COVID is a very different kind of crisis politically

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Sometimes what doesn’t happen in public opinion can be as important as what does happen. Two things are not happening in the current crisis. There is no substantial “rally around the flag” effect to give President Trump a large and lasting boost in public support. And there is no significant decline in political polarization, even as a growing proportion of the electorate shows concern about the crisis.

Almost all national crises produce a surge of support for the nation’s leader — and not just in the United States: Polling by Morning Consult in March found substantial increases in popularity for Boris Johnson of the UK (a gain of 15 points), Scott Morrison of Australia (13 points), Justin Trudeau of Canada (+11), Emmanuel Macron of France (+10) and Angela Merkel of Germany (+9).  (Johnson has tested positive for COVID-19 and is now hospitalized. Prime Minister Trudeau’s wife Sophie has also tested positive and her husband is in isolation.)

And President Trump? His public support grew by only two points (from 42 percent in the March 11 Morning Consult poll to 44 percent on March 24). Other national polls also showed a small increase in President Trump’s popularity, but none showed an increase above 50 percent.

During the Clinton wars in the 1990s, when political polarization was rising, I was often asked what it would take to unite the country. My rueful answer was that it would probably take a serious national crisis. We had one on Sept. 11, 2001, and it did bring the country together.

For one year.

Most Democrats said they approved the job Bush was doing as president until September 2002. That’s when the Bush Administration began its “rollout” of plans for the invasion of Iraq. And all the old political divisions came roaring back.

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, the gap between Democrats and Republicans in the president’s job approval averaged 55 percentage points. The gap rose to 61 points under the second President Bush. President Obama got elected on a promise to bring the country together, but the division rose to 70 points when he was in office. President Trump set a new record. Republicans and Democrats were more than 80 points apart during Trump’s third year in office — an average of 89 percent job approval among Republicans and 7 percent among Democrats. 

And now? Most polls show a small increase in President Trump’s job approval among Democrats (14 percent in the early April YouGov poll). But the overall polarization level remains extremely high (77 points, with Republican support at 91 percent). The “rally” effect has largely disappeared. As the headline in RealClearPolitics put it, “Trump’s Polling Bump Was Easy Come, Easy Go.”

President Trump expected to run for re-election by touting the economic boom. 4.7 million jobs were created in the first three years of the Trump administration. In the last two weeks of March, over 10 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits.

President Trump is now trying to save his re-election by declaring himself a “wartime president.” We may soon hear the same piece of folk wisdom that Abraham Lincoln used when he ran for re-election in 1864 and that Franklin Roosevelt used when he ran for re-election in 1944: “You don’t change horses in midstream” (meaning, “in the middle of a war”).

The twin crises — public health and the economy — will define the 2020 presidential campaign. And not just for President Trump. The secret to Joe Biden’s apparent success in the Democratic race is that he appeals to voters’ desire for normalcy — the opposite of President Trump’s record of chaos and disruption. But normalcy is a feeble campaign message, and it may not work at a time of crisis.

The current crisis demands something that President Trump is incapable of offering: empathy.

The political figure capturing the empathy issue right now is neither Trump nor Biden. It’s New York’s Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo’s daily briefings have become a campaign rally for Democrats, who were thrilled to hear Cuomo say, “Job one has to be to save lives… My mother is not expendable. And your mother is not expendable… We’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable. We’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life… We are going to fight every way we can to save every life that we can. Because that’s what I think it means to be an American.”

Could Democrats dump Biden for Cuomo? Not really. It would anger African-Americans and split the party wide open.

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign’s strategy is clear. They intend to attack Biden as “confused” and incapable. But Biden has experienced deep personal tragedy in his life — losing his first wife and daughter in a car crash in 1972 and his eldest son to cancer five years ago. He has an impressive ability to connect personally with voters.

At the moment, Biden has no public role to play. We have to wait to see his political skills tested when the presidential campaign gets fully underway this summer and the former vice president is released from the captivity of the basement of his Wilmington, Del., home.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

Tags Andrew Cuomo Bill Clinton Coronavirus Coronavirus response COVID-19 Donald Trump Donald Trump 2020 presidential campaign Emmanuel Macron Empathy Joe Biden Joe Biden campaign Justin Trudeau political polarization

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