Senate

Coronavirus crisis scrambles 2020 political calculus

 

The coronavirus pandemic has upended the normal political calculus for the 2020 elections, and party leaders are trying to best calibrate their political messages on the crisis heading into November.

The U.S. economy will take a big hit this year, something that would usually be a disaster for an incumbent president.

Goldman Sachs, a leading investment firm, predicted in a forecast released Tuesday that unemployment could reach 15 percent in the second quarter and the gross domestic product could fall as much as 34 percent on an annualized rate.

Yet President Trump's approval rating has ticked up slightly since the crisis, and he earns good marks in polls on his handling of it.

The crisis has put Trump in the spotlight and sucked oxygen out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, leaving former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on the sidelines.

While the Trump administration's efforts to contain the spread of infections and the economic carnage likely to result from the pandemic will give Democrats opportunity to attack in the fall, Biden's relative lack of visibility is causing some Democrats concern.

"I honestly think it hurts Democrats in a lot of ways. Right now, Trump has the megaphone and there's no real alternative voice out there," said Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist. "I think Biden could follow Trump's press conferences and instead of pandering and posturing, refer to the experts and have experts with him."

Jarding warned the cancellation of debates and primaries is likely to slow Biden's political momentum.

"The loss of that voice I think is very, very harmful, not just because you don't hear the Democratic leader's voice - the titular leader in Biden - all you hear is Trump," he said. "The process where primaries are being delayed, that's hurtful. That's how you get momentum."

The coronavirus pandemic has not just suspended debates and primaries but also fundraising and volunteer organizing activities, which is especially damaging to Biden, who faces the tough task of beating an incumbent president, something that's only been done three times in the past 100 years.

Biden has kept a relatively low profile since the health care crisis paralyzed the country last month, making a few digital and media appearances but otherwise letting Trump grab center stage.

Some Senate Democrats say they would like to see Biden take a more active role.

"I think it's an opportunity for Joe to speak up, that's for sure," said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). "I think there's an opportunity for him to speak up and do some stuff."

"The truth is he can add some sanity to this pretty insane situation," he said.

But other Democratic senators support Biden's cautious approach.

"I think he's being appropriate right now," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).

Democratic strategists warn, however, that Biden as the challenger is the natural underdog and will be more hurt by weeks or months of inactivity than Trump, who appears nearly daily on national television to update the country on efforts to contain the pandemic.

"Trump is his own organization for the most part. He still does his tweets to his 75 million followers and he's on the news every day. In that sense, the bully pulpit of the White House, that megaphone, is so large that that becomes the campaign," said Jarding. "That's the power of incumbency."

"When the other side has to shut down and thinks it's inappropriate to be out campaigning ... that absolutely helps Trump," he added.  

Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science, noted that presidential incumbents have lost reelection only a few times in the past century and that the current coronavirus crisis underscores the advantage Trump has as the incumbent.Baker said the coronavirus crisis "illustrates the ability of the president to dominate the narrative."

"Trump has managed to find a very interesting and politically significant substitute to his rallies," he said, referring to the daily briefings of the White House coronavirus task force, which Trump leads. "It's for many people a time of day when they tune in to hear the president. They're not tuning in to hear Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders," Baker said. "What it is is the ability of the president to control the media if he's skillful."

Some Democrats are now trying to pressure television networks to stop covering Trump's briefing.

Jon Favreau, Obama's former speechwriter, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee wrote an email to supporters Tuesday arguing "there is zero reason to give the president a free campaign commercial every day where he's free to spread lies that put people's lives at risk."

Favreau noted that MSNBC host Chris Hayes has refused to play audio of Trump's briefings and the local NPR station in Seattle has decided not to air the president's briefings.

Democrats, led by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), initially hit Trump hard on his administration's slow response but failed to put much of a dent in his numbers.

Recent polls show a majority of Americans approve of Trump's handling of the coronavirus crisis, and his general job approval ratings are close to the highest of his presidency.

A Gallup poll published in late March showed Trump with a 49 percent job approval rating - up from a 44 percent approval rating earlier in the month - and that 60 percent approved of his response to COVID-19.

Skeptics point out, however, that President George H.W. Bush saw his approval rating jump after the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and President Carter also enjoyed a polling bump after the start of the Iran hostage crisis. Both lost their reelection bids.

Republican senators accused Schumer and Pelosi of politicizing Washington's response to the pandemic.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ripped Pelosi over the weekend for "blaming the president of the United States for people dying because of the way he's led the country."

"That's the most shameful, disgusting statement by any politician in modern history," he said.

Democrats acknowledge while Trump's handling of the pandemic is a potential target, they need to be careful not to appear to be undermining the national response.

A Democratic senator who requested anonymity to discuss party tactics warned that Biden should be careful of appearing to undercut the president during a time of national crisis.

"It's very awkward for someone running for president. As a candidate, you don't want to undermine people working together," the senator said.

"I don't think Biden getting into the middle of this helps at all," the lawmaker added.

Democrats realize that while Republican missteps in responding to coronavirus could be fodder for political ads in the fall, they must be careful not to be seen as impeding the national response.

After blocking two procedural votes to proceed to a GOP-drafted Senate economic relief package last week, Schumer quickly struck a deal on a $2 trillion package with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin even though it included many items that Democrats had strongly opposed.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act will delay employer payroll taxes until the end of 2021, something that Democrats only days before called a "huge mistake."

"What they want to do is hit Social Security like a wrecking ball with a massive tax cut for the country's biggest corporations," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said at a March 11 press conference with Schumer and other Democrats. "We are going to oppose this with everything we have."

They all later voted for the stimulus package after negotiating a significant increase in unemployment benefits, protections for airline workers and securing other Democratic priorities.

Now Pelosi is pivoting to calling for a bigger government intervention in the crisis, arguing it has highlighted the importance of government-led solutions, traditionally an area of expertise for their party.

The Speaker on Monday announced she plans to move aggressively on a fourth coronavirus relief bill that will have a major infrastructure spending component.

That plan, however, has run into immediate opposition from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who says more time is needed to assess the impact of the recently passed CARES Act.

"I think we need to wait a few days here, a few weeks, and see how things are working out," McConnell said Tuesday on "The Hugh Hewitt Show."

"Let's see how things are going and respond accordingly," he added. "I'm not going to allow this to be an opportunity for the Democrats to achieve unrelated policy items that they would not otherwise be able to pass."

McConnell in an interview with The Guy Benson Show later on Tuesday said he thinks Republicans will have a good shot of keeping the Senate majority, though he acknowledged it would be tough, predicting it would be like "a knife fight in an alley." 

Updated at 8:11 a.m.

This article was corrected to reflect that only three incumbent presidents have lost reelection in the past 100 years. A total of four have lost reelection since the start of the 20th century: Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. 

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