The race might look a lot different today if the president had staked out a position between alarmism and ignorance.
As of Monday morning, only a little over a week before Election Day, President Trump is trailing Joe Biden by eight points nationally. Worse for the Trump campaign, Biden holds leads of five or more in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, as well as slighter advantages in Iowa, Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida — all of which Trump won in 2016. It’s not over yet, but even in states Trump won by eight (Ohio) and nine (Texas) points last time, his leads are only barely discernible. There is little doubt that the emergence of the coronavirus and Trump’s mismanagement of the resulting pandemic are chiefly responsible for the position he finds himself in now; Trump himself seemed to acknowledge as much this morning, when he tweeted “The Fake News media is riding COVID, COVID, COVID, all the way to the election. Losers!”
Early on, Trump downplayed the threat of the virus, insisting that it had been contained after the first few U.S. cases were confirmed. And as late as March 24, while the virus was beginning its ascent in New York City — over 5,000 people tested positive for COVID there the very next day — Trump erroneously compared it to the flu, saying “We lose thousands and thousands of people a year to the flu. We don’t turn the country off.”
There have been successes to go along with those early mistakes — Operation Warp Speed, the increased testing capacity, the Chinese travel restrictions. But the most politically disastrous aspect of Trump’s coronavirus response is neither his initial nonchalance nor his actual response; it’s that his messaging on the issue is somehow still irreverent seven months later.
For all the talk of the Biden campaign’s brilliance, any competent candidate could have exposed his “plan” as the paper tiger it is. Michael Brendan Dougherty did it in a single column. Mike Pence did it well in the vice-presidential debate when he said that, “The reality is, when you look at the Biden plan, it reads an awful lot like what President Trump, and I, and our task force has [sic] been doing every step of the way. And quite frankly, when I look at their plan that talks about advancing testing, creating new PPE, developing a vaccine, it looks a little bit like plagiarism.”
A better presidential candidate could have hammered that message home, and made hay out of the decidedly unscientific and dangerous positions adopted by Democratic officials, including Kamala Harris. Last month, Harris warned against trusting any vaccine that might come out before the election, bizarrely arguing that it would be suspect because it came on Trump’s watch. In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has seen many of her extraordinarily stringent orders — some may recall that she wouldn’t even let residents travel between their homes — struck down as unlawful. Andrew Cuomo is finally starting to be held accountable for his disastrous and arbitrary handling of the pandemic, especially as he takes special care to target orthodox Jewish communities. At the second debate, Biden himself seemed to understand that measures such as lockdowns are no longer popular when he declared, “I’m going to shut down the virus, not the country.” And yet, he again opened himself up to criticism that he would, in fact, shut down the country when he suggested that businesses, bars, gymnasiums, and schools should be closed if the virus’s reproduction rate rose above a certain threshold without expanding upon what that threshold would be.
In the aftermath of his own bout with the virus, Trump urged the American people not to be afraid of it, or “let it dominate you.” It was a message widely panned by the press and his political opponents, but also one that could have been effective if it had been conveyed responsibly. But responsible messaging is not Trump’s forte. Instead of describing the real-world economic damage of continued lockdowns on working-class Americans, Trump has derided his popular lead epidemiologist, the 79-year-old Dr. Anthony Fauci, as having a subpar pitching arm. Instead of talking about the psychological effects of not being able to go to school on kids, he has cast doubt on the efficacy of masks in order to further placate a tiny sliver of his base. Instead of effectively empathizing with Americans in a less ham-fisted way than Biden, he emerged from his stay at Walter Reed Medical Center as braggadocious as ever, and as determined as ever to make the story about him.
Call me naive, but I think Americans are hungry for their leaders to offer some semblance of nuance on COVID. They understand the gravity of the pandemic but are skeptical of the zealotry and self-serving empathy offered by Biden. They know that lockdowns are no longer tenable, but cannot trust a man who discredits his own scientific advisers and acted recklessly even in his own efforts to avoid the virus. One wonders what the race might look like today had Trump staked out a position between alarmism and ignorance.