The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Everyone is in denial about November

The 2016 hangover

President Trump points at a chart showing daily global mortality cases during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on April 18. (Alexander Drago/Reuters)
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Over the weekend, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts read a lot of analysis about what the Trump administration was thinking and doing about reelection. What all of this analysis had in common was a refusal to acknowledge some brute facts.

My personal favorite is this headline on an Associated Press story: “Coronavirus could complicate Trump’s path to reelection.” I know the AP is as strait-laced as possible in its coverage, and to be fair, the story is straightforward in describing Trump’s challenges come November. Still, this is equivalent to a headline on Dec. 8, 1941, saying: “Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor could complicate America First’s desire for isolationism.”

The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post all ran stories over the weekend covering the Trump campaign’s belief that it can attack Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, as being soft on China. One Trump spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times’s Eli Stokols and Janet Hook that internal research “shows that Joe Biden’s softness on China is a major vulnerability.” The Gray Lady’s Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman report that “while Mr. Trump’s team knows that his own words will be used against him, they believe they can contrast his history favorably with that of Mr. Biden.”

My Post colleagues Michael Scherer, Josh Dawsey, Annie Linskey and Toluse Olorunnipa have the most jaw-dropping opening: “President Trump’s campaign is preparing to launch a broad effort aimed at linking Joe Biden to China, after concluding that it would be more politically effective than defending or promoting Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.”

The coronavirus pandemic is too serious to let the president hold freewheeling press briefings in real time, says Post media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post)

All of these stories are interesting but nonetheless contain an air of unreality about them. They assume that the Trump campaign’s gambits can somehow alter the trajectory of the general-election campaign. The thing is, Biden is going to have a pretty easy rejoinder to Trump about being soft on China. Furthermore, as Martin and Haberman note in their story, “Eager to continue trade talks, uneasy about further rattling the markets and hungry to protect his relationship with President Xi Jinping … Mr. Trump has repeatedly muddied Republican efforts to fault China.”

Biden’s tactical response is not the important thing, however. The important thing is that campaign tactics are meaningless when the administration has bungled its pandemic response and the economy is cratering. As noted in this space last week, Trump is starting the fourth quarter of the campaign behind and with a lousy field position. Biden is beating him in the polls. Democrats have united behind their candidate. Trump cannot campaign on the economy. Attacking Biden on China is like trying to bail out the Titanic with a toy bucket.

Furthermore, spending two hours a day at a podium does not help Trump. His antics might appeal to his base, but there’s a reason other Republicans want him to cut down his appearances. They put all of his weaknesses on display. And for those who fear that this crowds out Biden, let me suggest that at this point in the race, the more Biden appears in the public mind as “Generic Democrat,” the better his chances for victory as the safer “not Trump” choice.

The Trump team seems to think there are two ways to cope with this. The Wall Street Journal’s Michael C. Bender and Rebecca Ballhaus write: “The president has discussed political ramifications extensively with top advisers including Jared Kushner. … They have formed a consensus that criticism by Democrats, the media and others that the administration was slow to respond to the pandemic isn’t as potent if there is a strong counterargument that no one was well prepared.”

This argument is fanciful given the warnings the Trump team received. More important, it won’t work. As Ben Smith of the New York Times notes, “The best practices have not, so far, been developed in the United States. The breakthroughs, so far, have not been American.” Once the rest of the developed world moves to reopen their economies more quickly than the United States, this narrative will fall flat.

The other possibility is that a successful economic reopening changes the narrative for Trump. Politico’s Anita Kumar reports that “Trump aides and allies say they are growing confident that an earlier restart amid the coronavirus pandemic could help the president in his reelection campaign.” She notes some of the recent rallies and quotes the president of FreedomWorks as saying, “The worst strategy for him is to keep things shut until August. Trump is basically going to win or lose his election right now, in the next month.”

This strategy is not going to work either. All of the available polling shows that the American people strongly support the restrictions on activity to combat the coronavirus. Trump could proclaim the economy reopened with great fanfare. He might be able to mobilize some of his base to get back to business. He cannot make uncomfortable Americans go back to pre-coronavirus normality. And as long as that is true, the “back to business” narrative will not fly.

The New York Times’s Donald G. McNeil Jr. talked to experts about what to expect for the next year or so. Although these experts did not agree on everything, “it was impossible to avoid gloomy forecasts for the next year. The scenario that Mr. Trump has been unrolling at his daily press briefings — that the lockdowns will end soon, that a protective pill is almost at hand, that football stadiums and restaurants will soon be full — is a fantasy, most experts said.”

Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 has caused political analysts to focus on the ways he can survive this debacle. And there is a chance that he can. In the past century, only three presidents have run for reelection and lost. But the fact remains that Trump lost the popular vote and barely eked out an electoral college victory in 2016. November’s election will be a referendum on his presidency, and the country will be worse off in every possible way compared with four yeas ago.

New attacks on Biden will feed lots of media narratives. They will not alter the brute facts of this campaign.