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Can Trump push a reset button after COVID-19?

Presidential race, for now, is still Likely Biden

Trump supporters gather Monday outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where the president is being treated for COVID-19.
Trump supporters gather Monday outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where the president is being treated for COVID-19. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — After four years of almost uninterrupted chaos and a presidential debate that, thanks largely to Donald Trump, could have been mistaken for a World Wrestling Entertainment pre-fight press conference, the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal suggested Friday that Trump’s positive COVID-19 test gives him an opportunity to change the 2020 presidential contest.

“Americans will be empathetic, and Mr. Trump can respond in kind,” suggested the editorial, adding, “Rather than lash out at his critics, Mr. Trump can show optimism and fortitude and maybe even good humor in coping.”

On Fox News on Saturday, Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor Dan Henninger went even further, suggesting Trump “deliver a series of fireside chats to the American people” focusing on his plans for a second term, his accomplishments, and his differences with Joe Biden.

“And just do that in a kind of relaxed way to the American people,” added Henninger, who apparently has never seen the president in action.

The Journal has some excellent political reporters and editors, and it is a good place to follow developments in the business world. But its editorial board consistently demonstrates that it knows nothing about campaigns, elections or public opinion.

Alternate reality

I don’t know under which rock these people have been living for the past four years, but Trump has been so unfailingly “optimistic” that he, his press secretary and his personal physician have little credibility left. Trump promises, brags, boasts and generally says that everything is great. And tomorrow? It will be bigger and greater than ever. How’s that for optimism?

What Trump has needed for months, even years, is not phony sales hype but a seriousness and thoughtfulness that is well beyond his abilities. What he has needed is a message of hope based on bringing the country together.

As for empathy, which the editorial board suggests he should convey, Trump has not shown enough empathy over the past four years to fill an eye dropper. Is he supposed to turn on his empathy machine with four weeks to go before the election, and if he did, would any normal person believe it?

But it’s Henninger’s suggestion that Trump talk to the American public in a series of fireside chats delivered “in a kind of relaxed way” that sounds as if he has spent the last five years on another planet.

Trump loves rallies because he can simply riff. He doesn’t need to know anything, have any facts, discuss any legislation, promote any serious ideas or demonstrate he understands his role as president and how the federal government operates.

But he can, in an off-the-cuff manner, call opponents names, take credit for things done by the Obama administration, proclaim he knows more about everything than anyone else, undermine public confidence in crucial institutions such as the FBI, the CIA, and the entire U.S. intelligence community, and blame anything he doesn’t like on the “deep state” and the news media.

And exactly who will watch and listen to the president’s fireside chats other than the president’s most loyal supporters? Even they will turn off their televisions when they see him talking “in a relaxed kind of way.” They like the bombast. They come for the show. They come for the booing and cheering.

Interestingly, the Journal’s editorial board said that “transparency about the course of the disease” would be crucial as the White House and the president talk with the American people. “The President’s doctor should report to the public each day with openness about the symptoms and their severity. The public can accept bad news but it will punish deception.” The president’s physician has already been less than forthright about Trump’s condition.

One month to go

So, where does the 2020 presidential race stand now?

I’m not sure. Every day is a black swan day, so it is difficult to find many past elections from which to learn lessons.

I don’t expect a “rally around the flag” effect or an outburst of political sympathy for Trump from those who have been critical of his presidential style or performance. The country is too polarized, and voters are too locked into their positions.

Trump supporters will find a way to continue to back him, while his adversaries will regard his behavior as reckless and outrageous.

The Sept. 30-Oct. 1 NBC News/Wall Street Journal post-debate poll found 50 percent of respondents “strongly” disapproved of Trump job performance, and only 2 percent said they were unsure about whether they approved or disapproved of his job performance. In response to another question, 55 percent of those polled said they had a “somewhat negative” (5 percent) or a “very negative” (50 percent) view of the president.

Given that, as well as the recent news about the president’s taxes and his debate performance,  it’s best to assume the status quo, unless and until there is polling evidence that the trajectory of the presidential race has changed or voters have a much more favorable view of Trump.

From a race rating point of view, the contest is still Likely Biden. But more surprises could be ahead.

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