Let’s look at the state of things for a second. The world is currently grappling with a deadly global pandemic, one that has already led to cities across the world being placed into lockdown, and looks to be leading to an unprecedented economic crisis. Despite bungling the response in a way that could be called criminal, the president has now gotten out in front, holding daily press briefings that have allowed him to feed misinformation directly to the public, and taking steps that, while grossly inadequate for the moment, have already outstripped the Obama administration’s economic response in 2008 — with the result that, for the moment at least, a large majority of Americans now approves of Trump’s handling of the crisis.
Being an election year, there are several things a Democratic challenger should be doing. One is exuding a sense of calm, stability, and competence, to convey “presidentialness” and contrast with Trump’s chaotic behavior. Being the Democratic Party’s prospective leader, they should be helping to set the legislative agenda and drive the party’s ideas about the response to this unprecedented emergency. And they should be communicating with the public as much as possible, providing reassurance and guidance while denying the president a monopoly of the airwaves.
There are two Democratic candidates left in the race. Let’s see what they’ve done.
First there’s Bernie Sanders. Sanders held a press conference on March 12, calling for solidarity in the face of the crisis and laying out a plan that went further than what the Congressional Democratic leadership were pushing for at the time, including an expansion of federal food programs, more generous emergency unemployment insurance that included workers typically left out, and a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs.
In lieu of public gatherings, Sanders, who splits his time between the US Senate and his home in Burlington, remained in the public eye through press conferences and livestreamed events, giving updates on the crisis, suggesting new ideas for dealing with it, and answering questions from members of the public. Between his March 12 presser and now — not including the Sunday debate — Sanders has made at least six public appearances, including a second press conference the day after, a “fireside chat” in his Burlington home the day after that, a “digital rally” with Neil Young and other musicians two days later, and several livestreamed virtual roundtables on the crisis response.
While the Democratic leadership ignored the advice of public health officials and urged in-person voting and turnout in the midst of a pandemic, the Sanders campaign declined to urge voters to endanger themselves, saying going out to vote in these circumstances was “a personal decision.” And rather than continuing to fundraise for the presidential contest, the campaign instead mobilized its staff and volunteers to call and text to raise money for five charities, gathering $2 million in forty-eight hours to be distributed to Meals on Wheels, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and others.
Then there’s former vice president Joe Biden, currently on track to cruise to the Democratic nomination.
Biden, like Sanders, first held a press conference on March 12, the day the crisis first became real for many people, which started half an hour late due to technical difficulties. He then held a virtual town hall the day after, which saw Biden falsely claim credit for the Endangered Species Act before wandering off camera, an event so marred by technical difficulties that the “disjoined effort,” in Biden’s words, had to be ended early. Then came the debate, in which Biden was allowed by the moderators to brazenly lie about almost every aspect of his record, a contrast from debates in the past.
In the lead up to the last Tuesday’s elections — even as the coronavirus death toll climbed, cities went into lockdown, and health and government officials urged people to stay inside at all costs — Biden’s campaign encouraged voters to turn out, falsely assuring them it was safe. The result was a day of chaos and confusion that almost certainly assisted the virus’s continued spread. Biden then gave a brief victory speech that ended in another odd moment that quickly went viral, now par for the course for the campaign.
And until today, that was the last almost anyone saw of the Democratic frontrunner. For almost a whole week, as the crisis has exponentially worsened by day, Biden seemed to have vanished off the face off the earth, surfacing only last Friday in a call with the press. He was “desperately” trying to “be in daily or at least, you know, significant contact with the American people and communicate what I would be doing,” he told reporters, as if regular, successful livestreaming hadn’t already been accomplished by both his opponent and millions of teenagers. To be fair, a source told ABC, Biden’s house in Wilmington had low ceilings, making lighting tough.
The campaign also started emailing and texting supporters, asking them for “an idea for how Joe Biden can connect with voters online.” No one has yet explained how, given these difficulties, Biden advisor Ron Klain managed to MacGyver his way into a video for the campaign explaining how the crisis came to be and what Biden would do about it.
After holding a tele-fundraiser with donors on Sunday, the Biden campaign appears finally to have figured out how to do a livestream, with the candidate delivering a fifteen-minute scripted speech from his home today. This one wasn’t free of difficulty either. Besides what has, since 2019, become a trademark lackluster speaking performance — the candidate slurring and stumbling over words throughout and abruptly cutting off his own thought process mid-sentence several times — the speech saw Biden suddenly trail off midway through, visibly signal for someone behind the camera to lift either the teleprompter or cue cards he was reading off, before losing his train of thought, saying, “Let me go the second thing. I’ve spoken enough on it.”
But beyond that, Biden’s address suffered from another shortcoming that all of his public addresses have shared. Instead of outlining bold, specific proposals to deal with the crisis — like, for instance his opponent’s calls for $2,000 direct payments to every American, emergency universal Medicare coverage, and an oversight agency to fight price-gouging and self-dealing — Biden prefers to criticize Republicans and issue vague calls for action and results: “We should be doing everything in our power to keep workers on payrolls … help the economy come out on the other side strong. The federal government should provide the resources to make that happen, while still protecting American taxpayers.” Other than promises to mobilize the military, Biden elides specifics, instead instructing Americans to read the nearly 7,000-word plan up on his website.
And that plan is now obsolete. For instance, it makes no mention of using the Defense Production Act, which Biden has, in his public remarks, made a core element of his response plan. And while he now says “cash relief needs to go out as soon as possible to those who need it the most,” his plan mentions cash payments as just one option, alongside tax credits, that governors and mayors could decide to pursue by drawing on a State and Local Emergency Fund of unspecified size. There was already a contradiction between the plan’s pledge to “spend whatever it takes” and Biden’s suggestion during the debate that the GOP’s “godawful tax cut” means “the ability for us to use levers that were available before have been used up.” It’s becoming increasingly unclear what voters should be listening to: Biden’s actual public utterances, or the plan he keeps insisting has all the answers.
The View From Television
We’re currently living through an unprecedented moment in history, and nothing is normal right now. But the likely Democratic nominee’s week-long absence at a moment of epochal world crisis, his shaky on-camera performances (the debate being a notable exception), and his team’s increasingly lame excuses for their inability to put their candidate in front of even a webcam, are all pretty weird.
In 2016, then–Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s avoidance of press conferences became grist for a seemingly endless, months-long series of articles about the practice, which the Washington Post even labelled a “dangerous precedent” at one point. But Biden isn’t simply avoiding press conferences — he’s avoiding the press full-stop, not even appearing on any of the Sunday shows yesterday as his likely general election opponent uses his incumbency to take command of the narrative around the terrain over which this election will be fought. Forget the political malpractice going on here for one second. It’s not that today’s press hasn’t noticed Biden’s outrageous behavior— the media actually cheerfully remarks upon it as a conscious campaign strategy.
Just as with Biden’s debate-night lying, and the various, outrageous lies he’s told on the campaign trail, this is the kind of behavior that used to spell the end of a political campaign. In fact, it already did once before, when Biden was forced to end his presidential ambitions in 1987 due to a string of falsehoods he told on the trail. But it’s clear some of the fundamental rules of US politics have changed.
For vast numbers of people, the Joe Biden described here simply doesn’t exist. While in the online world, Biden’s glaring absence has been a frequent topic of conversation, jokes, and even conspiracy theories, it’s barely been discussed in mainstream media. When the topic is covered, it’s framed in sympathy with the campaign, running with headlines like “There’s no playbook for this,” and painting Biden as “struggl[ing] to break through” in the news, as if his disappearance and avoidance of interviews in an era of video streams and remote work were perfectly understandable, however unfortunate. Meanwhile, good luck finding a mainstream outlet covering Sanders’s many virtual events during this time in any detail, let alone its charity fundraising.
Whatever happens in the rest of this primary process, this is a key challenge facing the Left. When it comes to the Democratic electorate, the mainstream media continues to be a shaping force, particularly for older voters who make up a disproportionate share of the viewership of CNN and MSNBC, and who also happen to hold high levels of trust in the media. As I found when I examined two months’ worth of MSNBC campaign coverage last year, the political world depicted by that network is unrecognizable to anyone who doesn’t rely on cable news to be informed — it’s one in which Biden’s policy positions, corporate fundraising, campaign stumbles, and worrying political record are almost entirely ignored or minimized in favor of the latest poll numbers.
And it’s not just MSNBC. In These Times’s Sarah Lazare recently found that CNN’s coverage of Sanders was three times more negative after his blowout Nevada victory than its coverage of Biden after his game-changing South Carolina win, with Sanders’s negative coverage consisting of questioning his “electability” or tying him to Putin, and Biden’s focusing more on advice for how to improve his campaign. When we consider that Biden received nearly $72 million worth of free, positive media between South Carolina and the end of Super Tuesday alone, is it any wonder that Biden’s wins are built almost entirely on the back of his domination among older voters, who make up a larger share of both cable news viewers and Democratic voters? Nor should we be surprised that such an electorate trusts a man who can’t even set up a livestream to lead the world out of what may well end up a worse crisis than the Great Depression.
For four years, the prevailing narrative among liberals has been that all of the world’s ills, particularly the election of Donald Trump, were due to misinformation spread on Facebook and other social media. It was a charge critics like myself refuted by pointing out that, among other things, the numbers show most voters still get the vast majority of their news from television. Other studies have since come out throwing cold water on this deep-seated belief.
In fact, the narrative had it backwards. It’s the continuing domination of television news, particularly for older voters, that misshapes public perceptions, whether about elections or critical issues like climate change. It’s TV coverage that helps explain not just Trump’s rise, but the dynamics of this primary that have proven so frustrating to the Left. These voters aren’t getting their news online, and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. And unless they’re reached, the Left will forever be at the mercy of mainstream news entities who find lying outrageous one day, and presidential the next.