What a Losing Campaign Looks Like

President Donald Trump’s boorish performance in last week’s debate has helped Joe Biden widen his lead in recent polls

RealClearPolitics average of national polls shows Biden holding a nearly 10-point lead, with one recent poll giving the Democratic challenger a 16-point lead and another puts the margin at 14 in favor of Biden. Leads of that magnitude portend a landslide victory of historic portions.

The trend is clear enough for previously Trump-loyal Republicans to begin distancing themselves from a flailing president. With Democrats all-but-certain to retain control of the House and poised to reclaim a majority in the Senate, Republicans worry that a potential “blue wave” might turn into a blue tsunami. Separating from Trump may not help many Republicans as their subservience throughout his term has tarnished their image, but they have little left in their playbook to counter Trump’s dismissive response to the pandemic and his off-again, on-again approach to negotiations with congressional Democrats over a new stimulus package. Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, locked in an unexpectedly close race, says Trump “got out over his skis” in playing down the coronavirus threat. “He tries to balance that with saying, ‘We, you know, we got this.’ And clearly, we don’t have this,” Cornyn said. “I think the biggest mistake people make in public life is not telling the truth, particularly in something with as much public interest as here because you now the real story is going to come out.”

Trump on the White House balcony

Nothing in the president’s recent behavior suggests he is capable of making a major push to close the gap with Biden. His boasting about how well he is recovering from his bout with COVID-19 suggests perhaps that the steroids he has been taking are clouding his judgment. Trump’s posturing on the White House balcony the evening he returned from the hospital reminded many of the poses of Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist leader. He has continued to play down the seriousness of the pandemic, tweeting just before leaving Walter Reed Medical Center Monday evening, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” Wednesday evening, the president released a bizarre video in which he claims contracting the disease was “a blessing from God” and praises a miracle cure from an untested drug he was given. In the video, Trump appears to struggle to take in enough air.

The announcement of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination as a Supreme Court justice, an event that may have contributed to the coronavirus outbreak at the White House

His actions in recent days do not reassure voters that he is taking the pandemic any more seriously after coming down with COVID-19 than he did before contracting the disease. By all reports, Trump is walking around the White House without a mask, including when going to the Oval Office, against the advice and wishes of top aides. Trump and his doctors have been less than forthcoming about his symptoms, treatment, and infection history. The last point is critical because Trump came into contact with numerous people in the days before he tweeted that he and his wife were infected. He debated Biden just days before going to the hospital.

Trump acts as if his defeat on November 3 is a foregone conclusion. He behaved boorishly in his debate with Biden, violating the debate rules in repeated confrontations with both his opponent and the moderator. His campaign has run through so much money that it has been pulling TV ads in key battleground states. The president killed stimulus talks, saying that there would be no aid for struggling Americans until after he is reelected. Even Trump eventually realized that taking the blame for stalled talks was not a good idea just weeks before an election, so he quickly suggested that he might be agreeable to a scaled-down version of a stimulus package. 

The vice-presidential debate

Trump and his sycophants know there is not much time and not much they can do to change the trajectory that has Biden increasing his polling lead in the wake of so many presidential self-inflicted wounds. Vice President Mike Pence did little in Wednesday night’s debate to convince voters that the Trump administration is about to get a handle on the myriad crises afflicting the nation. He offered the same nonsense on the pandemic, saying Trump acted forthrightly in banning travel with China, while offering no effective rebuttal to Senator Harris’ accusation that Trump has presided over a catastrophic public-health failure. Pence was somewhat politer than his boss in his face-off with Harris, though he frequently talked past his allotted time and often interrupted his opponent, a tactic sure to alienate women viewers. All in all, Pence found himself diminished by Harris and a fly that landed and stayed on his white hair for more than two minutes.

Pence had a memorable and scary moment of not answering a question at the end of the debate. The moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, asked Pence what “would be your role and responsibility as vice president” if Trump refused to cede power if he lost the election. The president has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and his vice president was no more reassuring that the administration would accept the election results. Pence merely said “I think we are going to win this election” and then repeated his talking points about tax cuts and rolling back regulations, then ending by accusing the Democrats of trying to undo the results of the 2016 election.

Trump, too, has returned to his theme that the Democrats plotted against him in 2016 and that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, “cooked up the Russia hoax.” It is a curious obsession, given that Trump won the election. But, the reappearance of the accusation of a Democratic plot four years ago is one more indication that Trump and his allies have little to offer voters this time around, and it is an admission that they know the election is all but lost. The only question remaining — which Trump and now Pence have refused to answer — is: Will they go quietly?

Posted October 9, 2020

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