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Biden closes in on nomination as virus crisis intrudes

jules witcover

WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden’s sweep of three more presidential primaries in Florida, Illinois and Arizona brings him only 153 delegates short of clinching the Democratic nomination, with rival Sen. Bernie Sanders denying so far to abandon the race in the cause of the party unity against President Donald Trump.

The decision of Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine to postpone the state’s primary, on the grounds of preventing the spread of coronavirus, only delayed Biden’s near-certain clinching of the prize.

More notably, Sanders’ persistence left a sour taste over his pledge to support Biden if nominated, necessarily prolonging the former vice-president’s hope to reorganize his campaign to take on the well-heeled sitting president after the Democratic convention in Milwaukee in mid-July.

Without mention of Sanders, Biden said on primary night, his third straight winning event after his huge “firewall” South Carolina primary blowout that erased an early slide: “Our campaign has had a very good night. We’re doing it by building a broad coalition.” It was curt reference to his opponent’s chiding that he was ignoring the strong support of young Sanders voters. “I hear you,” Biden said. “I know what is at stake. I know what we have to do.”

Yet he turned quickly to the new coronavirus peril, seizing it to emphasize his basic campaign pitch that his decades-long experience in the Senate and then eight years as vice president made him uniquely qualified to make executive decisions as a major player in the Obama administration. If there was any political upside for him in the current crisis, there it was.

“Tackling this pandemic is a national emergency that is akin to fighting a war,” he said. “This is the moment for each of us to see and believe in the best in every one of us.” It was Joe Biden in presidential mode, compared to some earlier verbal detours that critics quickly grasped to suggest that at nearly age 78 his time had passed.

Notably, Biden’s primary night remarks came from his home in Delaware with no hoopla or celebration. Sanders had no immediate response that night, and aides subsequently said he was reassessing his situation in the campaign and discussing it with supporters, many of whom were urging him to remain in the race.

With live events such as mass rallies now dismissed in keeping with new coronavirus caution, Sanders directed his followers to his campaign website, telling them: “I look forward to continuing to communicate with you to tell you where we are coming from, what our ideas are, and look forward to hearing from you.” But unless he takes the opportunity to reinforce the shared goal of removing Trump by clearing Biden’s path to the Democratic nomination sooner rather than later, Sanders could bear a heavy burden if that effort were to fall short in November.

All this refocusing from the presidential campaign to the national health crisis has come only weeks after earlier dominance of politics in the daily, even hourly, news cycle, especially on television. To Biden’s advantage and likely Sanders’ discomfort, the Vermont senator’s constant preaching of “revolution” is not apt to have great resonance among a populace now fearing a life-and-death medical catastrophe.

Both Biden and Sanders now have called for calm and compliance with sensible recommendations from state governors, big-city mayors and pandemic experts that have spotlighted what presidential leadership should look like. Even Trump seems to have opened his eyes to the menacing reality with his tardy if partial agreement with them.

While the 2020 election campaign has so suddenly taken a back seat for now to a health crisis that demands the attention and cooperation of all Americans, the crisis should also remind us of the importance of having a president truly capable of dealing with the challenges that come our way. Fortunately, we still have it within our power to replace Trump, if we so choose.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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