The invisible candidate and the progressive lion

As Americans on the progressive left might have expected, the one politician who is responding with the seriousness and the kind of reassuring competence that his fellow citizens need in such a difficult time, is Bernie Sanders.

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Microphones stand at the podium after U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta addressed supporters at the election night rally in New York, U.S., November 9, 2016. REUTERS/Adrees Latif - RTX2SPD8

For most of last week, the likely Democratic nominee for the U.S. presidency, Joe Biden, was so noticeably absent that even the corporate press felt they had to mention it. When he finally spoke to reporters in a conference call last Friday, he blamed technical difficulties for being out of the public eye during a growing health crisis, saying, “They tell me there’s ways in which we can do teleconferencing via us all being in different locations. We’ve hired a professional team to do that now. And if you excuse the expression, it’s a little above my pay grade how to do that.”

Most of us are not experts on the technical issues of live streaming but are pretty easily able to click a button on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram on our phones and start talking. In fairness, the Biden campaign may worry that any attempt to do so would result in their candidate walking off camera as he did during their first abortive attempt at a live stream on both Zoom and, even more disastrously, Facebook Live, on March 14th.

Biden’s lack of public engagement throughout the campaign until now was bad enough but, as the presumptive Democratic nominee at such a time, when his likely opponent is spreading misinformation on a daily basis and has more than half of Americans hoodwinked into thinking that he’s doing a good job, it’s inexcusable.

When his campaign finally figured these technical issues out on Monday, the former vice president stood in a dark room and delivered a speech that was long on empty platitudes and short on ideas, with those that he expressed mostly sourced from other places without attribution, something he’s already famous for. Worse, his teleprompter seemed to cut out and he was left a bumbling mess, reminding those who have been watching his campaign of so many similar moments since the end of last April when he announced his run.

While we can understand that these things happen and that most politicians use teleprompters, the former vice president had a week to prepare to make these remarks and, one assumes, a team of competent people around him to ensure that he would be ready for such an important address. Also, if he is going to make a serious run for the office of U.S. president, he should be able to ad lib for at least a few seconds.

On Tuesday, Biden appeared on The View, CNN with Jake Tapper and on MSNBC with Nicole Wallace, where he faced gentle questioning. It seems cynical, but as a candidate whose campaign has already admitted he is more lucid early in the day, it may be best to schedule him at these times, as his later performances, especially the Wallace interview, were, to be charitable, weaker and less reassuring.

Tapper at one point had to tell the former vice president, who was repeatedly coughing into his hand, to cough into his arm as has been recommended by public health experts for months. Both men laughed it off.

In the meantime, the current U.S. president has replaced his rallies with lengthy daily press conferences that he’s been using to spread a strange message of optimism mixed with large amounts of misinformation that then need to be walked back by other, better informed officials like the director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who’s been one of the few shining lights in the ongoing crisis.

The mixed messages have been coming fast and furious, with the president at first seeming to understand the need for citizens to isolate and engage in social distancing for an indefinite period of time in the interest of public safety before saying on Tuesday, March 24th that the country should get back to business by Easter, probably a convenient sop to the Christian fundamentalists crucial to his base.

While the pain being experienced by working people should be as short lived as possible, viruses do not respond to human schedules and ending emergency measures early could make things much worse over the longer term, possibly allowing for successive waves of infection. These measures are also necessary to try and prevent medical professionals from making the same life or death decisions currently being made in Italy due to bed and equipment shortages.

With some politicians and commentators taking to outlets like Fox News to say that elderly citizens (and presumably those with compromised immune systems of all ages) should be willing to risk sacrificing their lives to save the economy, it’s important for progressive voices to remind the public that the travails of the stock market are the direct result of panic selling by the same wealthy people now demanding that the economy restart.

The last time these same people were bailed out by American taxpayers, they stuffed the money in their own and shareholder pockets and left many working Americans homeless.

One of those who literally took the money and ran at that time, Goldman Sachs senior chairman Lloyd Blankfein, took to Twitter to demand a return to work despite the plans for a large stimulus for such institutions, writing, “Extreme measures to flatten the virus “curve” is sensible-for a time-to stretch out the strain on health infrastructure. But crushing the economy, jobs and morale is also a health issue-and beyond. Within a very few weeks let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work.”

This kind of thinking, openly expressed on rightwing outlets and subtly on opinion pages in major newspapers is shocking, as such idiocy doesn’t take into account these worker’s social relations, especially in the home, where many of those they may come into contact with on a daily basis could be among groups at extreme risk of succumbing to the disease.

As Americans on the progressive left might have expected, the one politician who, if he received any media attention at all, is responding with the seriousness and the kind of reassuring competence that his fellow citizens need in such a difficult time, is Bernie Sanders, who has converted his campaign in short order to address citizen concerns and offer policy prescriptions while his colleagues in the U.S. Congress dithered on a bailout package that seems to privilege the same old wealthy interests and doesn’t even provide for medical treatment for those without insurance or an expansion of vital programs like SNAP to ensure that those at the bottom will be able to feed themselves and their families.

In a series of technically proficient online round table discussions and fireside chats, Sanders has not only offered policy solutions but information from medical professionals and more locally focused discussions about the situations in Minnesota, Michigan, New York and Washington State with progressive champions like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Pramila Jayapal, among others.

As an aside, although they still face great challenges as Jayapal reported, Washington state, which has introduced more widespread testing than elsewhere in the country, seems to be setting a good example in how to combat the disease that could be very useful in other jurisdictions as it spreads.

While the Vermont senator’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination seem slim at this point, he has used his apparatus to raise $2 million for charities over a 48 hour period, including Meals on Wheels and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, with promises of more much needed aid to follow. He and those he speaks to in round tables are offering a picture of what real leadership looks like in a crisis and it still seems to scare the establishment Democrats and media outlets more than the man whose daily 3 hour bouts of mostly fact free self congratulation are still covered live by the corporate networks.

In his speech before the Senate after voting for the flawed stimulus package to ensure that its provisions for ordinary Americans go through, he admonished his colleagues who argued that the main problem with the legislation, which still needs to be passed by the Democratic controlled House, was that some citizens might get a few more dollars in a time of crisis than they normally earn, saying, “And now I find that some of my Republican colleagues are very distressed. They’re very upset at somebody who’s making 10, 12 bucks an hour might end up with a paycheck for four months more than they received last week. Oh my God, the universe is collapsing. Imagine that somebody was making 12 bucks an hour now, like the rest of us, faces an unprecedented economic crisis with the 600 bucks on top of their normal, their regular unemployment check might be making a few bucks more for four months. Oh, my word. Will the universe survive? How absurd and wrong is that? What kind of value system is that? Meanwhile, these very same folks had no problem a couple of years ago voting for $1 trillion in tax breaks for billionaires and large profitable corporations.”

This is the kind of moral leadership that the American 99% needs at this time.

You can watch Bernie Sanders’ Senate speech in its entirety here.

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