If Joe Biden isn’t careful, Donald Trump might have a new nickname for him:
“Shutdown Joe” – after the former vice president’s biggest blunder in the campaign thus far. I’m referring to his comment, in his interview last week with ABC’s David Muir, that if scientists advised him to shut down the country again to contain COVID-19 and the flu, “I would shut it down; I would listen to the scientists.” That plays well with voters who already support him. But it doesn’t help with the voters Biden needs to avoid antagonizing in swing districts.
Few stories bring that reality into sharper focus than Simon Romero’s report in Monday’s New York Times about New Mexico’s neck-and-neck congressional race between first-term Democratic incumbent Rep. Xochitl Torres Small and Yvette Herrell, her Republican challenger. A June poll had Biden with a comfortable lead in the state, but Romero reports red-hot anger in the district about the restrictive coronavirus policies of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. There is “open defiance by sheriffs, business owners and many others of Ms. Lujan Grisham’s policies.” Turnout in the GOP primary surged by more than 40% over 2016, as against a Democratic increase of 5%.
“The strategy of running hard to the right by avowing loyalty to Mr. Trump while blasting Democrats for problems associated with the pandemic,” Romero adds, “could be working for Ms. Herrell, who lost the 2018 race by fewer than 4,000 votes.”
What’s happening in Torres Small’s district, which in 2016 went for Trump by a 10-point margin, isn’t going to decide the presidential race, even in New Mexico. But it offers a taste of a powerful current of anxiety and resentment that Trump has positioned himself to exploit and that Biden doesn’t seem to grasp.
The anxiety is from people hanging on by their fingernails to jobs, businesses and homes on account of a pandemic whose toll in lives and health can be weighed against the costs of fighting it. In the hierarchy of fears, what is COVID-19 to a healthy 35-year-old restaurateur next to the prospect of losing everything except a meager government check?
The resentment goes deep among those who feel talked down to by people whose own track record as experts leaves something to be desired. Remember when (on Feb. 29) the surgeon general tweeted, “Seriously people – STOP BUYING MASKS”? Remember when the most urgent national need was for more ventilators – until those fears proved largely unfounded? None of this is a failure of science per se. It is no justification for Trump’s appalling management of the crisis. But it is a failure by people who claim to speak, with unassailable authority, in the name of science.
Biden is promising to hand over his decision-making authority to unelected people who haven’t gained the trust of fence-sitting voters. He is proposing to resort to a strategy that, as the Wall Street Journal reported Monday, is now being viewed by some economists and even health experts as “an overly blunt and economically costly tool” that could have been avoided in favor of “alternative strategies that could slow the spread of the epidemic at much less cost.”
Voters won’t necessarily turn to Biden if they feel he will merely rubber-stamp the same policies they wanted to avoid in the first place. Democracies elect leaders to lead, not defer.
Biden and his advisers face an opponent who fights best when he’s cornered, and who will take the same political advantage of Biden’s line that George W. Bush’s campaign did of John Kerry’s calamitous classic about the Iraq War, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” The next time he’s asked about lockdowns, he might cite a line from John F. Kennedy: “Scientists alone can establish the objectives of their research,” the 35th president said, “But society, in extending support to science, must take into account its own needs.”
Bret Stephens is a New York Times columnist.