Byron York

Give Joe Biden some credit. On Jan. 27, he published an op-ed in USA Today recognizing that the coronavirus outbreak could become a big problem. But he devoted nearly the entire piece to bashing President Donald Trump and nearly none of it to explaining what he, Biden, would do to fight the pandemic.

Since then, where has Biden been? It’s been eight weeks since the Iowa caucuses, when Biden began a terrible stretch at the polls that threatened his presidential candidacy. It’s been three weeks since South Carolina and Super Tuesday, when he roared back and took a big lead over rival Bernie Sanders. Two weeks since primaries in Michigan and other states, when Biden took a prohibitive lead in the delegate race. And it’s been one week since primaries in Florida and elsewhere, when Biden essentially became the presumptive nominee.

During that time, the coronavirus outbreak has turned into a historic national crisis.

So what has the man who wants to be the next president, now confident of his path to his party’s nomination, done?

Biden did give a speech on March 12 to explain what he would do as president to confront the virus. But his plan was not much different from what the Trump administration has already been doing. And why did Biden, after his initial op-ed, let so much time pass without offering a comprehensive proposal for dealing with the crisis? Especially since his main criticism of Trump is that the president has not acted swiftly enough?

In short, Biden has been slow to explain why he would have reacted more quickly than Trump.

Now, Biden, who has devoted lots of time during the virus crisis to holding “virtual” fundraisers, is playing catch-up with a plan to start “briefings” from his house in Delaware. “They put a new high-speed line into my home,” Biden told reporters. “They’ve converted a recreation room, basically, into a television studio.”

Meanwhile, when he has addressed the crisis, Biden has been offering little more than boilerplate. Look at this, from a recent virtual fundraiser, according to a pool report: “This is a time for this nation to come together, because, folks, we’re all in this together. This virus doesn’t care whether you’re a Democrat or Republican. It doesn’t discriminate on the basis of your gender or race or ethnicity or anything else. And from the Great Depression to two world wars to 9/11 to the pandemic of 1918, this country has always overcome every crisis we faced in our history. We’re gonna overcome this one, too.”

Biden had nothing more to offer in a recent web ad. He focused on a small snippet of Trump’s news conference Saturday, where the president took questions from NBC’s Peter Alexander. After an extended exchange with Alexander, Trump snapped, “You’re a terrible reporter.” The ad was an attempt to contrast Trump’s temperament with Biden’s, with Biden saying things like, “This is about America. This is about the world. This is about how we bring people together.”

The Trump campaign has fired back. “When President Trump took the critical step of restricting travel from China in response to the coronavirus, Biden called it ‘xenophobic,’” campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said recently. “Most of what Biden says the government should do are things President Trump is already doing.”

Biden has, in fact, accused Trump of xenophobia in the virus crisis. When the president announced travel restrictions on China, Biden cited what he called Trump’s “record of hysteria and xenophobia, hysterical xenophobia.” When Trump referred to coronavirus as a “foreign virus,” Biden said the president was “[falling] back on xenophobia.”

On the substance of Biden’s plans, an earlier Trump campaign statement said Biden “plagiarized” his response from the president — echoing a long-ago incident from Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign when he dropped out after it was revealed he had plagiarized a speech.

Now, with the briefings, Biden is starting a new phase of his campaign. Yes, the briefings will be about coronavirus, but they will also be about Biden’s standing in the Democratic Party. For a party out of the White House, in an election year, the presidential nominee is the leader of the party. Biden is not the nominee yet, but he is all but there. Does he appear to be the leader of the Democratic Party? No. Meanwhile, other Democrats, like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, are actually in power and on television every day — giving briefings — dealing with the crisis.

So Biden’s new move is a front-runner playing catch-up while the rest of the political world deals with an unprecedented crisis.

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