The Briefing, Vol. VIII, Issue 13

To our readers: We hope you are safe and well. Please exercise care, especially for the sake of your older loved ones, who are at greater risk if they contract coronavirus.

This week:

  • Pelosi loses the week
  • Politics of coronavirus end up surprisingly good for Trump
  • Biden faces his own #MeToo allegation

House showdown: There haven’t been that many instances since the 2018 election in which President Trump has genuinely gotten the better of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but one of them came last week. Pelosi’s attempt to hold the coronavirus relief package hostage to a list of left-wing priorities fell flat, with even the media refusing to take Pelosi’s side. 

She was ultimately forced to back down after getting only a few face-saving provisions — for example, preventing President Trump’s businesses from benefiting — so that she wouldn’t have to admit total defeat. This was a rare rout, after a rare miscalculation by the normally savvy speaker of the House. For once, though, the crisis was serious enough that Democrats’ politics-as-usual approach was transparently repellent and obvious to most people. Most Americans wanted to see a relief package pass on a bipartisan basis. The polling at this moment, which shows Trump in an unusually strong position, implies that Americans want to see their politicians get along and act together to fix things, as after 9/11. 

This was a poor moment to come forward with an overtly partisan approach, but it illustrates how Democrats stand to lose ground with issues like coronavirus. Their base does not even accept Trump as legitimate, preferring a “Constitution-in-exile” approach to his presidency. Anyone who “normalizes” him — i.e., accepts the reality that he occupies his office — will instantly draw the irrational rage of a politically charged base incapable of understanding any nuance or debating pluses and minuses of Trump’s tenure.

Trump leadership: Just as coronavirus has displaced all other news of importance — political, sports, and otherwise — it has also put the U.S. economy into a voluntary instant recession. 

Sports events have been canceled, tourism is kaput, and dining out is simply a thing of the past. Children probably won’t go back to their physical school buildings this year. Just a month ago, no one would have believed that any of this could happen. Yet it has.

The economic reality is painfully apparent to Americans sitting in their homes in the last few weeks. Things are going badly. It’s not that there’s a lack of demand in the economy, or a lack of liquidity. It’s that people are heeding the call to stay home and to close their workplaces. If you can’t go out and spend money, you don’t — and that means a lot of service-sector jobs 

The modern American economy is better rigged to survive such an event than perhaps any in history. An unprecedentedly large share of Americans are able to work from home today, and nearly every necessity can be ordered and delivered in short order. Yet the impact is both painful and obvious. Millions have already lost jobs or at least work hours, and unemployment applications have, as expected, spiked. The lockdown, President Trump announced Sunday, could go on for another full month. There is still a danger at this point that the battle against the virus will be lost in densely populated New York City and New Jersey.

But politics goes on, even if some primary elections are being postponed. 

When coronavirus first struck, the initial reaction by President Trump and his supporters was to panic over the loss of his single best political asset — the strong economy. 

Trump was by no means alone in doubting the seriousness of coronavirus at first — in fact, liberal journalists and politicians downplayed it in ways we would consider dangerous in hindsight, even suggesting that prudent measures of caution were actually expressions of racism. But the desire to keep the economic successes coming may help specifically explain Trump’s hesitancy to just shut everything own on what seemed at the time to most people like a whim. 

But in the time since, everything has gone in reverse. Obviously, the magnitude of the crisis is now understood by all. And suddenly, Democrats are the ones panicking. Coronavirus has abruptly put the Democratic campaign against Trump into the background, and it has brought him to the forefront. Democrats are now worried, to the point that left-wing media figures have tried to stop coverage of presidential briefings on the pandemic. They’re giving him too much exposure, they fear, whereas Biden is getting mostly negative publicity in recent days.

Best sign: Despite a very extensive and comprehensive campaign to trash Trump for his handling of the crisis — and even to blame him for it — polls show that the public generally believes he’s done well. Voters prefer Trump to Biden on the issue of coronavirus, and Biden’s earlier lead in national polling has diminished. Biden’s voters are also significantly less enthusiastic about their candidate, according to the ABC News/Washington Post poll.

According to Gallup, his approval as president has risen to 49 percent and his disapproval has sunk to a new low of 45 percent amid a rather brazen and certainly relentless media attack. 

This last fact — the media’s clear anti-Trump lean — hints at a possibility that this is more than just a “rally-’round-the-leader” moment. But maybe not. It could just be that the media has failed to read the national mood and is continuing in a partisan vein at a time when the public would prefer something more unifying. But to whatever degree it undermines faith in the news media, this too aids Trump in making his case that the media are campaigning against him.

Trump v. Biden: Although he trails Joe Biden in several national polls, Biden’s inability to get attention right now probably matters. Moreover, there are ample reasons to believe that Trump could win in key states, after a protracted campaign in which Biden’s mental acuity will surely be a major issue. And don’t forget that Trump outperforms his polls — one reason the 2016 election came as such a surprise.

Meanwhile, Biden faces a new, albeit lightly substantiated, #MeToo allegation. In at least one respect, this puts him in a weaker position. It takes away one issue where he might have otherwise been able to hit Trump very hard. Trump has been attacked for talking about grabbing women in a particular sexual way, claiming they were willing. But according to the story told by his accuser, Biden literally did this — and worse — to a senior staffer who was wholly unwilling, and who up to that point had viewed him as a father-figure. 

It also puts Biden in an awkward position, given his stated belief — at least when it was convenient — that all women who come forward with such accusations should be believed. Evidently, this is only true when the accusations are against a Republican Supreme Court nominee.