George Will, the great Washington Post political columnist, has a way with words. Consider the opening sentence from his column on the ghastly Donald Trump-Joe Biden debate last week:
“The putrescence of America’s public life was pitilessly displayed Tuesday when, for 98 minutes, whatever remains of the nation’s domestic confidence and international stature shriveled like a brittle autumn leaf.”
The national interest, Will asserted, demands that “the other two scheduled mortifications, fraudulently advertised as presidential debates, should be canceled” – not that there was any realistic hope that the encounters booked for Oct. 15 and Oct. 22 would be called off.
But that was then, this is now.
“Then” was before the announcement in the wee hours of Friday that the president and his wife had joined the ranks of 7.3-million Americans who have tested positive for COVID-19. Then came word that Trump, the great pandemic denier, was experiencing symptoms of the disease. Before the day was done, he had been admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center “for a few days.”
“Now” is the reality of an ugly, confused election suddenly thrown into chaos. As I write this, Trump is to be quarantined in the White House for at least 14 days, and no knows whether he will be able to debate Biden or to resume his vigorous re-election campaign.
He has been running behind Biden in the polls and Republican strategists were hoping to close the gap before Nov. 3 with an aggressive campaign and a heavy travel schedule built around mass public rallies where Trump would keep drumming on his message that, thanks to his steadfast leadership, the pandemic is on the verge of defeat.
So much for that message. The president’s health is now a greater concern to Republican stalwarts.
Although he will receive the best of care in the White House, he is as vulnerable as any elderly patient in a long-term care home. He is 74 and, although he stands six foot three, he is sorely out of shape, borderline obese, with a weight fluctuating between 240 and 275 pounds. His eating habits are dreadful (he so loves his Big Macs); his only known exercise is golf, if that gentle recreation can be considered exercise.
What happens if he has to withdraw from the campaign? The 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides for the temporary transfer of the powers and duties of an incapacitated president to the vice-president. But there are no rules for the replacement of the candidate at the head of an election ticket. It would be up to Trump and the Republican party. Would he agree to step aside for Mike Pence?
Assuming Trump is able to resume campaigning, he will no longer be able to mock Biden for wearing a COVID mask and insisting on social distancing at his public appearances.
Biden will also need to pivot. His television ads attacking Trump’s handling of the COVID crisis will seem like blows below the belt when the president is in quarantine. The former vice-president will have to concentrate on his core promise that a Democratic administration will reduce economic inequality at home and restore America’s stature abroad.
But what about the enthusiasm gap?
Trump’s performance in the Sept. 29 debate may have appalled George Will, among others, but it apparently did not faze his base.
This the Democrats’ great worry. For reasons that may escape most Canadians, Trump supporters are far more enthusiastic about their candidate – and hence more likely to vote – than Biden supporters are about their man. They like him well enough. What’s not to like about Joe Biden? But he doesn’t set their hearts fluttering or their blood stirring.
What does make Democratic blood stir – boil, actually – is Donald Trump. The Democrats are united in one mission: to rid the nation of the leader they portray as the worst president in American history. Worse than James Buchanan or even Millard Fillmore, to mention a couple of other worthy candidates.
But will rage against Trump continue to reign when poor Donald and his devoted bride Melania are imprisoned, day after anxious day, in their humble abode on Pennsylvania Avenue, cut off from the American people they love, as they bravely endure the misery inflicted on so many of their countrymen by the notorious “Chinese disease?”
Does anyone want to bet that the alchemists in GOP backrooms aren’t already working on ways to transform a campaign disaster into electoral gold?
Might a sympathy vote save Trump?
To steal a line from another game – Say it ain’t so, Joe!
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].