Can Donald Trump maintain new momentum until this November?
Presidents, crises and revelations
The 2020 election can aptly be called the coronavirus election. The greatest health care crisis in more than 100 years has upended the economy, placed millions in quarantine, disrupted schools and instilled fear. The public has rendered a harsh judgment: 67 percent disapprove of Donald Trump's handling of the pandemic. While other crises have come and gone during the Trump years (e.g., the Mueller investigation, porn star pay-offs, impeachment), this one lingers. Even if the virus were suddenly to "disappear," as Trump once hoped, nothing can erase the memories of the last six months.
Other presidents have faced crises that cast a pall over their administrations. Richard Nixon had Watergate; Jimmy Carter, Iran hostages; George H.W. Bush, a faltering economy; Bill Clinton, the Monica Lewinsky affair; and George W. Bush, Iraq. Each caused lasting damage. Nixon resigned. Carter and H.W. Bush were not reelected. Clinton became the second president to be impeached and tried by Congress. The Iraq War drove George W. Bush's approval rating from 90 percent following 9/11 to 34 percent when he left office.
For some presidents, crises have accentuated existing public doubts. Nixon earned the moniker "Tricky Dick" in 1952, when questions swirled about a secret slush fund following his nomination for the vice presidency. Nixon's famous Checkers speech detailing his family finances momentarily cast the issue aside. But when Nixon became embroiled in Watergate, 71 percent believed he withheld facts; only 18 percent thought he was "frank and honest." Nixon's assertion that "I'm not a crook" did nothing to ameliorate the damage. Watergate permanently damaged Nixon's credibility and prematurely ended his presidency.
Jimmy Carter's inability to enact energy conservation provided the backdrop for his 1979 Malaise Speech. In it, he blamed voters for a "crisis of confidence. . .[that is] threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America." By the time U.S. hostages were seized in Iran later that year, Americans had completely lost faith in Carter's ability to govern. When asked which of eight presidents - Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter - was "least able to get things done," Carter had the dubious distinction of placing first with 44 percent. The Carter presidency ended at the ballot box.
In 1988, George H.W. Bush was famously caricatured by then-Texas Governor Ann Richards as being "born with a silver foot in his mouth." Bush's aristocratic upbringing in wealthy Greenwich, Connecticut, fostered his elitist image. But when the economy tumbled, Bush trekked to New Hampshire, holding a card reading: "Message: I care." When asked, "Do you think George Bush understands the problems of average Americans?" 58 percent answered no. And when Bush couldn't answer how the recession had affected him personally in a debate with the ever-empathetic Bill Clinton, his fate was sealed. Looking back, 58 percent said they were personally "worse off" during Bush's presidency. Even more damning, 69 percent thought the country was "worse off."
But even as voters selected Bill Clinton to succeed Bush, questions swirled around Clinton's character and personal life. One member of his Arkansas staff spoke of "bimbo eruptions." Both Clintons acknowledged marital "problems" during an infamous "60 Minutes" interview. These issues were accentuated when Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky became public. His legendary refutation, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky," was a bald-faced lie. And it played right into long-standing doubts about Clinton's veracity and character. Shortly after the impeachment proceedings concluded, 71 percent said Clinton did not have "the moral character" needed in a president. Character became a key issue, and voters turned to George W. Bush.
Sometimes crises create their own lingering impressions that previously didn't exist. In 2000, voters saw George W. Bush as a religiously moral man. Bush repeatedly told voters. "When I put my hand on the Bible, I will swear to not only uphold the laws of our land. I will swear to uphold the honor and dignity of the office to which I have been elected, so help me God." But the Iraq War changed things. When asked whether Bush had been "truthful and honest" in presenting the case for war, just 39 percent said yes; 54 percent believed he had deliberately misled them. The Iraq War brought the Bush presidency to a fateful close.
What of Donald Trump? At the onset of the pandemic, Trump claimed the virus would "disappear." When it didn't, he repeatedly portrayed hydroxychloroquine as a magic cure-all. Failing that, Trump argued that increased testing is responsible for the rising case numbers. Trump's consistent misstatements and outright lies have been refuted by many leading health experts, including members of the White House's coronavirus task force.
Back in 2016, 61 percent said Trump was unqualified to serve as president. Despite his repeated query to voters, "What the hell do you have to lose?" the answer has turned out to be plenty. As the death toll from the coronavirus approaches 160,000 (and rising), prior qualms about President Trump have become amplified. Only 31 percent trust what he says about the coronavirus, 63 percent say he is dishonest and 55 percent view him as incompetent. The pre-existing images of Trump are now permanently engraved in voters' minds. Like his predecessors, insurmountable calamities have reinforced existing public perceptions. Simply put, presidential crises don't conceal; they reveal and amplify. And like his predecessors, an ignominious end to the Trump presidency is in sight.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at Catholic University. His latest book is titled "What Happened to the Republican Party?"