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After a period during which many people asked why he was making so few public appearances, Joe Biden has started making public appearances. They have not, however, had the hoped-for effect of giving the national Democratic Party (and, in general, the cause of evidence-based decision-making) a commanding public presence during the coronavirus crisis.
Biden’s Sunday appearance on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos helps explain why. Here’s a clip:
This interview—you can watch the whole thing here—is not the Disaster Biden that one might have feared. None of the ideas he conveys are problematic, off-message, excessively generous to the Republican Party, or inadequate to the scope of the current crisis. (At one point Biden says that Congress will need to pass “at least two” further rescue/stimulus bills.) But neither are they inspiring, illuminating, or even informative; generally speaking, if you don’t come into a Joe Biden appearance with an understanding of the subjects he’s discussing, you’re not going to leave with one either. Here he is, for example, ostensibly explaining that a fair election needs to take place in November regardless of what’s going on with the coronavirus:
But we cannot let this—we’ve never allowed any crisis from a Civil War straight through to a pandemic in ’17, all the way around—in ’16—we have never, never let our democracy take second fiddle. We can both have a democracy and elections and at the same time protect the public health.
But I think it’s time we start thinking about how we’re going to hold elections, whether we’re going to have to spend a lot of time figuring whether we do—is it going to mostly be by mail, which is not the preferred route for everyone—how are we going to do that? How are we going to make it available to everybody?
Biden leaves out the critical piece of information that completes the first part of his thought, which is that elections were held during the Civil War and the flu pandemic (which was in 1918, not 1917 or 1916). You can hear him trying to wrap the idea into a catchphrase about playing “second fiddle,” but he mashes everything together such that it works neither as exposition nor sound bite. When he moves on to ostensibly proposing a solution to the problem, he brings up voting by mail, only to immediately say that some people don’t like that idea, then asks rhetorically what should be done, which is generally the question that voters want candidates to answer, not pose. As with so much of what Biden says, it is two paragraphs of white noise.
Compare this with some of the answers that Washington governor and onetime Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee gave to Jake Tapper during CNN’s State of the Union on March 29.
Here’s Inslee answering a question about coronavirus testing:
Well, we have a desperate need for the testing kits. We’ve been—had some considerable success building up the capacity to analyze the samples when they’re taken, the University of Washington has been successful, we’ve done some really good things there … but we simply don’t have the materials to take the test itself, some things as simple as the swabs. When the little vials—when you put the swab in it to send it to the lab, it needs a particular medium in it to preserve it. We just do not have those simple things.
And that’s why we have got to mobilize the entire manufacturing base of the United States, like we did in World War II, for things as simple as these testing kits. This is so severe in my state I have had a person have to drive 300 miles to pick some up to deliver them—40 vials. So we have a desperate need for all kinds of equipment, and we need a full-scale mobilization of the incredible manufacturing base of the United States, like we started on Dec. 8, 1941. I think that’s what we need.
Inslee is speaking off the cuff, so this doesn’t read like a polished piece of writing, but consider what he’s able to do in a limited amount of space. He hits a positive note by explaining what parts of the testing process are working, then conveys the concept of a “transport medium,” which is one of the things running short, in easy-to-understand terms. He gives a tangible example of how difficult it is to find supplies (a 300-mile drive for 40 vials), then describes what’s needed (large-scale government coordination) using an easy-to-understand comparison. In further answers, Inslee would mention having had conversations with Elon Musk and Army and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials about ventilator supplies and field hospitals, signaling a willingness to work with the private sector and the Republican administration without undermining his central point about the urgency of a more ideologically left-leaning response.
In an appearance this Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press, Inslee gave an even punchier version of the WWII line that alluded to Trump advisers’ new strategy of claiming that states should have had their own pandemic stockpiles in place:
This is ludicrous that we do not have a national effort in this. To say we’re a backup, I mean—the surgeon general alluded to Pearl Harbor. Can you imagine if Franklin Delano Roosevelt said: “I’ll be right behind you, Connecticut. Good luck building those battleships”?
Inslee might be a good “face of the party” right now, particularly given that his state, despite being the first to suffer a coronavirus outbreak, has a flatter curve than any other to be significantly affected. But his path to the nomination—like the paths of other lesser-known establishment-friendly regional politicians who have demonstrated effectiveness in recent weeks—was blocked by Biden. Inslee has also gotten less buzz about potentially replacing Biden on the ticket, should he become sick, than New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has. (Cuomo, despite New York’s relatively slow response and higher rate of cases, benefits from holding his virus press conferences in the media capital of the country.) On the plus side, Inslee is doing very well with bloggers and people on Twitter, and that counts for something, right? No? I’m hearing that it does not, so I guess Jay Inslee will have to simply be happy with having saved many of his constituents’ lives by doing a good job.