For months, President Donald Trump belittled Joe Biden as an opponent cowering in the basement in a mask as he sought to dismiss the seriousness of a pandemic threatening the nation’s health — and his reelection prospects.
But with his sudden embrace of masks and the canceling of the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville, Florida, on Thursday, Trump has reluctantly conceded to the reality of a political landscape that has been transformed by disease and fear. A pandemic that once struck Democratic states like New York and California has moved with alarming force into red America and helped to recast his contest with Biden, his presumptive Democratic opponent.
Trump’s attempt to downplay the coronavirus or deride it as a threat exaggerated by his Democratic opponents and the media has met the reality of rising caseloads, death counts and overwhelmed intensive care units in places like Texas, Arizona, Georgia and Florida, all states that he won in 2016 and that the Biden campaign had until now viewed as long shots.
The president’s handling of the virus is shaping up as not only a policy failure but also a political one. Rather than strengthening his position against Biden, Trump’s response to the virus appears to have created a backlash among voters — one that has only elevated his opponent.
“The movement of COVID into the South and West has finally caught up with Trump,” said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. “While the disease was decimating blue states, he was able to pretend it wasn’t happening. But now the context has changed considerably, and his people are hurting, underscored by the sinking poll numbers, the problems for GOP congressional candidates and the fact that the party faithful was reluctant to attend the convention.”
The political perils of Trump’s course were driven home a few hours before he announced he was scrapping the Florida convention. A Quinnipiac poll found that Biden was now leading Trump in Florida by 13 percentage points, a stunning margin in a state that has become — since the recount in the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush — Exhibit A of a nation where elections are decided by decimal points.
National and battleground state polls over the past two weeks suggest how much Trump is out of step with the nation on the pandemic, in contrast with Biden. Most Americans support the use of masks and are apprehensive about students returning to school or the reopening of cities. And they have lost confidence in the president’s ability — or willingness — to steer the country out of a crisis, to the decided advantage of Biden.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll this past week found that Americans trusted Biden over Trump to handle the COVID-19 crisis by a double-digit margin, 54% to 34%. With the election less than four months away and with no evidence that Biden was being hurt by campaigning in a mask and supporting tough measures to contain the virus, Trump had little choice but to at least try to change course.
“He’s wearing a mask and canceling the convention,” said Mark McKinnon, who was in charge of advertising for Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004. “That’s a head-snapping reversal for a guy who hates to be wrong, hates to back down and, worst of all, hates to be perceived as weak.”
The canceling of the Florida convention would appear, for now, to also play to the Democrats’ advantage. Biden and his aides no longer have to worry that his scaled-down virtual acceptance speech would look small and silly next to a full-blown speech by Trump, as Republicans had once hoped.
And the Democrats cut back their convention methodically and with no drama and little notice, calibrating to the worsening pandemic and to the cautions of medical professionals against large gatherings. By contrast, Trump and his party stumbled into this decision, a long and messy process that included a last-minute switch of the convention to Florida from North Carolina.
The chaos surrounding the convention planning mirrored the chaos that surrounded decision-making on many issues in the White House, including COVID-19. Trump announced the cancellation at the start of his Thursday coronavirus briefing, with no real plan about what, if anything, the Republicans would do in its stead.
“The Republicans now have a month to put together a remote convention, and the Democrats had a three-month head start,” Fowler said. ”And they have wasted a lot of money. It sort of reinforces the competence problems that this administration has been dealing with.”
Trump, who has long been a master of imagery, had been hoping to draw a contrast with Biden, downplaying the seriousness of the virus as he pushed to open cities, hold big rallies and gather for conventions like the one he wanted in Jacksonville. His stance recalled the long history of Republicans portraying themselves as unbending, resilient and self-sufficient — the purported party of strength. (It also recalled the swagger with which Trump approached his real estate dealings when he was a developer in New York.)
“The Trump strategy was to campaign as the strong man,” McKinnon said. While Biden was hidden “in a mask in a basement, he would be stepping maskless into adoring crowds at a packed convention.”
But over the past two weeks, mask requirements have been imposed at Walmart, Target, CVS and McDonald’s. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, started showing up in the Capitol wearing a mask. These days, it is a maskless Trump who looks the outlier — not Biden showing up at a campaign event with a piece of black cloth draped over his mouth.
The end of the conventions this year is the latest evidence of how much COVID-19 has thoroughly upended the 2020 race. But Trump’s decision to bow to pressure and pull out of Florida showed the crosscurrents he is managing as he tries to win reelection in the midst of a pandemic.
COVID-19 is exploding there. And Florida — under the leadership of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican and close ally of Trump — has become for many in the medical community a case study in how not to deal with the virus. That no doubt would have been a dominant theme of the coverage of the event, should it have been held there. DeSantis, like Trump, opposed mask requirements and stay-at-home orders.
The Democrats had already decided the risk of a crowded convention outweighed whatever benefits came from packing thousands of people into a stadium for a four-day celebration. The upsurge of COVID-19 cases in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after Trump’s insistence on a crowded rally there served as a warning of what could have been a politically damaging aftermath for a convention in Jacksonville.
Republicans who had despaired at Trump’s campaign found solace in how he has changed this past week: holding White House briefings, wearing a mask, abandoning the convention, listening to science. They attributed it to the shake-up at his campaign, when he appointed Bill Stepien as his campaign manager, ousting Brad Parscale.
“This presidential race is going to tighten,” said Scott Reed, who was the campaign manager for Bob Dole, the Republican senator who ran for president in 1996. “Stepien has brought a much-needed dose of discipline to the campaign, and the results are clear: sharper press conferences, masks and booting the Florida national convention. The economy is maintaining strength, and now all that is needed is a vaccine to give the country hope and optimism about the future.”
But Trump has already lost a lot of ground on the issue that seems likely to define the outcome of the race with Biden. The idea that Trump at this late date will change course — that he will consistently promote the use of masks or listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert — assumes that Trump will suddenly find the campaign discipline that has mostly eluded him over the years.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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