What is haunting the campaign of 2020?
The ghost of 2016, when Donald Trump overcame dismal mid-October polls and eked out a surprise Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton to become president.
Trump’s supporters are hoping it will happen again, that the polls aren’t registering the full degree of his support among voters. At the same time, many of Joe Biden’s backers are nervously eying his lead in key swing state polls, worried it won’t endure for the next nine days.
But it’s not 2016 anymore. So much has changed in four years: Trump is no longer the new disrupter, he’s a president trailing multiple incendiary controversies as he seeks four more years. And Biden isn’t Hillary Clinton: He carries far lower negatives and higher support in the Rust Belt states that put Trump in the White House – whether that’s enough to win him the White House remains to be seen.
The biggest difference? They’re running in an America surging with Covid-19, where more than 224,000 people have died and millions have lost their jobs.
The pandemic cast a huge shadow over Thursday’s presidential debate. “Trump did not lay out any kind of real plan to mitigate the worst public health crisis in the United States in a century,” wrote Peter Bergen. “If he had done so, he might have won over some undecided voters, but he seems incapable.”
Nayerra Haq observed, “In the face of the crisis facing American families right now, Trump didn’t offer a plan or even words of comfort.”
Three weeks ago, Trump announced he had contracted the disease. At Thursday’s debate, he said, “I got better very fast or I wouldn’t be here tonight. And now they say I’m immune.”
His words dismayed Roxanne Jones: “As someone who has lost loved ones to the virus, the President’s words felt disrespectful. Imagine how many of those 220,000 lives may have been saved if those Americans had ‘Trump-care:’ completely free, top quality medical care, helicopter ambulances to the hospital, the best team of medical doctors around the clock, and a private wing at the hospital.”
Lanhee Chen recalled that “Trump closed well in 2016” and his debate performance Thursday was “much more disciplined and on-message than he has been at any point in the last few weeks.” He added, “Trump managed to embrace the mantle of the disrupter again, even though he’s the incumbent president. His indictment of Biden as a politician who’s been in office for 47 years but accomplished little during that time continued to be his most effective sustained line of attack.”
But will that be enough to reverse the President’s fortunes? “Trump did his best, and it was not good enough,” Van Jones wrote. “It was the same message delivered at a significantly lower volume. But there was no plan for the next four years and no apology for his failures – just a lot of attacks on his opponent, Joe Biden.”
Bill McGowan and Juliana Silva praised Biden and faulted Trump on a key facet of the debate: connecting with the television audience. Trump’s “lack of eye contact validated perhaps one of the biggest raps against him: His total inability to empathize with the plight of average Americans. Imagine the points Trump could have scored had he looked directly into the camera and spoke about the frequency with which his thoughts turn to those families who have been impacted by the pandemic and how his heart aches for what they’ve been through.”
The missed opportunity for Trump to speak truth to American voters about the pandemic stood in sharp relief to the op-ed by another Covid-19 survivor, Trump ally Chris Christie, in the Wall Street Journal. Christie, who suffers from asthma, spent a week in the intensive care unit and had plenty of time to reflect.
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“When you get this disease, it hits you how easy it is to prevent,” he wrote. “We are asked to wear cloth over our mouth and nose, wash our hands and avoid crowds. These minor inconveniences can save your life, your neighbors and the economy. Seldom has so little been asked for so much benefit. Yet the message will be broadly heeded only if it is consistently and honestly delivered by the media, religious leaders, sports figures and public servants.” Christie pointedly failed to note that Trump, for whom he has been an adviser, has been central in sowing confusion over mask-wearing.
Barrett on the verge
Republican control of one-and-a-half branches of government — the Presidency and the Senate — is at risk on November 3, but whatever happens, the party is on the verge of cementing a 6-3 conservative majority on the top level of the third branch, the US Supreme Court. At 48, Judge Amy Coney Barrett could spend decades on the highest court if and when she is confirmed this coming week.
That is profoundly alarming to economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, who remarked on Barrett’s description of global climate change as “a very contentious matter.” By refusing to acknowledge the science, Sachs wrote, Barrett fits neatly into Donald Trump’s world. “What the United States is really facing in the November election and in Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination is whether the country will become a post-truth society,” Sachs observed. “Trump, of course, is a post-truth President, lying relentlessly to evade taxes, coddle polluting industries, and protect racist groups from accountability … Barrett showed that she too is a post-truth nominee and, therefore, a danger to our future.”
After ducking the question of whether he would favor expanding the Supreme Court, Biden said this week that, if elected, he would appoint a bipartisan commission to study potential court changes.
W. Kamau Bell argued that adding more justices is crucial if Democrats win control of the Senate and White House. “Why start with something so impossible sounding with all the crises we have on our plates? Because everything that is essential to our democracy — from protecting voting rights to literally ensuring the survival of this planet by combating climate change — depends on it…”
“Conservatives on the Supreme Court know just like Republicans in Congress know and just like the current White House knows that they depend on minority rule for their power,” he said.
In her confirmation hearing, Barrett didn’t tip her hand on how she might rule in the Trump-backed lawsuit to overturn Obamacare, which comes up for oral arguments a week after the election. But her prior skepticism over the court’s backing of the Affordable Care Act strikes fear in those dependent on its guarantee of insurance coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.
“I’ve spent decades fighting to ensure that my disabled children will not face the same obstacles as my disabled parents,” wrote Rebecca Cokley. “With Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court, everything and everyone I’ve ever fought for could be at risk.”
Jeneva Stone, of Bethesda, Maryland, wrote that her “son Rob is 23 years old. He follows politics, enjoys sips of whiskey, and loves baseball. He also has a rare form of dystonia, a feeding tube, and a tracheostomy, among other pre-existing medical conditions. He uses a speech-generating computerized device to communicate with us.” If the ACA is struck down, “Rob would be uninsurable, like so many of his disabled peers.”
’Freedom for peace?’
President Trump’s complaints about mail-in ballots and his talk of a “rigged” election have raised fears that he might refuse to surrender power if he loses the election. Joe Lockhart isn’t convinced they would play out. It’s not because Trump is committed to the fundamentals of democracy, he wrote, but because “the President will put his own interests ahead of the country’s, as he always does. And that may actually guarantee a peaceful transition of power.”
Trump’s company is under investigation by prosecutors, and he has personally guaranteed hundreds of millions in debt coming due in the next few years, according to the New York Times.
“Trump is good at recognizing the personal risks he faces and staying one step ahead of his personal demise,” Lockhart wrote. Blowing up US democracy would vastly complicate any effort to make a deal. “What can Trump give prosecutors, creditors and potential investors to allow him to live his life freely and build the kind of media empire he so craves? What he can give them is — wait for it — a peaceful transition of power. Freedom for peace.”
For more on the election:
James Moore: The new Texas “Spindletop” might be ready to blow
Jon Talton: Republicans may be losing their grip on Arizona
Richard L. Hasen: What if there’s no winner on November 4?
Joseph Jimmy Sankaituah: I survived Liberia’s civil wars. Here’s my advice to American voters
Jiang Xueqin: Why China doesn’t care who wins the White House
Peniel Joseph: Why Ice Cube’s political logic is so dangerous
Covid-19 in small-town America
The overall national statistics on Covid-19 don’t fully tell the tale of its spread. Infectious disease expert Dr. Kent Sepkowitz pointed out that the “surges across the nation … are occurring in different areas than the initial spring months of the pandemic, which was most pronounced in large Northern cities, or the summer increase among Southern states.” It’s “being felt most acutely by small-town America.”
No one knows for sure why this is happening, but a contributing factor could be the presence of prisons in many areas with lower populations. “Many prisons are overcrowded, provide uneven access to medical care, lack capacity to isolate, and are the object of societal neglect. In addition, prison employees may both introduce infection to the facilities or else catch Covid-19 at work and bring it into the community,” Sepkowitz wrote.
Alyssa Klein’s 41-year-old brother David, who died in March from a drug overdose, won’t be officially counted as a victim of the pandemic. He should be, she argued. “Though he faced substance use disorder throughout his adult life, David was sober nearly the entire year leading up to the pandemic. When I saw him over dinner and donuts last November on a visit to Los Angeles, he was crushing life. I was proud of him. My handsome, charming big brother finally had it together.” A personal trainer, he “loved being a dad and absolutely adored his little girl.” When the pandemic struck, he lost not only his expected promotion but his job. His support network was suddenly gone.
Thomas Lake: On a dark road in Georgia, a stranger cried for help (Listen to the accompanying “Coronavirus: Fact or Fiction” podcast.)
Tom Goldstone: Jeff Bridges’ lymphoma diagnosis made me think of my own
Daniel L. Greenberg: The Chicago 7 trial feels very real in 2020
Kate Andersen Brower and Kate Bennett: ‘First Ladies’ recap: Nancy Reagan beyond ‘the gaze’
’Contagion’ or ‘Emily in Paris’?
Are you ready to be frightened?
In the world before the pandemic, the playful spookiness of Halloween came as a welcome diversion for many. And, as Holly Thomas noted, “back in early March, when Covid-19 was still a new concept that hadn’t materially affected so many people’s lives, many people started obsessively watching the 2011 thriller ‘Contagion,’ in which Gwyneth Paltrow plays patient zero in a pandemic that ravages the globe. Lists were published of similar disease disaster-themed movies to enjoy, and for some at least, the idea of an actual global pandemic clearly still felt abstract enough to proffer an odd frisson of excitement while watching a fictional one on screen.”
But now, “little on our entertainment screens has provoked as much noise as the saccharine, candy floss-light, ‘Emily In Paris.’ We’ve maxed out on dread, and are investing instead in the glossy, culturally-insensitive adventures of a hot social media manager.”
“Halloween-as-usual embodies the spirit of both these cultural benchmarks. You get the thrill of a temporary fright, and the silly, sugary kick of all the trimmings that go alongside it. But put them together in the new world we’re living in, and the whole thing feels out of sync.”
Don’t cancel this year’s Halloween for kids, Thomas wrote. But maybe for adults, it’s time for a rethink.