Republicans are becoming increasingly nervous about the upcoming election. They fear not only that President Trump will lose, but that in doing so he’ll drag enough Republican congressional candidates to defeat to hand the Senate to the Democrats, while letting the Democrats keep the House of Representatives as well. They’re right to be concerned. Indeed they’d be fools not to be. So what’s happened? And is there any path out of their predicament?
President Trump has never been all that popular. He won the presidency through an Electoral College fluke. He actually lost the popular vote by a margin of three million to Hillary Clinton. The fury of her supporters and the vague sense he lacks political legitimacy fueled talks of resistance and impeachment even before his inauguration.
And President Trump has never enjoyed the three surges in popularity that most presidents benefit from, no matter what the circumstances of their elections: Most presidents enjoy “honeymoon” periods at the beginning of their terms; not so President Trump, given the manner of his election. Most presidents enjoy greater popularity when the economy is strong, but President Trump has never seen such a bump—at best, the strong state of the economy prevented him from becoming weaker in the polls than might otherwise have been the case. And most presidents enjoy strong public opinion surges at the onset of crises, but, again, not President Trump.
But earlier this year, after he emerged from the impeachment ordeal, I thought 2020 was Trump’s election to lose. He began his post-impeachment period with a united Republican Party and a strong economy. He even enjoyed a modest bump in the public opinion polls, probably a response to having been put on trial by an institution, the Congress, with public approval ratings even lower than his. And the Democrats seemed poise to nominate a presidential candidate whom Republicans could portray credibly as too extreme for the general electorate. But whatever advantages he enjoyed earlier this year seem to have gone away, for three basic reasons.
First, Joe Biden emerged as the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. His unexpected comeback, courtesy of the South Carolina and Super Tuesday primaries, has presented the Democratic Party with a candidate more experienced, more likeable, and—most importantly—more moderate than Bernie Sanders. The tactic of branding one’s opponent an extremist, while frequently effective, almost certainly won’t work here.
Then the plague hit. Its worst effects have been on America’s public health, but it’s wreaked havoc on the economy as well. If President Trump’s strongest re-election selling point was the strength of the economy, he’s lost that argument, at least for the time being.
And President Trump has gained no traction for his crisis management. This is partly because of coverage by the media and commentary from his opponents. If he tells the media he’s in charge, he’s accused of being a dictator. If he says each state governor can decide for himself or herself when to ease shelter in place restrictions and open up his or respective state’s economy, he’s abdicating leadership and shifting blame. If he asks innocent, if not particularly intelligent, questions about potential experimental medical treatments–even when admitting he’s no doctor and is just asking hypothetically–he’s accused of urging people to drink Lysol. But he’s still been credibly accused of using his daily news conferences for showboating, playing politics, feuding with Democratic governors, endlessly contradicting himself and everyone else, and in general just making life difficult for everyone involved.
So is there any way out?
If the tanking of the economy is tanking Trump’s political prospects, its revival might revive his re-election chances as well. Of course, reopening the economy should not be done for the sake of politics; it must only be done when documented and scientifically derived facts indicate that doing so will not endanger anyone’s health more than currently. Otherwise, a prematurely opened economy may make a horrific situation even worse: Infection—and death—rates may begin to climb again, destroying more lives and forcing an even more severe shutdown of the economy later this year. The impact of the economy on the election outcome should not be considered.
In the meantime, President Trump should confine himself to formal statements and speeches, carefully prepared by his staff. He reads them well, and under the right circumstances can be most impressive. His State of the Union address earlier this year was outstanding.
But Trump should turn the responsibility for day to day communication with the public over to Vice President Pence, who’s a more competent communicator. After all, he was a radio talk show host before entering politics to become a congressman and governor, he’s won bipartisan praise from the states’ governors, and few critics deny his competence or command of the issues. He’ll be an outstanding spokesman for the Trump administration.
Will these measures help the GOP? Who knows? We certainly won’t, until Election Day. But it’s difficult (for me, at least), to see how a fact-based approach to reviving the American economy will make things any worse for the GOP. Besides, these measures should make America better, and that’s what really counts.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.