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Politicking in the midst of a national crisis

The reality is that Democrats have to grapple with a very disheartening prospect: More voters are starting to accept President Trump’s version of events in dealing with the coronavirus. 

For those of us who have been paying attention, we know that Trump changes his tune on the seriousness of this crisis regularly. Just last week he said, “I’ve always known this is a real — this is a pandemic. I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” What a reversal! In February he told a packed rally: “… They tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia. That did not work out too well. They could not do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. … They tried anything. … And this is their new hoax.” And in a tweet he said: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

Those are not the words of a man who always knew this was a pandemic. Nevertheless, the public is responding well to Trump’s management of the crisis. In the past few days, two polls have shown broad support for his handling of the spread of coronavirus. A Morning Consult survey found that Trump is enjoying 53 percent approval and 38 percent disapproval in this area. In an ABC/Ipsos poll, 55 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing, compared to 43 percent who disapprove. Just the week before, the numbers were nearly reversed.

How is that possible? 

Consider the contrast between Trump and New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has been holding daily briefings that are broadcast on most news and cable news networks. Cuomo is getting universal high marks and making a strong case for the sheer power of competent, functioning government. Trump, on the other hand, is lashing out at reporters such as NBC’s Peter Alexander and claiming that the U.S. government was well prepared to combat coronavirus and the “only thing we weren’t prepared for is the media.”

We were absolutely not well prepared, and recent reports that U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing classified warnings about the danger posed by coronavirus as early as January shoot a big hole in that argument. An official with access to the briefings commented, “Donald Trump may not have been expecting this, but a lot of other people in the government were — they just couldn’t get him to do anything about it. The system was blinking red.”

At the same time that these reports come out, the public’s confidence in Trump increases. What are Democrats to do? We know that health care was going to be the number one issue at the election anyway; now with this crisis, it’s going to be even more pronounced.

Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden has been crowdsourcing ideas on how he can be there for Americans from his supporters. According to his campaign, supporters most want to see more virtual town halls and live streams, chances to talk to him one on one, and more videos and podcasts. He released a video of Ron Klain, the former White House Ebola response coordinator, breaking down the crisis that received high praise.

High-profile Democrats such as strategist David Plouffe, who was Barack Obama’s campaign manager in 2008, are encouraging Biden to fill this leadership vacuum by showing Americans what he would do. Plouffe tweeted that not only should Biden be doing a press call with former surgeon general Vivek Murthy, he also should “perhaps [do] a quick video showing how he would have answered Peter Alexander’s question.” Plouffe knows what he’s doing and I wouldn’t be surprised to see such a video come about. 

The worry remains, though, that Democrats place too much faith in the ability of press coverage to influence Americans. Trump rewrites history constantly — and it works for him. Striking that delicate balance between rooting for the country, and by extension for the president, and all-out messaging to show how terrible the administration’s response has been is a difficult task, but it must be done. 

While campaigning on the Democratic side has all but stopped, we should consider moving dollars towards a coronavirus-only campaign. There are health care PACs that worked tirelessly to help Democrats win back the House in 2018 and their messaging strategists would be perfect for this task. 

It is a time of American crisis, but it is also a time of electoral crisis. We cannot afford to have Trump at the helm when we face another challenge such as this. 

Jessica Tarlov is head of research at Bustle Digital Group and a Fox News contributor. She earned her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics in political science. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaTarlov.

Tags 2020 election Barack Obama Coronavirus COVID-19 Democratic Party Donald Trump Joe Biden national emergency Pandemic

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