What if the Most Important Election of Our Lifetimes Was the Last One?

Wisconsin voters may have risked their health to make it to the polls in a pandemic. But lately, it’s feeling as though 2016, not 2020, remains the most pivotal political moment.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Politics runs on superlative: the best plan, the biggest rally, the most votes.

And one trope has proved most enduring of all, repeated each campaign season with well-practiced conviction.

“This is the most important election of our lifetimes,” Bernie Sanders said of 2020 last month.

“The most important election of our lives,” Pete Buttigieg agreed in February.

“Maybe the most important election,” Joe Biden ruled last year, hedging slightly, “no matter how young or old you are.”

Maybe. But what if they’re wrong this time? What if the other clichés — of dice cast and Rubicons crossed — have finally overwritten this one?

What if the most important election of our lifetimes happened already?

“Actually,” said Representative Ruben Gallego, Democrat of Arizona and a Biden supporter, “it was the last one.”

This is the grim diagnosis now among some opponents of President Trump, who see any hopeful predictions of the past — that the job might change him, that one term is not so long, that perhaps presidents do not matter all that much anyway — collapsing beneath the weight of a crisis whose costs are too bleak to bear.

Mr. Trump is in charge during a generational emergency, briefing the nation on life and death with an eye toward television ratings and miracle cures. It can feel unlikely that any choice in 2020 will be as consequential as the fact that he won in the first place.

Another Democratic Primary Day passed on Tuesday, this one in Wisconsin, and with it another reminder of the present limits of presidential politics, of how large the last decision looms and how distant the next one seems.

If the state’s election made clear the lengths to which some people will go to change course, wearing homemade masks in socially distanced lines for a vote that was scrapped and then un-scrapped in the 11th hour, it also reinforced how far the country has traveled in four years and a few relentless weeks.

In 2016, no one appeared to be risking their health to go to the polls in Wisconsin, where underdogs thrived in the primary: Ted Cruz beat Mr. Trump. Mr. Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton. She lost again in the fall, when Mr. Trump’s surprise victory in the state helped carry him to the White House.

“It was the rejection of business as usual,” said Rebecca Kirszner Katz, a progressive Democratic strategist. “And that includes any form of competent governing.”

Recent weeks have at once exposed the messiness of the federal virus response and the consistency of Mr. Trump’s rampaging leadership instincts, delivering a moment that has at last closed the gap between the permanent chaos of his White House, a once-remote sideshow for many Americans, and the daily upheaval in their own lives.

“What do you have to lose?” Mr. Trump famously asked black voters in 2016, suggesting he was a risk worth taking. He has repeated the question more recently in a new context: to encourage stricken citizens, in defiance of expert opinion, to try an anti-malarial drug to combat the coronavirus.

Of course, the answer to Mr. Trump’s initial prompt has always been evident to most Democrats. At stake were health care plans, immigration policies, a generation of court seats and now, they say, many lives that would not have been lost to the coronavirus under more capable executive stewardship.

While the magnitude of the 2020 election is unambiguous — for Democrats who see November as essential to restoring the nation they recognize; for Republicans who believe Mr. Trump was doing just fine before a disease beyond his control intervened — the crisis has also complicated one of the most effective arguments against the president to date.

Mr. Biden, who entered the Wisconsin primary in a dominant position to claim the Democratic nomination, has staked his bid on presenting Mr. Trump as both a historical anomaly and a reversible blip, a president whose removal alone would restore some sense of national equilibrium, in the candidate’s telling.

“I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time,” Mr. Biden said in his announcement video last year. “But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.”

Mr. Biden has never shown the work on this math, never explained how the threat could be both existential and quickly revocable.

But with the task of social and economic repair now awaiting whoever takes the oath in nine months, two things can be true at once: A return to normal sounds terrific to many voters. And there is plainly no normal to return to, if there ever was.

“The striking thing about the first term is how much damage he was able to inflict,” said Robert Reich, a former labor secretary under Bill Clinton who endorsed Mr. Sanders in the primary. “At the margin, he probably could do more with two terms, and I wouldn’t wish that on this nation. But he’s already done a huge amount.”

Those with experience in revert-to-normal campaigns likewise caution against any wishful thinking.

Tim Pawlenty, the former Republican governor of Minnesota — who took office in 2003 after Jesse Ventura, the retired professional wrestler — suggested that politics was “a lagging reflection of our culture,” where “massive demographic, economic and technological change” in recent years has often steered voters in both parties toward populist messengers.

“The pandemic will change our culture temporarily, but it won’t change what’s been fueling our longer-term political trajectory,” he said. Mr. Pawlenty, who has said he voted for Mr. Trump but called him “unhinged” in 2016, predicted that a mix of populism and “our culture’s blending of politics and entertainment will likely yield more ‘larger-than-life’ candidates being elected.”

What that means for the fate of this presidency is uncertain. Mr. Gallego, the Arizona congressman, said that this election amounted to “the cleanup,” even if the 2016 result could never be expunged.

More than most states, Wisconsin knows well that politics is rarely a dry-erase board. Its last Republican governor, Scott Walker, survived a recall election. Its current Democratic governor, Tony Evers, who had previously said he lacked the legal authority to delay Tuesday’s primary, sought to reverse himself on Monday by unilaterally changing the election date — only to have his reversal reversed by the state’s Supreme Court.

The result on Tuesday (in the absence of actual results, which officials said would come later) was a kind of rolling civic acknowledgment that all was not well and would not be soon.

“This is something they shouldn’t play politics with,” said Brian Binder, 49, from Oshkosh, Wis., who said he had previously voted in every election since he was 18. “I don’t know why we couldn’t postpone to keep people safe.”

The tension between political rhythms and public health produced another surreal contest between Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden, who retains a large delegate lead in the race to take on Mr. Trump. There are still no rallies or hands to shake. Even the standard campaign calls to action on social media, urging supporters to hustle to polling sites, went missing amid the court rulings that made this primary possible, rendered along ideological lines.

Was it important to vote? Was it even wise?

In less trying times, Mr. Biden’s record on the subject had been consistent.

“The most important election you’ve ever been part of,” he told voters in 2018, rallying for midterm candidates.

“The most important election,” he said in 2016, stumping for Mrs. Clinton, “in any of your lives.”

Stephanie Saul contributed reporting.

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