“The Politics of Coronavirus: Chapter Two” - The Sunday Political Brunch April 5, 2020


CHARLESTON, W. Va. – For the second straight week I am analyzing the politics of the Coronavirus. As I said last week, it’s unseemly, but it’s also reality. The political operatives on both sides of the aisle in Washington, D.C. and in most state capitols, are having the very discussion we’re having here because 2020 is a critical election year. Politics is a game of strategy, and even a pandemic can’t change that. Let’s “brunch” on that this week!

“I am a War President” – What does that mean? President George W. Bush said that often during his reelection bid in 2004. The message is both practical and political. That means, a) the nation is at war, and there is imminent danger; and, b) you don’t change leaders when you’re in the middle of combat. This was the strategy used by Lincoln, Wilson, FDR and others. But it’s NOT a guarantee. Remember Bush II only won by a one-state margin (Ohio) in 2004. And George H.W. Bush peaked too soon. Yes, he blew Iraq out of the water in early 1991, but the memory was long faded by November 1992, when he lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton.

“The Long-Haul” – There are a variety of forecasts for coronavirus in the United Nations. The most optimistic scenario is that it peaks by early May, and then fades away. But another model has a fade soon, but then a reflash in fall, and perhaps a third wave in early 2021. Obviously, the best scenario for President Trump is the first one. If the disease is defeated and the death toll is relatively low, he’s going to get a bounce. But if the disease has peaks and valleys, with a relapse in the fall, he’s probably toast in November. It’s all about winning, and of you aren’t winning the war on the disease, you probably aren’t going win an election.

“Wasn’t it, ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid?’” – I’ve often stated in this column that most elections – especially for president – rise and fall on the state of the economy. Famed political strategist James Carville often told the Clinton campaign staff in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid!” What he was saying is that most people vote with their purses and pocketbooks. In 1992, the post-Iraq War Bush popularity faded with a brief recession. Carville was right and Clinton won.

“War Versus Economy” – So what do you do if the war effort is up, and the economy is down? This is the most critical threat to President Trump chances for a second term. The stock markets have tanked, and millions of people have been suddenly tossed into the unemployment line. The economy was the president’s signature issue. A year ago, we had the lowest unemployment in 50 years, and the Dow Jones had surged 10,000 points up in Trump’s term. But two weeks of Coronavirus has wiped out all those employment and investment gains. If this downturn gets worse as November approaches, there probably won’t be a second term. Those are just the fates and fortunes of the political pendulum swinging, and presidents don’t control it.

“The Dangers for Democrats” – As challenging as this issue is for Republicans, including President Trump, it may be doubly risky for Democrats. Look, the nation is in crisis and when that happened the public sentiment is for the two sides to put away their partisan differences and solve the problem. We saw the unanimity in Congress last week when lawmakers passed the $2 trillion-dollar economic stimulus bill. But if Democrats like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and likely presidential nominee Joe Biden are too harsh on their criticism of Trump, it could backfire. People might view it as unpatriotic or un-American, even though political dissent is one of our most important and cherished rights. We only have one president at a time. No one should fall behind him in lock-step support, nor should people criticize him just because he’s on the other side of the aisle. Democrats need to play their opposition very strategically, and factually. For example, “The White House knew the nation needed 100,000 ventilators, but they only came up with 10,000 and because of that people died.” It can’t be the simplistic, “Trump sucks!” That doesn’t work.

“Here’s Who Matters” – A Gallup Poll published this year shows that 29 percent of Americans self-identified as Democrats, while 30 percent said they were Republicans. Fully 39 percent of people said they were registered or voted as independent. I say this – and justify my above analysis – because these are the people who elect presidents. There are not enough voters in either party to win an election outright. The independents are the ones most turned off by partisan politics as usual, and the ones most inclined to be turned off by negative attacks.

“Performance, Not Politics” – Ultimately the political piece of this discussion will be determined by policy outcomes. If the Trump administration is successful in shutting down the virus, and limiting the numbers of deaths, there could be a huge political payoff. On the other hand, if the death rate soars and the economy tanks further, voters may be inclined to make a change. But the key people to watch, are the 39 percent who claim no party affiliation.

It’s report card time, give President Trump a grade so far, by clicking the comment button!

Mark Curtis, Ed. D., is Chief Political Reporter for the five Nexstar Media TV stations serving West Virginia, its five neighboring states, and most of the Washington, D.C. media market. He is a National Contributing Political Writer for the White House Patch at www.Patch.com.

© 2020, Mark Curtis Media, LLC.

Photo courtesy: Getty Images

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