Special: Coronavirus and the 2020 election

Mar. 20, 2020 AT 8:46 p.m. EDT

In this week’s Extra, the discussion at the table centered on the state of a 2020 election campaign as COVID 19 spreads. Some states canceled their primaries and candidates adjusted to the measures like social distancing. The panel discussed how the virus could reshape how voters view issues at the heart of the campaign.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.

As the coronavirus outbreak spreads and more states enforce social distancing, the 2020 campaign has slowed. Senator Bernie Sanders’ team put out a statement that he would, quote, “assess his campaign,” after former Vice President Joe Biden won in Florida, Arizona, and Illinois on Tuesday. Biden called for unity and appealed to the senator’s supporters.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) So let me say especially to the young voters who have been inspired by Senator Sanders: I hear you. I know what’s at stake. I know what we have to do.

MR. COSTA: The future of elections themselves may be up in the air. Ohio postponed its primary Tuesday, citing the spread of the virus.

OHIO SECRETARY OF STATE FRANK LAROSE (R): (From video.) It was simply not going to be possible to conduct an election in way that was going to be safe for Ohioans.

MR. COSTA: How does American democracy adjust to all of this? Joining us tonight to help explain what’s next, Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News, who joins us from Capitol Hill; Jake Sherman, senior writer at POLITICO and co-author of Playbook; Eamon Javers, Washington correspondent for CNBC, joining us from his home; and here at the table is Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour.

Yamiche, begin with you. This throws the entire elections into possible chaos as all these primaries are cancelled, but still big news to see Senator Sanders, who you covered in 2016, reassessing his campaign. How long will it take for him to make a final decision?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Senator Sanders understands what reassessing and the word “assess” means when you’re running for president. So I think what we’re seeing now is Senator Sanders really wondering and thinking through what he wants to see himself get out of this now long presidential campaign. I’ve been talking to sources on the Bernie Sanders campaign, and they’re talking about whether or not there are other things they want in the Democratic platform, whether or not there are policies that they want to see Joe Biden get behind.

They acknowledged to me that it’s nearly impossible for Senator Sanders at this point to win the nomination. So they’re just really thinking through how they can change the Democratic Party. And I think we’re going to see Bernie Sanders possibly stay on for a couple more months or a couple more weeks. It’s really, I think, up to him, because right now the bar for campaigning is so low. There are no big rallies. There are no big TV ads. You can kind of just stay in and think through as long as you want to.

MR. COSTA: Jake, how does it affect the congressional races out there, people running for the House and Senate?

JAKE SHERMAN: Yeah, it’s a huge problem. I mean, I’ve been thinking about this a lot in my reporting, and I think we’re going to write it in Playbook pretty soon. I mean, no one’s raising money anymore. Basically the money that you have is the money that you’re going to have. It’s uncouth right now to ask people for money. You can’t hold in-person fundraisers, because who wants to be around other people during a pandemic. And when the administration thinks this could go another two months or so, I can’t imagine any sort of in-person campaigning, whether it’s fundraising, or door knocking, or rallies, or grassroots events. I mean, how does that work? How does that come together?

I don’t know – and I’m curious to do some more reporting on this – I don’t know how this incident, this pandemic, affects how people view the two parties. Do they view – does it make them want to keep the configuration the same, swap out the White House? I don’t know the answer to that. It seems obvious, but usually – as you always like to say, Bob – assume nothing. We don’t know anything. We have to really think things through and do the reporting that will tell us the answer. I just can’t imagine an event of this kind of magnitude, what it will do to voters’ psyche.

And remember, we’re in April pretty much. We’re in the end of March, early April. The election is coming up. It’s sneaking up on us here. It’s only seven months away. The summer is usually the time where candidates hit their stride, right before Labor Day, into Labor Day. They’re barely even started. So I just – this really scrambles everything and puts a dent in just a massive election year for control of the House and the Senate.

MR. COSTA: Eamon, when you’re at the White House how are Republicans there close to the president talking about his own reelection campaign? The slogan for that campaign, keep America great, as they now face enormous – an economic tragedy, as you put it in the show. How does that change their whole approach?

EAMON JAVERS: Well, it changes the entire thing, right? And the election is now going to be fought on entirely different ground. The president thought he was going into a reelection where he was going to talk about how high the stock market was, how good the economy was, how many people have jobs. Now he can’t do any of that. I think this election is going to be fought almost entirely now on the president’s response or lack thereof to the coronavirus crisis. This is going to be with us for a long time. I mean, we’ve – my kids’ schools, for example, are closed for two weeks.

But does anyone think that they’re going to be able to open those schools in the time period that’s given right now? I mean, it seems like the minute you try to release this clampdown that’s happening right now – you’re going to see a spike in virus every time you try to do that. So we could be dealing with this for months and months. That’ll have a lasting and profound impact on the national psyche. And we have no way of knowing, as we sit here right now, how the president will be perceived in November as opposed to how he’s perceived right now. But I think it will be almost entirely about this virus, and the economic consequences, and the health consequences that we’ve seen for the country.

MR. COSTA: Nancy, you cover the Senate closely. What’s your read on Senator Sanders and how he’s handling this all?

NANCY CORDES: Well, you know, I covered Senator Sanders and his presidential bid with Yamiche back in 2016. And we saw him really stay in the race until the bitter end, even after party leaders were begging him to get out of the race and get behind Hillary Clinton. He was determined to stay in till the end. And just a couple of weeks ago I would have predicted that he would do the same this time around, just because it’s very important for him to get his message out about his causes. And he thinks that being a candidate for president is the best way to do that.

I don’t think that, as Yamiche pointed out, Sanders using the term “reassess” is something he does lightly. Obviously he is laying the groundwork for the possibility that he will get out of the race. I think there’s a recognition on his side, both that obviously the math is extraordinarily difficult for him and that both candidates are really starved for attention at this point, so it’s hard to sort of rejigger the race in any meaningful way. But also, that this is such a time of crisis for the country that perhaps he doesn’t want to cause any more friction within the party by continuing this long-shot bid for president.

So while he hasn’t officially announced that he’s getting out of race, I think we should take the fact that he is reassessing as a sign that he is preparing his supporters for the likelihood that he’s going to do that.

MR. COSTA: Before we go tonight, let’s just go around the table and around to all of our guests here about how being a reporter during this pandemic has been for you, and what has changed about your method and your life as you report in the middle of a crisis. Yamiche?

MS. ALCINDOR: I’ve always said that the things that make me cry are probably the things that I should be focused on. And I have to say that this week I’ve cried a lot. And I’ve cried a lot because I feel like people are so scared, and the stories about people, especially in Italy and in the United States, about not having to visit their loved ones, about not being able to go see an old friend. Like, I have a 96-year-old friend that I was – that I had on the calendar to go visit this last weekend. I couldn’t do that, because I was too scared to put her at risk.

So I think for me, as a White House reporter who doesn’t – who visits people and goes out into the country, but is also very focused on policy and what the president’s doing, it’s been making me think more about how to be compassionate, and how to ask questions that every Americans want to know from this president. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do. And I’ve been trying to just listen to my family, and listen to my friends, and say: What are people really talking about on their group chats, and in their neighborhood boards, that people want to have elevated to the presidency?

MR. COSTA: Jake.

MR. SHERMAN: Yeah. As Eamon said, I mean, Washington now is shut down until the end of April. Schools are closed. Restaurants are closed for another six weeks. I’ve been working mostly out of my house. And it’s been challenging. But luckily – I mean, it’s not that different in some senses, because as we all know we’re always texting and emailing with sources. Nothing beats being there, but the Capitol right now is a – I don’t want to say a dangerous place – but it’s a place where two people have been – two lawmakers have been diagnosed, a couple staffers have been diagnosed. It’s a place, as we all know – and I hate to say this with Nancy there right now – (laughs) – but it’s a place that’s crawling with germs on a good day.

But listen, we’re lucky. We’re fortunate that we have our health. I mean, it’s a scary thing. As Yamiche said, I mean, there’s a lot of small businesses in the communities that we live in Washington and the surroundings that are just going to really struggle to stay without business, to pay their employees for the next six weeks. And this bill that the Senate and the House are going to be working on looks to ease some of those tensions. And I hope some of these businesses can find ways to keep open and keep their doors open, and keep people employed.

MR. COSTA: Nancy.

MS. CORDES: Well, you know, this economic package that is coming together at lightning speed here on Capitol Hill will probably be the most expensive bill that I’ve ever covered as a congressional correspondent. And so normally what I would want to do at every opportunity is to get face-to-face with these senators and grill them on behalf of the American people about what’s in the bill, who’s going to get the money, how much, what kind of strings are going to be attached, what are the sticking points, and so on, and so on.

But obviously there is a risk, that in some ways is even higher for me because I’m a lifelong asthmatic. So I have to think about every interaction that I have. Is it worth it, from a health standpoint, even though from a journalistic standpoint of course I want to talk to as many people as possible? And so we have to come up with workarounds. You know, we have some very intrepid younger journalists who have been following these senators, talking to them. Obviously I’m making more phone calls and talking to fewer people in person. But it has been a big adjustment, particularly when you’re talking about the taxpayers’ dollars, as much as $2 or $3 trillion worth of it. And this might not be the end of it.

MR. COSTA: Nancy, I really appreciate you going to the Capitol and going to Capitol Hill tonight to be on this program. It means a lot, really, with all of that you just laid out. You just underscored how much you’ve sacrificed. And you’re committed to the mission of reporting.

Eamon, just wrap us up with your own thoughts.

MR. JAVERS: Yeah. Look, I mean, the little things of life – you know, I’m talking to you right now through an iPad that’s on a tripod that’s hooked up to a cellphone. I can’t imagine doing this even 10 years ago. This job would be undoable right now. With the technology that we do have it is doable from my living room here, in front of my bookcase. But you know, those are the little things.

What I think about right now, Bob, is all – are the big things, right? We’re looking at an economic catastrophe here, potentially. And I think the concern that I’ve been dwelling with as I look at this is the concern that the pilot light in the economy could be about to go out. And we might not have the ability to restart that, right? So everyone’s looking at do we have a V-shape recovery, do we have a U-shape recovery. The fear here is that we have an L-shape recovery – it does down and straight lines, and we don’t see any recovery at all.

There’s so many industries that are going to be damaged so severely by going to near zero revenue that you can’t really imagine them getting restarted in any – if this goes on for any significant length of time. And all of the health science tells us that this is going to go on for some significant amount of time, because it’s about a year to a year and a half until we can see a vaccine. So how does that change American life, American politics, and the American economy? And who’s going to be hurt by that devastation? That’s really what’s on my mind, and what I’ve been dwelling with this week, Bob.

MR. COSTA: Thank you, Eamon. And thank you to everyone who joined us tonight.

That’s it for this edition of our Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our website. While you’re there, check out our weekly news quiz. I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. See you next time.


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