With more than 6.6 million Americans filing for unemployment last week, and Donald Trump hoping that the coronavirus only kills 100,000 Americans, you might think things couldn’t get worse for his re-election chances. But then, you’d be leaving out the opportunity cost.
The problem for Trump isn’t just the negative developments he’s being tagged with, but also the negative campaigning he can no longer get away with.
Springtime may be a time for rebirth and hope, but it’s also a time when heavily bankrolled presidents vanquish the out-party nominee.
Except, this year, that’s impossible. Trump clearly has his hands full with a major crisis. What is more, the seriousness of this pandemic (and the fact that Trump has already botched his handling of it) makes it very hard to deploy his brand of scorched-earth mockery. Doing so would not just provoke a potential backlash for its unseemliness, it would also reinforce the notion that Trump isn’t fully focused on saving lives.
In essence, the coronavirus did what no imaginable force could possibly do: It neutralized Donald Trump’s ability to humiliate his opponent, while giving his opponent the perfect excuse to lay low. The Hunter Biden/Burisma “scandal,” for example, isn't likely to have anywhere near the resonance Trump hoped.
Now, you might say that there is plenty of time for attacking Biden. And there is. But why should we believe the political environment is going to soon change?
Trump is a master at distracting us from big news stories. Except, with this one, he can’t just change the subject with a mean tweet. As Dr. Fauci has said, “The virus determines what the timetable is, not us.” (God help us if another story comes along that is big enough to overtake the COVID-19 headlines.)
Trump’s team never wanted this election to be a referendum on his competence. The plan was to spend the spring smearing his opponent. We know that because that’s who Trump is, and because that has been the plan for every modern incumbent president.
In the olden days, political conventions literally picked nominees—which meant incumbent presidents could not spend all spring attacking a nominee-in-waiting, since there might be numerous candidates who could emerge as the nominee. But for the last four decades, or so, national conventions have been purely ceremonial affairs, and challengers have paid the price.
George H.W. Bush (not an incumbent president, though he ran as one) started talking about Willie Horton in June of 1988. That was, arguably, the defining issue of that campaign. Bill Clinton spent the spring of 1996 “defining” Bob Dole as too old and too beholden to Newt Gingrich. Dole never shook that branding. And in the spring of 2004, George W. Bush’s campaign started portraying John Kerry as a flip-flopper who voted for the war in Iraq before he voted against it.
Each of these examples became indelibly linked to the challenger, helping shape the attitudes and perceptions that contributed to his defeat.
Is it any wonder that, since 1980, four out of five presidents have been re-elected?
After Barack Obama rejected public financing of his campaign, the disparity grew even more. In 2012, President Obama spent the spring defining Mitt Romney as a monster. Romney, a super rich guy, simply didn’t have the money to fight back.
One way to mitigate this disparity was to simply move conventions to earlier dates—which the parties did—but that only goes so far in limiting the damage done to helpless challengers during the interregnum between wrapping up their primary contest and becoming the official party nominee (Note: The DNC on Thursday postponed their national convention in Milwaukee by a month, to August 17).
As then-RNC Chairman Reince Preibus explained to Fox News in 2014, “now the candidates don’t take this [public] money and so what’s happening is a candidate can be broke, but they are not able to raise general election money until the convention is held… So if you have a candidate that’s broke after a primary in May, that candidate is basically a duck in the pond until you get nominated.”
Joe Biden was poised to be that sitting duck. Although his high name ID makes him less susceptible than past challengers to being “defined” by an incumbent president, one could certainly imagine a scenario where Trump would have unleashed ungodly amounts of money attacking Joe Biden this spring.
It’s starting to feel like this election is slipping away from Donald Trump.