What will the coronavirus outbreak mean for the presidential race?
It could go at least two ways.
The best-case scenario for President Trump is that the virus doesn’t spread widely within the U.S.
Trump can then claim credit for stopping it. The stock market will bounce back.
The episode could then draw public attention to the fact that for all of his critics’ efforts to depict him as somehow abnormal, Trump’s team is hardly a bunch of amateurs. Vice President Pence is leading efforts against the virus. As governor of Indiana, Pence had helped stop an HIV outbreak by authorizing a needle exchange program.
Trump’s director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has advised six presidents and has been in his job since 1984.
Another key player in the fight against the coronavirus is Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control. She’s been at the CDC for more than 30 years.
The Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Alex Azar, is a graduate of Yale Law School, where he was an editor of the law journal. He clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia. Azar was a top executive at Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company that is based in Indiana.
Others involved in the administration’s efforts to counter the virus include a State Department official who was appointed in the Obama administration, Dr. Deborah Birx, and a Capitol Hill hand with experience dating to the Benjamin Gilman and Jesse Helms era, Stephen Biegun.
Democrats would have Americans believe that President Trump has dismissed all the career civil servants and is fundamentally anti-science, and that the public health is endangered because we have a clueless former reality television star in the Oval Office. Stopping the virus would help prove those claims false.
It could make the whole thing feel like just the most recent in a long series of instances of press hype against Trump. Remember when we were all supposedly going to die in a “catastrophic” nuclear war because of the president’s “dangerous” and “irresponsible” rhetoric toward North Korea?
A variation on this scenario is that the coronavirus does spread in the U.S., but that leading the nation through the crisis somehow makes Trump seem more presidential. Americans often rally around presidents during bad times instead of firing them. The fact that the virus came from abroad — China, Europe, Iran — could strengthen Trump’s case against globalization and for stricter border controls.
A worst-case scenario for President Trump is that the virus spreads and leads to panic, chaos, a recession, and lots of death, for which Trump gets blamed.
The Democrats can claim they would have done better. Vice President Biden can argue that he and the Obama team stopped Ebola. Biden will also claim that his years of foreign policy experience and personal relations with foreign leaders would better position him to coordinate a global response to a pandemic.
Michael Bloomberg can argue that public health is his signature issue.
Bloomberg is already faulting Trump for "mismanaging" the “coronavirus crisis.”
Even Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is trying to turn the virus to political advantage, tweeting,
"Why does this president repeatedly think that scientific facts are hoaxes? This is the most dangerous president in the modern history of our country. He is putting our people’s lives at risk. He must be defeated."
Which political scenario is the likelier outcome?
To some extent it depends on how much the virus spreads, which in turn depends on the behavior of Americans — handwashing, staying home if sick, keeping away from sick people. The Republican position here — politically advantaged if fewer people die from the disease — is better than the Democratic one.
It’s like a wartime situation, where you don’t want more casualties to be better for your political party, or the economy, where you don’t want bad economic news to be better for your political party.
Back in July 2019, well before the virus outbreak, Politico described Trump as "the most germ-conscious man to ever lead the free world," noting that the president is a self-described "germaphobe" and a frequent handwasher. Trump, the article said, makes a point of staying away from anyone who coughs or sneezes, and he sometimes hesitates to initiate a handshake.
The president’s re-election chances may be riding on how many Americans follow his personal hygiene example.
Ira Stoll is author of "J.F.K. Conservative," and "Samuel Adams: A Life." Read more reports from Ira Stoll — Click Here Now.
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