safety net over vulture capitalism, empathy over narcissism, and good government over clownish corruption. Making the wrong selection could end the American Experiment before 2025.
But March is a good time for Democrats to realize that — unfortunately, for democracy and for everyone involved — politics in the 21st century has become show business, and right now their program is getting killed in the ratings. There won’t be a do-over, so the only hope for America is a do-better. And it better start today.