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It’s only June. The defining event of the 2020 election may not have even happened yet

Pundits portray big events as decisive, when few are

People wait in line outside the National Building Museum for walk-up COVID-19 testing on Monday.
People wait in line outside the National Building Museum for walk-up COVID-19 testing on Monday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — I’m old enough to remember (and so are you, if you are reading this) when the 2020 election was going to be about Russia or impeachment or Charlottesville or Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders or the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation vote or a hundred other things that we’ve already forgotten.

Journalists and talking heads like to see every big event as decisive when, in fact, few are. As I have argued repeatedly, most events simply don’t have a major impact on our elections. They matter only if they are big enough to define the parties, the president or his opposition.

The events cited above did help define our key political players (including the president and a few senators up for election this year), and that is crucially important. But most events on most days are little more than political filler, no matter how much chatter there is about them on cable television shows.

This is meant only to remind you that the two huge topics that now absorb our attention — the COVID-19 pandemic and our current important discussion on civil rights, human rights, fairness, equality and police behavior — could find themselves competing with other issues in the fall.

Sure, that is unlikely given the enormous impact the coronavirus and George Floyd’s killing have had on the country, but I would have said the same thing about the dramatic events I cited earlier.

Do you really think that President Donald Trump can’t say something more idiotic than he already has — such as his suggestion that scientists might find a way to kill COVID-19 with a household disinfectant or an ultraviolet bulb inserted internally? Nothing more delusional than his suggestion that he has done more for blacks than Abraham Lincoln?

Come on. You know he can.

And what about the Democrats? You really think that some ultraprogressive genius in one of the most progressive cities or counties in the country won’t come up with some idea that sounds so crazy that it will turn off swing voters? How about a slogan like “Defund the police,” which is easy for Trump to misinterpret as he paints his opponents as extreme supporters of political correctness?

And then there are the congressional Republicans. So far, they have been cowardly co-conspirators with the president, focused only on their ideological agendas, with no concern for traditional norms, our system of checks and balances, congressional oversight or the key institutions that keep us free.

But do you really think they could do nothing worse than they’ve already done as they try to win the House, protect their Senate majority, and reelect the president?

The reality is that plenty of things could happen between now and Nov. 3 that could help define the choice voters have this year. I don’t know what those things could be. After all, six months ago, I had never heard of COVID-19.

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Competing with COVID-19

But if I forced myself to think of events that could compete with COVID-19 and the George Floyd killing and scramble the election, I might think of a few general categories of events.

For example, the two major-party nominees are 77 and 74 years old. The life expectancy of a 74-year-old man is almost 12 years, while the life expectancy of a man 77 years of age is 10 years. But age brings risk, and health is always a wild card, especially this year.

Another example? Is it so hard to imagine the United States getting into a military or political international crisis between now and November? A confrontation with another power, or a terrorist (foreign or domestic) attack producing mass casualties?

How about a series of climate (or even geologic) disasters that create great suffering? A sudden Supreme Court vacancy? A major corporate scandal or bankruptcy? A shooting?

And wouldn’t a further acceleration of COVID-19 cases, resulting in a surge in hospitalizations, deaths and further economic dislocations, also have an increased impact on November’s elections?

I can think of a variety of other events that would grab our attention, but you get the point.

Each year, or month, or week or day, has produced more controversy and confrontation. Who is to say that will stop now? Who can guarantee there won’t be other issues emerging that will help define what 2020 is about?

Remember, it’s only June. Things could get worse. In fact, you should probably bet they will.

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