The Bulwark Presents
The Triad by JVL

What If Biden Hadn’t Beaten Bernie So Quickly?

There's at least one bullet America dodged.
March 19, 2020
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1. Viral Politics


A number of states will vote today in the Democratic primary. Now imagine the chaos we would be facing if this contest was not already functionally over.

America owes Democratic primary voters a debt of gratitude, not just for rejecting socialism, but for doing it expeditiously. Because if, today, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were tied—or if Sanders was ahead and clinging to a lead as the states became more favorable to Biden—then the level of uncertainty and political chaos in this country would be an order of magnitude larger.

As things stand now, we are facing a national crisis.

Eight months from now we will have a choice between reelecting Donald Trump, or electing Joe Biden. Both of them are known commodities. Both are highly representative of their respective parties. The coming months of this crisis will only serve to highlight the contrast between the two men and their parties.

But if Biden had still been locked in struggle with Sanders, then the actual character of the Democratic party would still be in flux. And—worse—there would be no way to resolve the intra-party conflict. Because the pandemic is going to interfere with voting to such a degree that whenever the contest was settled, neither candidate would have been seen as legitimate by the other’s supporters.

At which point the choice in November would have been muddled and unclear.

Wisconsin is the Electoral COVID-19 Canary

2. Reading List

(1) What we lost when the government dropped the ball on testing.

Bloomberg gives a rundown of how the administration squandered the only advantage we had going into this crisis—time—by not moving full-speed ahead on testing supplies while the virus bloomed in China. “This is such a rapidly moving infection that losing a few days is bad, and losing a couple of weeks is terrible,” Jha said. “Losing 2 months is close to disastrous, and that’s what we did.”

(2) Trump’s administration was warned.
The government has contingency plans for everything. Everything. For the fall of the Berlin Wall, for a Soviet first strike, for the emergence of MUTOs. These plans might not be good. They might be bare-bones or outdated. But the point of the plans isn’t to have a cheat-sheet ready the minute a crisis strikes. The point is to have people already exposed to the idea of the crisis so that, when it hits, they’re not starting from zero. New presidents are briefed on many of these plans. And as an incoming president, Donald Trump’s team was briefed on the possibility of a world-wide pandemic:

POLITICO obtained documents from the meeting and spoke with more than a dozen attendees to help provide the most detailed reconstruction of the closed-door session yet. It was perhaps the most concrete and visible transition exercise that dealt with the possibility of pandemics, and top officials from both sides — whether they wanted to be there or not — were forced to confront a whole-of-government response to a crisis. The Trump team was told it could face specific challenges, such as shortages of ventilators, anti-viral drugs and other medical essentials, and that having a coordinated, unified national response was “paramount” . . .

Asked whether information about the pandemic exercise reached the president-elect, a former senior Trump administration official who attended the meeting couldn’t say for sure but noted that it wasn’t “the kind of thing that really interested the president very much.”

“Even though we would put time on the schedule for things like that, if they happened at all, they would be very, very brief,” the former official continued. “To get the president to be focused on something like this would be quite hard.”Anything associated with Obama or his administration was also a no-go zone for Trump aides. If you brought them up, “that would be an immediate rejection, like, ‘Why are they even here? Why the fuck did you ask them?’”

(3) People don’t trust Trump.

One of the things I’ve hammered over and over for the last three years is that Trump’s total dislocation from facts, logic, and consistency were assets for him in many ways, because it made him unpredictable. The problem is that while “predictability” is a liability in many games based on negotiation or competition, it becomes an invaluable asset in games based on cooperation.

Example: If you are negotiating a trade war with China, being unpredictable can give you an advantage over the Chinese, who can never be totally certain how you will react to a given move, and thus may be willing to forfeit some marginal advantages.

Counter-example: If you are trying to stop a pandemic, being unpredictable will make it more difficult to rally public behavior, spread necessary information, and coordinate action across various public and private sector teams—because the general will not believe what you say and people in government down the delegation chain will not know what you want them to do.

We are now at the point where Trump has squandered his public trust in such a way that only 42 percent of the public trusts Trump on the COVID-19 crisis. This lack of trust is likely to cost lives.