It’s too early to have anything close to a clear vision of the effect the COVID-19 pandemic will have on the 2020 presidential election, but rest assured, it will make a difference. But to whose advantage?
The pandemic has effectively muscled former Vice President Joe Biden out of the spotlight. Wisely holed up in his Delaware home, Biden has done a series of on-air television interviews and issued some public statements via webcast, but that’s not the kind of campaigning he, nor America, is accustomed to. And it’s going to get worse if the Democratic Party can’t hold its national convention as usual, the traditional coronation of a nominee.
In fact, the most public attention Biden has received lately was a shared moment when Sen. Bernie Sanders suspended his own campaign, clearing the way for Biden’s presumptive nomination. But then, with Biden’s history of cringe-worthy gaffes, maybe less exposure now can save him some embarrassments down the road (both parties have small armies of people watching for ad-ready missteps by the opposition).
The crisis has also knocked President Donald Trump off the tour circuit, shutting down rallies of the faithful in parts of the country where his popularity holds strong. The president still has the presidential bully pulpit at his disposal and has anchored daily public briefings on the government’s response to the pandemic. But it’s not the same performance he delivers to the MAGA crowd.
And that briefing act is getting old. Trump has bragged about high ratings, but it seems likely that people are watching despite Trump — they want to hear what Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and other experts have to say. And with his usual mix of mockery, attacks, lies, petulance and grievance, Trump is offering a daily feed of material for fall ad campaigns.
Leading Republicans reportedly are getting nervous (now they get nervous?) over Trump’s performance, some telling the New York Times that he ought to step away from the microphone and let Vice President Mike Pence, whom Trump deputized to lead the pandemic response, and the public health experts do their work.
But Trump personifies that old line about how the most dangerous place to stand is between a politician and a TV camera. Trump can’t help himself.
And that may well be where this pandemic has its biggest impact on the November election. We can’t know yet how many people will die during this, nor how many could have been saved had Trump been less, well, Trump-like and moved proactively in the early stages to counter the virus’ spread. Even now he refuses to issue a national stay-at-home advisory, talks of reopening the economy much sooner than health experts deem wise and personally violates the Centers for Disease Control’s advisory to wear a mask (even as his wife touts the practice in public service announcements).
With total numbers of unemployed now higher than during the 2008-09 recession, Trump has lost his main chest-thumping point. No, he was not responsible for the crash in employment, and President Hillary Clinton would have faced the same economic troubles from the pandemic as Trump.
But people tend to blame the person in charge when things go south. And Trump’s psychological need for praise and credit makes him vulnerable; when challenged or criticized, he lashes out, which adds to skepticism that he can handle one of the most difficult jobs in the world.
Trump’s approval ratings were already dangerously low for an incumbent president seeking reelection. He enjoyed a brief bump in the numbers as he finally confronted the pandemic, but that has evaporated as the numbers of infected, dead and unemployed have risen, and as he had continued to be his unvarnished self.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump loyalist and golfing buddy, told the New York Times that he, too, was among the concerned Republicans, and that he had advised the president to limit his appearance at the coronavirus update news briefings to once a week.
“I told him your opponent is no longer Joe Biden — it’s this virus,” Graham said.
No, it’s not. Trump’s opponent is himself.
Scott Martelle, a veteran journalist and author of six history books, is a member of the Los Angeles Times editorial board.