Littwin: Democrats held a debate, but in the time of coronavirus, did it really matter?

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 16: Workers from the White House Physician's Office check the body temperatures of people entering the White House with a forehead temperature scanner on March 16, 2020 in Washington, DC. The White House is now routinely checking the temperatures of people who may be in close contact with President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence as efforts to contain the COVID-19 virus continue. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 16: Workers from the White House Physician's Office check the body temperatures of people entering the White House with a forehead temperature scanner on March 16, 2020 in Washington, DC. The White House is now routinely checking the temperatures of people who may be in close contact with President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence as efforts to contain the COVID-19 virus continue. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Updated at 11:53 a.m. Monday to include Denver’s latest response to pandemic.

It was an easy debate to score. Neither Democrat quite won. And Donald Trump lost.

The debate was mostly irrelevant, and not just because Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders spent much of the night debating votes they took 20 or 30 years ago. It was actually a decent debate, if you’re into that kind of thing (as I am) and if you discount the fact that both candidates have been around long enough to have a record on the Sandinista-Contra battles. But it did nothing to change the direction of the primary. Biden stumbled at times and probably didn’t do much to move younger voters, but he didn’t gaffe. Sanders made his case in the way he always does, but didn’t move the needle.

As I may have noted before, the math is the math, and unless everyone is wrong, after Tuesday’s primaries it will be virtually impossible for Sanders to catch up. And it didn’t hurt that Biden said he would definitely pick a woman as his running mate.

But the reason the debate was irrelevant is because the only thing that matters right now is the coronavirus and the catastrophe that we may well be facing — that, in fact, we already are facing. And that virtually anyone could do a better job handling the situation than Trump.

The moderators spent the first 40 minutes on the pandemic. Biden and Sanders showed they were aware of the seriousness of the crisis, with detailed plans on their web sites to address it and to address, at least in part, the economic disruption facing workers. Since both are in their late 70s, they should be aware. They did some things right. They elbow bumped. They stood six feet apart. They talked about washing hands and social distancing. Both dependably slammed the Trumpian ineptitude. Sanders tried to make it about Medicare for All. Biden noted that Italy has universal healthcare. it got raw at times, which should have been expected. It was basically Sanders’ last best hope.

But I didn’t think either quite met the moment, and maybe that’s a reflection of just how enormous the moment is.

If it looked as if debate prep for the candidates had ended a few days ago, I guess that’s because everything connected to the virus is happening so quickly. Just Sunday evening, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced its recommendation that no groups of greater than 50 should meet for the next eight weeks. Colorado has joined in that recommendation. Denver has joined other cities in closing restaurants and bars for the next eight weeks, other than takeout and delivery. It’s also not enforcing evictions or jailing of low-level offenders. They’re working on solutions for the homeless. DMVs are closing, and we may see more closings soon. It’s just that serious.

Forget the 50 people for a minute, though, because there’s no enforcement involved and there are exceptions. It could have been — and maybe should have been — 10 people. The CDC said, in fact, we should avoid planning gatherings of any size that aren’t necessary. The point to note is that this recommendation is for the next eight weeks. That’s the federal government’s CDC saying we should be prepared for at least eight more weeks of this, and that’s likely a conservative estimate.

Which means no one knows how many cases we’ll be facing, no one knows how many deaths, no one knows how much disruption, no one know how many workers will be forced to go without pay, no one knows if we can flatten the curve, no one know how deeply the economy will be affected, no one knows when, or if, Trump himself will ever get how just much  danger we now face.

What we know, besides the fact that this is a crisis, is that the president, who has dismissed the seriousness of the problem for weeks, opened the latest coronavirus press briefing by once again saying everything will be fine — and that “it’s a very contagious virus, it’s incredible, but it’s something we have tremendous control over …”

It’s a virus we have no control over. It’s a virus that Trump has basically ignored, if you don’t count his favorite tool of travel bans. It’s a virus that the Trump administration is desperately, if much belatedly, trying to catch up on and one that Dr. Tony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, keeps saying will get much worse before it gets better. He said on “Meet the Press” that we “should be prepared … to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing.”

Fauci warned that without significant action by the government and by the public, the numbers of those infected will rise dramatically, tens of thousands or more, hundreds of thousands or more. Asked about the kinds of 14-day shutdown some countries in Europe have embraced, he said, “I would prefer as much as we possibly could. I think we should really be overly aggressive and get criticized for overreacting.”

No, we don’t have control over the virus. And, yes, it’s a virus that has been left to the states to make the real moves while Washington, until all too recently, was in full-dither mode. We are promised — again — that the tests are coming. And this time, the admiral in charge says 1.9 million are on the way and that we’re not talking some fantasy.

I want to believe him. I really do.

But if the tests are finally coming, that’s where we should have been weeks ago. Now, where the real concern is in the overwhelming of our hospitals and doctors and nurses and caregivers and first responders and all health providers. Look at Italy. Look at what precautions France and Spain are taking. This is where we’re headed. We have no idea how many people have the virus now. In Ohio, top health officials estimated they may have 100,000 in that one state alone. Ohio officials cited the number last Friday when the state’s official number was 13 and while Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, was explaining why he was closing the state’s schools.

Are you up on the latest? No one is, but here’s some of what’s going on, besides state after state closing schools (the three-week break in Denver will almost certainly be longer). Besides the unsteady stock market — it crashed again at the open Monday morning — and the global economy teetering on the verge of recession. Besides the Fed cutting its rates to virtually zero. Besides California calling for everyone 65 or older to shelter in their homes. Besides a few cities beginning to place a moratorium on evictions. Besides Nike and Apple and host of others closing their stores. Besides New York, Los Angeles, Illinois (including Chicago), Massachusetts (including Boston), Washington (including Seattle) and Denver closing restaurants, except for takeout and delivery, and bars, with presumably no takeout or delivery.

And yes, Las Vegas casinos are closing. I don’t know what the betting line against that was, but when the lights go out in Vegas — MGM properties and Wynn have said they’re shutting down — the message changes to nothing should happen in Vegas.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post was reporting that most of the 2.1 million federal employees were expected to report to work Monday “to tightly packed office cubicles and other workplaces where they serve the public.”

And after the debate, it seemed the only argument worth having is whether it’s actually worth the risk to hold primary elections Tuesday. There will be lines. People will un-self-isolate. There won’t be social distancing. Future primaries, in Georgia and Louisiana, are already on hold.

And if Biden does as well as expected Tuesday, and it’s even truer that the math is the math, pressure will grow immensely on Sanders to suspend — because even as important as the future of the country is, the present crisis should necessarily come first.


  1. I read the The Bern is going to stay in the race until April 26 at the minimum. I wonder how long the public tolerance is going to last for such a quixotic quest considering the numbers and the context.


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