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Sanders threat subsides, virus rises

The coronavirus outbreak has injected even more uncertainty into an already contentious US presidential election year, writes Saeed Okasha

Saeed Okasha, Thursday 19 Mar 2020
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Biden and Sanders during the 11th Democratic candidates debate (photo: Reuters)
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At the start of the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders, the candidate with essentially socialist leanings, seemed to some to pose a real threat to the future of the US and capitalism itself. That is how he was portrayed in conservative circles and even in the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, because he was the forerunner in several primaries around the country. However, by Super Tuesday, on 3 March, Sanders’ star began to dim after losing several states which voted for his opponent, Joe Biden.

Just as those who were worried that Sanders would take the lead from Biden began to breathe easier, the country was struck by an even more serious threat — the Covid-19 pandemic. US President Donald Trump, who at first dismissed the dangers of the outbreak, took a series of decisions that revealed palpable fear of a threat that has an unpredictable impact in the coming few weeks.

The coronavirus threat is a two-sided sword of opportunity for Democratic candidates and Trump, who will be contesting the presidential race against either Sanders or Biden in November. Much will depend on how each of the three takes advantage of public panic over the potentially deadly, highly contagious outbreak. Both Biden and Sanders criticised Trump during their debate Sunday night, slamming his slow reaction and public health measures taken.

Biden described Trump’s decision to ban flights from Europe as hasty and taken for political reasons to serve his presidential campaign primarily, while Sanders took the opportunity to shine a bright spotlight on his agenda of providing comprehensive and free healthcare for all citizens. Trump’s campaign attacked Biden and described his criticism of the travel ban as Biden’s lack of concern for the safety and wellbeing of the American people, and focus on promoting his party’s general ideals. Trump’s team ignored Sanders altogether, perhaps because Trump would like to see Sanders win the Democratic nomination, because he believes Sanders is an easier candidate to defeat. He may see Biden as a more formidable adversary if he wins the Democratic nomination.

As well as the health risks, Covid-19 is a critical issue for the Democratic candidates and Trump. The Democratic Party was forced to hold the Sanders-Biden debate in a television studio without an audience due to social distancing measures, deflating this important encounter in a country where debates in front of a live audience play a key role in deciding winners. Trump is also worried that Covid-19 threatens to erase his most prized economic achievements, such as slashing unemployment and recalibrating the trade balance with China and the EU to reduce the US deficit in the long term.

Experts believe the pandemic will subside as temperatures warm up and by summer Covid-19 will not have much impact on electoral campaigns. The question remains, however: can the Democratic Party decide on its presidential nominee before July when the Democratic National Convention is held? So far, the results of the primaries show Biden moving boldly towards winning the nomination after taking 14 out of 20 states this month. Sanders, however, is unwilling to relent and withdraw from the race at a time when the party needs to close ranks to ensure Trump is defeated, or at least to make it very difficult for him to return to the White House for a second term.

Although it admits that Sanders’ chances of winning the party nomination are diminishing, Sanders’ campaign is trying to convince his supporters that he can continue to battle on. Faiz Shaker, Sanders’ campaign manager, believes it is premature to talk about Sanders withdrawing from the race. Shaker dismissed his boss’s recent losses, saying that the results have fluctuated since the beginning, and even Biden had a rough start in the first three primaries before his recent comeback. Also, that two candidates who withdrew, Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris, were at the forefront in opinion poll forecasts, but eventually lost ground.

Biden is doing his best not to strongly criticise Sanders in the hope that the latter will realise it is in the interest of the Democratic Party and the United States to close ranks quickly behind Biden to improve his chances of defeating Trump. Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign believes the economic impact of Covid-19 poses a more serious threat to his re-election than Biden’s surge so far. If Trump succeeds in re-stimulating the economy by cutting taxes and pumping more funds into infrastructure spending, then his chances of defeating Biden are certain.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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