In 2004, Republicans felt there was only one issue: terrorism. Democrats belittled the topic and yearned for a return to “normal” times in the nation’s politics.
In a dramatic role reversal, in 2020, Democrats feel that only one issue dominates: the coronavirus. Republicans play the same role Democrats did in 2004 — trying to get past the virus issue and back to more normal times.
In 2004, nothing but terrorism mattered. Bush was seen as better able to fight terrorism and that was that.
The 2004 race was conducted in the shadow of the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. Having declared “war on terror,” President George W. Bush mobilized the country. We invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, passed the Patriot Act extending the powers of the government to investigate and root out terrorism and increased our military power dramatically.
But many dissented and found the emphasis on terrorism exaggerated. Notably, Michael Moore, in his film “Fahrenheit 911,” said that the odds of dying in a terror attack were about the same for the average American of being struck by lightning.
Now, Republicans are struggling to put the virus issue in perspective, saying that only six out of every thousand people infected with the virus die. But their task is as futile as was that of Moore and the Democrats in 2004. Some currents are just too strong to swim against.
In the presidential debates of 2004, President George W. Bush won the terror issue over his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, during their first encounter. Kerry won all the other issues — Social Security, health care, climate change — but still found himself trailing in the polls as the nation obsessed over the terror threat.
Now it is the Democrats who have the upper hand on the issue of the day: the coronavirus. Now it is Trump and the Republicans who long for a return to “normal” politics and who want to bypass the virus and move on. But Biden’s lead in the polling indicates that America is not ready to turn the page.
With the daily rate of new cases surging to 70,000 (even with the death rate plunging), voters credit Biden with being better able to thwart the virus, and he leads the polls as a result.
The message for President Trump is clear: You can’t avoid, minimize or trivialize an issue that obsesses the American people. You have to mobilize and win it. He cannot afford to concede the virus issue. He must take the virus seriously, stop trying to minimize it, curb his usual optimism and settle in for a long struggle against the plague.
This past week, the president has shown encouraging signs that he gets it. Donning a mask for the first time and telling people that things “will get worse before they get better,” he is engaging on the key issue that holds Biden aloft.
With Biden incapable of campaigning, hunkered down in his basement, the threat of a resurgent Trump taking on the virus issue with the full powers of the presidency is daunting. He has to hope that racial angst and fury about police misconduct can give him a place to stand even if he loses his edge on the virus issue.
Trump, for his part, seems to have learned another lesson from the past: the use of executive orders. Taking his cue from President Obama, who reminded people that he “has a pen,” he is vaulting over the gridlocked legislative process with a series of executive orders breathtaking in scope and impact.
His order stopping the deportation of DACA migrants threatens Biden’s hold on Latinos — who are already resentful of how the Democrats ignore them and pander to African-Americans.
Trump’s order stopping the inclusion of illegal immigrants in the census puts the border issue back in play after it had faded (largely due to the success of the wall in curbing the flow).
If he cuts a broad swath through issues like health care and crime with bold executive action, begin to feel sorry for Biden.
But the real change this week is Trump’s turn over the virus issue. Taking it seriously and assuming the leading role in fighting the disease will reverse his bad polls and likely put him back in the lead.
Especially against so pathetic an opponent.
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