Will Coronavirus Bring Politics to a Standstill?

Jewish politics from the nation’s capital.
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1. Politics in the time of coronavirus

The nation is shutting down, its economy is grinding to a halt, but politics, so it seems, is still showing signs of vitality, perhaps even of growth.

President Trump has turned his almost-daily White House news briefing into a platform for deflecting criticism of his administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, topped with a dash of self-aggrandizing and of his signature attacks on political rivals and critics.

On the Democratic side, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were forced into unknown territory, having to cancel their campaign rallies (more of a problem for Sanders, who uses them to energize thousands, than for Biden, known for his low-key events,) and to focus much of their messaging on public health issues.

In many ways, this should have been Bernie’s breakout moment.

As Americans hunker down in their homes, facing economic uncertainty and dealing with health-related anxieties, the focus has shifted to issues at the heart of Sanders’ campaign: providing universal healthcare and ensuring financial security to all. If there’s a time in which the Vermont Senator’s social-democratic message could resonate with voters, it’s now, when Americans feel vulnerable and, are looking to the government for solutions.

This is what Sanders tried to do in the one-on-one debate with Biden Sunday.

He touted his proposal for a single-payer healthcare system and upending the existing economic order as solutions for the coronavirus crisis engulfing America, framing the discussion over the pandemic in terms of social justice and class struggle.

But despite the favorable circumstances and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to market social democracy to a receptive audience, Sanders, by and large, blew the chance. As he went back time and again to the qualities of a healthcare system offering free access for all and of an economy in which the rich pay more in order to ensure that others can withstand testing times like these, Biden took a different approach. The former vice president skirted questions regarding the specifics of his plans, choosing, instead, a presidential tone, describing the battle against the spread of the coronavirus as a “war,” and putting off policy debates until this war is won.

Biden’s tactic turned out to be more effective. Pundits and TV studio commentators praised Biden for demonstrating leadership at a time of crisis and for coming across as reliable, thoughtful, and, well, presidential. And that may sum up Bernie’s political tragedy—at a time of crisis, people turn to a unifying figure, not an ideologue. And then, when the crisis is over, they forget about it all and shun revolutionary ideas in favor of the comfortable status quo.

2. Where do Jewish voters stand on the issues separating Sanders and Biden?

With no live audience, Sunday’s debate offered a rare opportunity to look at the policy differences between Biden and Sanders, many of which fall under the category of how far each candidate is willing to go to address issues of healthcare, income inequality, and climate change.

But where do Jewish voters stand on these issues?

Polling a small minority of Americans is difficult and costly. Getting into very specific questions in this type of polling is even harder, and that’s why we do not have clear numbers on where the community stands on the key issues of the Democratic primary race. But there a few clues:

It is clear that Bernie’s emphasis on healthcare as the burning issue facing Americans resonates well with Jewish voters.

A February 2020 Bend the Arc poll found that 84 percent of Jewish Americans view healthcare as their top priority or a “very important priority” when choosing the next president. Another poll, conducted in May 2019 by the Jewish Electorate Institute confirmed that Jewish voters’ top two priority issues are “protecting Medicare and Social Security” and “making quality affordable healthcare available to every American.” Now, does this mean Jewish voters necessarily prefer the Sanders Medicare for All program over Biden’s Obamacare fix? Not at all. But it should give a good indication of the fact that by making healthcare, and preserving entitlements, a major campaign issue, Sanders is in tune with the concerns of American Jewish voters.

What about gun control?

Here, the balance probably tips toward Biden. While both candidates currently share the same views on the need for immediate gun control measures, Sanders has had a problematic voting record on the issue, while Biden prides himself on actually passing gun laws that limited access to assault weapons. This is an issue Jewish voters care deeply about. 56 percent of Jewish voters, according to the Bend the Arc poll, see it as their single top priority, and in the Jewish Electorate Institute survey, 50 percent cite gun control as “one of the most important” issues they will vote on.  

When it comes to Sanders’ hallmark policy of raising taxes on the rich, there is no specific polling data about the community’s stance. According to J Street exit poll data, economic issues topped the list of Jewish concerns up to 2016, before healthcare and gun violence became the leading priorities. One could guess that Bernie’s higher taxes message would not resonate well with many Jewish Americans who belong to the upper-middle-class or are among the higher-earning Americans, but there is no real data on that.

And what about Sanders’ support for a massive climate change plan known as the “Green New Deal?” Polls indicate Jewish voters definitely care about the issue and could, potentially, support his aggressive approach.

All polls show that Jewish voters also place great importance on fighting anti-Semitism and racism. Both candidates have strong policies on the issue and both have pointed to Trump as an enabler of racism, but Biden is the one who launched his campaign with an ad highlighting the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, describing it as his main motivation for entering the race.

3. First big Jewish primary

As the primary season moves on, Jewish voters are beginning to get noticed. The Democratic primary started off with a couple of states not known for their large Jewish populations, then a couple of others also not seen as major Jewish hubs (though Nevada has a growing and active Jewish community). Then came super Tuesday, with California and Massachusetts which boast large communities, though not distinguishable as a political voting bloc.

Now comes Florida; with more than 600,000 Jews concentrated mostly in the southern tip of the state, is the first primary race with a real “Jewish vote.”

Sanders, already an underdog in the Sunshine State, is expected to have some issues with its Jewish voters. They tend to be older and lean to the hawkish side on issues relating to Israel. This doesn’t bode well for Sanders, whose strength is with younger voters and with those more skeptical about Israeli policies.

Biden, on the other hand, has been actively courting Jewish Floridians. His campaign sent out surrogates to convince voters, and in a Sun-Sentinel op-ed, former ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro made the case for Biden, stating that “no issue brings out Biden’s passion more than his commitment to the U.S. partnership with Israel.”

4. Netanyahu’s coronavirus move

The coronavirus knows no borders, and while America is still preparing for the big outbreak, Israel is already in full emergency mode, with mandatory closings, partial lockdowns and even a restriction on kissing the stones of the Western Wall.

For Netanyahu, trying to bounce back from a third round of elections that ended without a clear winner, the coronavirus also has some political implications.

In a series of moves that could make even Trump envious, Netanyahu postponed the start of his corruption trial, originally slated for Tuesday, and issued a call for a national emergency government (which he would lead.) All these measures, he explained, are necessary because of the coronavirus outbreak.

5. Jared in charge?

As is the case with every other  Trump presidency crisis, Jared Kushner was called to the rescue. Actually, according to the Washington Post, this time Kushner inserted himself without being asked. The article said that Kushner, who “has zero expertise in infectious diseases and little experience marshaling the full bureaucracy” has yet to deliver any real help to his father-in-law, who is still struggling to find his message on the pandemic which is keeping Americans locked in their homes.                                     

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