Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Labor Day is traditionally the beginning of the endgame for presidential campaigns. Now that the conventions are over, both candidates are looking to deliver the final political blow. In the remaining two months before the election, Joe Biden and President Donald Trump will try to hone a convincing narrative that persuades voters that they belong in the White House.
The politics of storytelling is vital, and that is particularly true in presidential campaigns. In addition to forming detailed policy platforms, or running a formidable ground game, candidates need to be able to craft a compelling story with the emotional resonance and urgency to move undecided voters, while ensuring that members of their own party come out to vote en masse.
Last month, Democrats spent their convention telling the story about a good person. A major theme of their virtual event centered on the notion that the country has had enough of corruption, chaos and rage. Joe Biden, Democrats said, would bring a level of humanity, decency and competence to the White House that has been absent since January 2017.
Republicans told a very different story. Understanding that it would be impossible to turn Trump into someone that he is not, the party placed its bets on spinning a tale that downplayed the multiple crises facing American citizens – a devastating pandemic, a frail economy and a deeply polarized nation. The GOP painted a picture of a country where lawlessness and disorder are winning out on the streets of America and cast Trump, who has spent most of his life telling wildly inflated stories about himself and his businesses, as the solution to this problem – despite the fact that Trump, who has been in charge for the past three-and-half years, has himself stoked violence.
Providing a bookend to the “American Carnage” he painted in his inaugural address, Trump offered a bleak picture of what’s happening in the country, all the while pretending that he has essentially brought an end to Covid-19.
Although Trump has not gained a post-convention bounce, Republicans have found success in redirecting the national conversation. There has been more media coverage devoted to an alleged crisis in cities across the country, and Biden delivered an address in Pittsburgh on Monday condemning looting.
To solidify the lead that Biden currently enjoys in most polls, Democrats need to refocus the conversation. They have to do more storytelling of their own, grounded in fact, that moves beyond the notion of Biden being a good and decent person.
What should the pillars of this story be?
The failed pandemic policy: This is the most important issue Democrats need to hammer home. Without any question, the way that the Trump administration, along with Congressional Republicans, have handled this public health crisis has been one of the biggest debacles in modern US history. While many countries in Europe and Asia are now on the road to recovery after implementing centralized, science-based policies, caseloads and deaths continue to rise in the US, where businesses are either being forced to shutter for good (and untold numbers are losing their livelihoods) or struggling to stay afloat, schools are unable to fully resume and an alarming number of families face hunger and homelessness.
The situation stems in large part from the administration’s refusal to follow scientific expertise and basic recommendations, such as wearing face masks. Decisions have been left in the hands of the states, many of which have followed the tempting imperative to open up as quickly – rather than as safely – as possible.
A criminal justice crisis: As President Trump keeps pushing a narrative of lawlessness and crime, the conversation has moved away from the root problem that gave rise to nationwide protests: entrenched racism in our criminal justice system, from policing to prisons. The ways in which racism shapes how criminal justice is administered in this country have been well-documented by many scholars and journalists. Unfortunately, not enough progress has been made in public policy to address this racial injustice. Democrats, as Biden attempted to do in his visit to Kenosha, need to bring the conversation back to the issue of reform as Trump seizes on the rare instances of violence that have emerged from the protests.
Rebuilding America’s economy: Republicans will surely boast that the unemployment numbers – while still high – have fallen. However, few experts would argue that the economy is robust and thriving. Large sectors of the economy have been decimated as a result of Covid-19, and it remains unclear how they will rebuild and survive. Many Americans who are employed face job insecurity and continue to feel the pressure of rising debt. On Thursday, the stock market tanked, with some experts warning of a potential market crash. Democrats have an opportunity to lay out an agenda for achieving economic recovery and promoting investment in areas of growth such as public health and online education that can give voters hope better days are ahead.
Protecting our democracy: During the Democratic convention, former President Barack Obama argued that Trump poses a fundamental threat to the health of our democracy. In the coming months, Democrats have an opportunity to turn this warning into a positive message and position the party as one that will strengthen our democratic institutions. Starting with the restoration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and legislative measures that could curb presidential abuse of power, Democrats have a chance to establish themselves in contrast to Republicans, who have allowed all the guardrails to fall away in pursuit of power.
Taking control of the narrative isn’t easy in the midst of intense polarization. But this is the political terrain of 2020, and Republicans have managed to do a remarkable job of it, even when that story directly contradicts the facts.
Democrats, who have history on their side, need to do a better job making sure the public knows what’s at stake – and what the party can offer the country – if they want to take control of both the White House and Congress in 2020.