President Trump and HHS Sec. Alex Azar visit the CDC on March 6.
President Trump and HHS Sec. Alex Azar visit the CDC on March 6.
INDIANAPOLIS — This has become the whiplash era of American politics.

The punditry class was chastened in 2016. Howey Politics Indiana put out a “blue tsunami warning” that June, only to see it swing wildly the other way resulting in Donald Trump’s stunning upset of Hillary Clinton. But Political Science 101 teaches us that no two election cycles are the same, particularly in consecutive fashion.

Now think about where the 2020 presidential race was a month ago: President Trump was acquitted in the Senate impeachment trial and his approval approached the 50% mark that had eluded him for most of his first term. His reelection chances were greatly enhanced. Pete Buttigieg won the Iowa delegate battle, and came within a whisker of upsetting Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire. But Bernie’s win there ignited the notion that Trump’s risk of impeachment to slime Joe Biden had handsomely paid off, setting up his dream November showdown with an avowed Socialist. With Joe Biden’s apparent demise, Trump v. Sanders appeared to be a fait accompli.

Since then, we’ve watched the coronavirus swarm across the globe and into the American psyche, shutting our society down for what looks to be a month or two. President Trump’s response has been abysmal, crystalized in his visit late last week to the Center for Disease Control where he asked, “Who would have thought? Who would have thought we would even be having the subject?”

Ask Indiana Health Commissioner Kristina Box or Gov. Eric Holcomb if they had ever pondered a microbe-induced pandemic here.

The day before his CDC trip to Atlanta, President Trump said of the pandemic, “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”

By Monday, Tom Bossert, who handled the pandemic portfolio for the National Security Council before President Trump fired in 2018 and didn’t replace him, described a “tip of the iceberg” scenario in a Washington Post op-ed: “The most useful comparison now is to a fire that threatens to burn out of control. It is one we can still contain, even extinguish – if we act. School closures, isolation of the sick, home quarantines of those who have come into contact with the sick, social distancing, telework and large-gathering cancellations must be implemented before the spread of the disease in any community reaches 1%. After that, science tells us, these interventions become far less effective. If we fail to take action, we will watch our health-care system be overwhelmed.”

Asked about his 2018 dismantling of the White House pandemic office in 2018, Trump responded on Friday in the Rose Garden, “I just think it’s a nasty question. When you say me, I didn’t do it. We have a group of people. I could ask perhaps my administration” because “I don’t know anything about it.” He later added, “No, I don’t take responsibility at all” after he was asked about the lag in testing.

Faced with a Trump v. Sanders shouting match, voters responded. After Rep. James Clyburn’s clarion endorsement and the presidential field moderates of Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Bloomberg coalescing around Joe Biden, an unprecedented turn of events occurred. Though Biden’s “No Malarkey” campaign was running on financial fumes, with virtually no field offices and a tiny advertising budget, he ran the table up to Colorado and California, where a third of the vote pre-dated the pandemic and veep revival. He swept swing states Virginia and North Carolina, the Deep South, Texas, Minnesota, Massachusetts and now Missouri and Michigan. At this writing it was Biden who possessed the insurmountable delegate lead.

And telltales are emerging that Biden v. Trump won’t be the nail-biter that conventional wisdom envisioned. If Biden can avoid a health emergency, keep his malapropisms to a cute minimum, and choose a running mate that enhances his electability, Trump continues his unempathetic approach to the pandemic, the November showdown may not even be close.

In Tuesday’s Missouri primary, white men with college degrees swung 55% away from Sanders. According to CNN exit polls, Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton 64%-36% in 2016. On Tuesday, Biden won that demographic 60% to 33%. As the Political Wire’s Taegan Goddard observed, “That’s pretty solid evidence that a significant amount of Bernie Sanders’ support four years ago was more anti-Hillary than pro-Bernie.”

As I’ve been stating since 2016, Sanders and Trump are fueled by the same set of grievances. And as I’ve stated at the beginning of the 2020 cycle, Trump won’t have Hillary Clinton to kick around anymore.

Tim Alberta reported for Politico: “Two things happened on Tuesday in Michigan. First, Democratic turnout exploded. Second, Biden performed far better with key demographic groups than Clinton did four years ago. If either one of those things happens in November, Trump will have a difficult time winning the state again. If both things happen, the president can kiss Michigan’s 16 electoral votes goodbye – and with them, more than likely, the electoral votes of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.”

“The big takeaway from the day’s big prize, Michigan, isn’t that Biden is a spectacular candidate,” Alberta explained. “The big takeaway is that he doesn’t need to be.”

Another case in point: Sanders upset Hillary in Michigan in 2016; Tuesday, he didn’t carry a single county against Biden. Turnout in the Texas Democratic primary was described as “staggeringly high” with long lines at polls.

Anecdotally, I and people I know have been approached by 2016 Trump voters. The conversation often goes like this: “I voted for Donald Trump because I just couldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton. Annnnnd I thought that voting for Trump would be good for draining the Washington swamp. Now I’m having buyer’s remorse. What do you think?”

Sadly, we now face an engulfing pandemic. The Trump administration’s decision not to accept the World Health Organization’s coronavirus test has mystified and infuriated American governors. Tests remain elusive here in Indiana with just 73 people tested by the end of the week. Universities, schools, basketball tournaments, the NBA schedule suspension, and political rallies are being cancelled. The bears have moved into Wall Street, stoking recession anxiety after an 11-year bull run and were not reassured by President Trump’s primetime speech Wednesday night that focused on keeping the foreign contagion out, as opposed to widespread testing within.

Fear, once Trump’s tool of choice, is now induced within the population in a way polio once did more than a half century ago. This has become Trump's 9/11.

What has become painfully evident is that President Trump is woefully unprepared for his first non-self-inflicted crisis. This is not to say that incredible events and fate won’t whip-lash the body politic once again before this cycle runs its course. But we find ourselves in a vastly different place than we were a month ago.