The most turbulent election in a generation, and for all the furor nothing changed

The most turbulent election in a generation, and for all the furor nothing changed
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This presidential year was the most turbulent since 1968; there were seismic moments — from only the third-ever presidential impeachment vote, the worst pandemic in a century and most severe economic slowdown since the Great Depression and wild charges of scurrilous scandals and fraud.

None of it much mattered.

Now that this election is resolved — it actually was resolved in early November, with the past six weeks about a fund-raising scam for Donald TrumpDonald TrumpRomney: 'Pretty sure' Trump would win 2024 GOP nomination if he ran for president Pence huddles with senior members of Republican Study Committee Trump says 'no doubt' Tiger Woods will be back after accident MORE — the excuses will set in. Foremost will be Trump would have won if not for the pandemic, the "China virus" as he came to call it. His handling was one of the colossal failures of any presidency. Even without the pandemic, however, he still probably would have lost.


I believe this election was settled on Feb. 26 — though I didn't realize it then. That was the day South Carolina Congressman Jim ClyburnJames (Jim) Enos ClyburnA better response to political violence in America Exclusive 'Lucky' excerpt: Vow of Black woman on Supreme Court was Biden turning point Clyburn: Bush told me I'm 'savior' for Biden endorsement MORE endorsed Joe BidenJoe BidenHoyer: House will vote on COVID-19 relief bill Friday Pence huddles with senior members of Republican Study Committee Powell pushes back on GOP inflation fears MORE for the Democratic presidential nomination, paving the way for a safe candidate. Biden won the South Carolina primary three days later, and within a week, it was all over.

At that stage, Trump had about a 50 percent to 45 percent disapproval rating and trailed Biden by five to seven points in the polls. It wasn't much different on election day.

The Democrats ran a perfectly competent campaign with Biden benefitting as the remainderman, the not-Trump.

Biden deserves credit for recognizing in 2019, as reflected in the midterm elections, that Democrats were a moderately liberal — as opposed to a far left — party. That's where he was. But unlike the Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterThe progressive case for the Hyde Amendment COVID-19 pork or more shots? Decoding the logo for the Office of Former President Trump MORE 1976 campaign or Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe US is ripe for climate-friendly diets Obama says he once broke a classmate's nose for calling him a racial slur Tanden's path to confirmation looks increasingly untenable MORE's or Trump 2016, it was not a noteworthy campaign.

If, without Clyburn, Biden lost South Carolina after three earlier rejections, he would have been gone politically. If then Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders has right goal, wrong target in fight to help low-wage workers Democrats in standoff over minimum wage Sanders votes against Biden USDA nominee Vilsack MORE, the Democratic Socialist, had prevailed, Trump might have won.


But that wasn't the case, and all the speeches, the charges, the conventions, the debates and unprecedented amounts of money changed almost nothing.

This election — even more than with most incumbents — was about Trump; nothing would shake his core or assuage the antagonists or skeptics.

An Atlantic piece revealed Trump calling deceased war veterans "losers," and he rarely missed a chance to assail the late John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCindy McCain planning 'intimate memoir' of life with John McCain Trump-McConnell rift divides GOP donors Arkansas state senator says he's leaving Republican Party MORE, one of the most authentic political and military heroes.

Yet on election day, veterans, according to the exit polls, voted for Trump 54 percent to 44 percent.

The president acknowledged to Bob Woodward that he lied to the public about the dangers of COVID-19 in a book that thoroughly and devastatingly detailed his deficiencies. It didn't much matter.

The Republican campaign thought they could elevate their support with suburban voters with dire warnings that Democrats planned to unleash black thugs in their neighborhoods. The suburbs went for Biden.

The president's behavior at the first debate was outrageous, rude, interrupting, one false charge after another. It didn't move the needle.

The last-minute effort to tar Biden with new allegations attempting to link the former vice president to foreign payoffs was a bomb. No one thought Joe Biden was shady.

In both 2016 and 2018 I spent time in Western Pennsylvania, hard-scrabble former Democratic strongholds that went for Trump. More than the economy or social issues, Trump’s appeal was “screw the elites” — it was us versus them. The “them” they hated was Washington, the media, Wall Street, Universities, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCruz: Wife 'pretty pissed' about leaked Cancun texts CBC would back Young for OMB if Tanden falls Hillary Clinton to co-write political thriller MORE. The billionaire showman from Manhattan and Boca Raton hated them too, so he was one of “us.”

As president, Trump continued to convince people he was on their side, always playing what New York Times columnist Tom Edsall labels the "politics of resentment." I have heard about, or known, Yale Law School graduates or successful doctors who, with their different grievances, were Trumpites.

But that coalition of the aggrieved wasn't a governing one. He never moved beyond it; in the election, he brought out more people against him, though the force of his appeal was evident in that it was closer than most anticipated.

There is one caveat to the pre-ordained outcome: Brad Pascale, the former Trump campaign manager, whom he fired, said the president would have won easily if he had shown "empathy" to COVID victims.

If Trump had handled the crisis with integrity and skill, acknowledging the situation, calling for short term sacrifices, wearing masks, social distancing, limiting large gatherings, following the advice of experts, and displaying empathy for those suffering, he might have.

Of course, if he had done that, he wouldn't be Donald Trump.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.