The Memo: Bully pulpit may be backfiring for Trump

A mock ad for former Vice President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign has gone viral on social media in recent days.

“Biden: He won’t inject you with bleach,” it reads.

The joke gets at a serious point: whether President Trump’s ardor for provocative and sometimes bizarre statements, as well as his general love of the spotlight, is backfiring as the coronavirus crisis deepens.

On Friday, Trump sought to undo damage that had been done the previous day when he had suggested that some kind of “injection” with disinfectant or the use of ultraviolet light “inside the body” could prove effective in treating COVID-19.

Those remarks drew both condemnation and consternation. Several public health organizations urged people not to ingest bleach in any form, as did the company that manufactures Lysol and Dettol. 

“We must be clear that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route),” British company Reckitt Benchiser said in a news release.

A spokesman for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said that the state had posted a warning against the internal use of disinfectant products “after receiving more than 100 calls to our hotline” on the subject.

Trump insisted on Friday that his initial remarks had been “sarcastic,” though virtually no one who saw them initially perceived them as such. 

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany had earlier that day defended the president’s comments and accused the media of taking them “out of context” but she made no suggestion they had been sarcastic.

The comments about disinfectant were just the latest controversy ignited by the president during the crisis. 

During his near-daily press briefings, as well as on his Twitter account, Trump has boasted about his TV ratings, engaged in heated verbal exchanges with reporters and tangled with other politicians such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

He has also signed an executive order placing new restrictions on immigration. And he has talked up the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a possible treatment for COVID-19 despite a lack of compelling evidence.

Any president uses the bully pulpit in an election year, especially in a time of crisis. It is seen as a valuable asset, allowing the incumbent to push his challenger out of the spotlight.

Biden, meanwhile, has had to fight even harder for prominence than most challengers, since normal campaigning has been brought to a standstill.

Even so, the Democrat’s supporters insist he has not been hurt by this disparity, and may in fact be helped by the blowback to some of Trump’s statements.

“Donald Trump has done a great job of destroying the advantages of incumbency with these off-the-wall, inept performances, along with his shirking of responsibility,” said Moe Vela, who was a senior advisor to Biden during President Obama’s administration.

Those claims might be predictable coming from Biden supporters, but there is independent evidence to support them.

New polls last week from several organizations showed Biden leading Trump in hypothetical match-ups in Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania — key swing states that the president carried against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

In national polls, Biden had a lead of about 6 points in the RealClearPolitics polling average as of Friday evening.

There are plenty of caveats, to be sure. 

Opinion polls six months out from an election — and amid an ongoing national crisis — are poor predictors of the eventual outcome. Trump defied the polls to win in 2016. And the president’s campaign has a huge financial advantage over Biden — at the end of March, Team Trump had about $240 million cash on hand, compared to about $57 million for the Biden campaign.

Still, the current poll ratings at a minimum suggest that Biden is not being significantly hurt by being pushed to the margins of the national stage. He has even sought to capitalize on Trump’s remarks about disinfectant.

“I can’t believe I have to say this, but please don’t drink bleach,” Biden tweeted on Friday afternoon.

Independent experts say that the core rationale of Biden’s candidacy — basic competence and a respite from the tempests of the Trump years — may be made more appealing by the president’s performance amid the current crisis.

Biden is often criticized from his party’s left flank for not being inspiring. But he may not need to be.

“His primary campaign was, ‘I am the most electable’ and that was enough to win. His general election campaign is going to be, ‘I can at least do the basic job of governing’ — and that might be exactly what voters want,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “They might not want scintillating ideas or charismatic leadership but someone who just basically knows what they are doing.”

Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist who worked on Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) 2016 presidential campaign, drew a century-old parallel.

“Warren Harding actually won an election [in 1920] under the slogan ‘Return to Normalcy.’ It was right after the First World War, and everyone went, ‘Return to Normalcy? That sounds great,’” said Tyler, who is a Trump critic. “If Biden can be the Return to Normalcy candidate, I think he will do very well.”

There are, to be sure, other ways of looking at the current crisis. Trump’s support has remained relatively stable through other firestorms. If the danger from the virus is perceived to have passed by November and the economy is rebounding, Trump could reap electoral benefits.

Republican pollster David Winston cautioned against extrapolating too much from current controversies.

“There is the day-to-day dynamic but then there is the end result,” Winston said. “The day-to-day obviously drives news cycles but the end result is going to drive how people think [Trump] handled this crisis.”

Winston added, “We still have a ways to go before people get to the point where they begin to formulate a judgement of how things went.”

That may be true, but right now the picture seems to be darkening for Trump — in part because of his own words.

“Most people would like to think the president is doing the best he can in a crisis,” said Tyler. But, he added, the disinfectant controversy “lays bare that the president doesn’t have any idea what he is doing. The level of incompetence is just breathtaking.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.  


Tags Andrew Cuomo Coronavirus Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Ted Cruz

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