Though seems to me it’s just plain crazy.
Running against entrenched power is a perennial rite for non-incumbent candidates. It’s how all but one of our presidents in the past 40-plus years — George H.W. Bush being the lone exception — have gotten themselves elected, Donald Trump included.
And it’s not at all uncommon for presidents seeking reelection to lay their problems on the legislative branch; that goes back to Harry Truman and his cries of the “do-nothing Congress.” Nothing new there.
But incumbent presidents have always based their reelection campaigns on some combination of two things: the record of what they accomplished in the first term, and the agenda for what’s still to do in the next one.
Fairly or not, we’ve always assumed that a sitting president should be judged by the state of things on his watch. Presidents get the credit or blame for their economies, even though in most cases they inherited the trend line from someone else and had little control over the business cycle.
But surely no president can put miles of distance between himself and the record of his own hapless administration, right? How could anyone who has owned the vast federal bureaucracy for four years ask to be reelected on the notion that the government just won’t do what he wants?
Well, now comes President Trump to give it a shot.
The president blames his own Justice Department for what he says are “hoaxes” and “witch hunts” — and that career prosecutors describe as doing their job. He blames his own “deep state” intelligence apparatus for, most recently, not trying hard enough to get his attention about the looming coronavirus.
He blames his own top health experts for playing up the pandemic and not letting him reignite the economy. He signals his defiance by refusing to wear a mask in public and by publicly hawking a medicine that his own officials won’t recommend. He’d have us believe he’s a hostage to the bureaucracy, signaling for help, rather than the guy who runs the show.
Trump unveiled his de facto campaign slogan back in March, when he told reporters: “I don’t take responsibility at all.” Shame you can’t fit that on a hat.
Trump’s indictment of government extends to the states as well, some of them run by Republicans, which he blames for not having the supplies they needed to fight the virus, or for not reopening their economies, or (as in the case of Georgia) for reopening their economies too soon.
What’s a president supposed to do when faced with such mass incompetence?
And by kicking responsibility for the pandemic back to the states, Trump has essentially set himself up for any eventuality come the fall. If your economy’s cratered, blame the governor who wouldn’t heed Trump’s call to reopen. If your state’s seeing new outbreaks of the virus, hey, blame the governor who couldn’t figure out how to test for it.
Either way, it’s definitely government that’s failed you — not the guy at the top.
I guess you can’t blame Trump for going this route. Six months ago, he probably planned on a more traditional campaign. He’d still have blamed his failures on his own federal agencies, but at least he could have spent most of his time talking about surging markets and microscopic unemployment.
Thanks to the pandemic, however, there’s no good news to flog at the moment, and you really can’t go out and there and pitch a second-term agenda if (a) you don’t have one and (b) you’ve already proved that governing interests you about as much as mold. So now Trump is left with only one open path, which is to blame the institution he runs and the governors who rely on his leadership.
There’s no modern precedent for a president being absolved of his failures like that. But Trump’s testing the idea that we are so disillusioned with the system at this point, so contemptuous of Washington, that we are willing to believe that no president can make it function as it should.
His bet is that some large segment of Americans have already decided that a professional provocateur is the best they’re going to do — a performer who at least gives voice to their distrust, even if he can’t make the machinery work and doesn’t really want to try.
If he wins again in November, that’s exactly what we’re going to get.