The coronavirus outbreak has already had a profound effect on American politics. Campaign rallies have been suspended; legislators are closing their offices; and the terms of debate are changing by the hour.
This is a new challenge, one that American politics has not encountered in at least a century, if ever. We cannot know when the outbreak will end, but it is already changing politics as we know it, in at least the seven following ways:
1. The 2020 presidential election is effectively suspended. Voters will choose in November between a president who has been effective but controversial, and a challenger who is well-liked but incapable of doing the job on his own. The economic impact of coronavirus favors a challenger, but voters do not like to change leaders mid-crisis. The challenger’s party has embraced extreme ideas, but has chosen a (relative) moderate. It will likely be close.
2. The political arguments about coronavirus are set in stone. The president will point to his early actions to close travel to China. The opposition will point to the lack of testing kits at the start of the outbreak. There will be many arguments about the “message” of the administration, but it is difficult to imagine that these will move public opinion one way or another, as they will largely rely on pre-existing political biases or counter-factual arguments.
3. Coronavirus favors both left- and right-wing views on health care. The left is already using the coronavirus outbreak to argue for socialized medicine. A public health crisis certainly points to the need for a broad social safety net. At the same time, there is no quick way to develop a vaccine, to mass-produce new medical supplies, or to expand hospital staff without the profit-driven private sector, including the much-maligned pharmaceutical industry.
4. Political leaders are less important than everyday heroes. We owe ongoing thanks to those on the front lines in the fight against the outbreak — especially the health professionals treating the sick. Moreover, each of us has a role to play. Getting up in the morning and doing our regular work as best we can. Comforting family members who may be sick, or just scared. Sharing reliable information, responsibly. And above all, washing our hands. Often.
5. The pundits are the least important of all. Good political punditry helps the public understand the arguments on different sides, and encourages new thinking about political questions. Unfortunately, much of what takes place on cable news and social media is pointless point-scoring for one side or another. The coronavirus outbreak reveals much of the shouting to be a form of entertainment, and not a particularly helpful one. Choose your sources wisely.
6. Look for odd alliances as politicians are forced to cooperate. There is no love lost between the governor of California and the president, yet they were praising each other this week as they worked together to deal with a cruise ship stricken with coronavirus. There will be more opportunities for working together across party lines in the days ahead. For now, at least, politicians have an incentive to show they can get along. Perhaps it will last.
7. This could be Donald Trump’s finest moment. The true test of presidential leadership is not what happens in the good times, but how a president manages the tough challenges. No president would have wanted this kind of crisis, but it presents Trump with an opportunity to be extraordinary. People disagree about what he has done thus far, but what will matter most is what he does in the days ahead. There is every reason to believe he can succeed.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). He earned an A.B. in Social Studies and Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard College, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.