One year ago today, the first U.S. military serviceman was diagnosed with COVID-19. He was 23-year-old Army soldier stationed in Korea and was immediately quarantined. That night, seven Democrats debated in Charleston in the run-up to South Carolina's presidential primary.
By any historical measure (prior to 2016), two of the seven candidates simply lacked qualifications for the job. Thirty-eight-year-old Pete Buttigieg had charisma and presence, but serving as the mayor of a small American city wasn't considered the requisite experience. Meanwhile, San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer had never held elective office of any kind or served as a wartime commander in the military, as had every president before Donald Trump.
In hindsight, we tend to view the outcome of presidential nomination campaigns as obvious, the logic of the winner clearly making sense after the fact. But these contests over many states and many months are not foreordained. And in large fields, unpredictable chemical reactions take place among the candidates, which happened last year during the South Carolina primary, even as many commentators were already conceding the nomination to Bernie Sanders, who'd swept to victory in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada.
But when his six main rivals took aim at him in the Palmetto State that night, as they needed to, Vermont's "Democratic Socialist" senator didn't know how to expand his appeal. Queried about his past praise of communist tyrants, Sanders dug in his heels. "When dictatorships, whether it is the Chinese or the Cubans, do something good, you acknowledge that," he said. Pressed on whether he was hostile to Israel, Sanders called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "reactionary racist."
Meanwhile, picking up where she left off a week earlier in Nevada, Elizabeth Warren continued her personal mission of dismantling Mike Bloomberg's campaign over how women were treated in his company. For their part, Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden squabbled over who should get credit for gun control legislation. Looking back, however, the issue that was really hanging over everyone's head was the new coronavirus.
The first person to mention the coronavirus in the Democrats' Feb. 25, 2020, debate was Mike Bloomberg, who blurted out that President Trump had "defunded" the Centers for Disease Control, a claim so odd no one responded to it. Moments later, moderator Gayle King of CBS noted that the CDC had said that it's not a matter of "if" the coronavirus would spread to the United States, but when. Turning to Amy Klobuchar, King asked, "The question to you is this: Would you close the borders to Americans who have been exposed to the coronavirus in order to prevent an outbreak here in this country?"
With that, they were off and running. The candidates' answers weren't particularly insightful in the early stages of the pandemic (you can read a transcript here), but they did tell you something about each of them. Klobuchar urged listeners to go to the CDC website; Joe Biden touted his previous experience dealing with the Ebola outbreak. Sanders went after Trump in caustic language:
"In the White House today, we have a self-described ‘great genius.' Self-described. And this great genius has told us that this coronavirus is going to end in two months. April is the magical day that this great scientist we have in the White House has determined. I wish I was kidding. That is what he said. What do we have to do? Whether or not the issue is climate change, which is clearly a global crisis requiring international cooperation, or infectious diseases like coronavirus, requiring international cooperation, we have to work and expand the World Health Organization. Obviously, we have to make sure the CDC, the NIH, our infectious departments are fully funded. This is a global problem."
As I say, caustic. But not necessarily inaccurate or unfair. The man in the White House was fiddling while Rome burned -- and not only Rome. The rest of Italy. New York, too, and California -- this awful pathogen was already here. But Bernie Sanders' own blind spot was the WHO. That organization, apparently under pressure from China, where the virus originated, was stubbornly refusing to even call the outbreak a "pandemic."
"Using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts, but it may cause fear," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters. This was idiotic, as was the response of the man in the White House to the Democrats' debate.
"CDC and my Administration are doing a GREAT job of handling Coronavirus, including the very early closing of our borders to certain areas of the world," Trump tweeted during the debate.
"No matter how well we do, however, the Democrats talking point is that we are doing badly," he added. "If the virus disappeared tomorrow, they would say we did a really poor, and even incompetent, job. Not fair, but it is what it is."
The virus didn't "disappear" the next day, and still hasn't. Joe Biden is presiding over a nation in which more than half a million people have died. It is what it is, the former president said. But did it have to be that way?
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.