Even the present is visible (according to the Apostle Paul) like something glimpsed “through a glass darkly.” Trying to see the political future is a fool’s errand. But a glimmer of that fool lurks in most of us, I suppose, including me, much as I repeat the “through a glass darkly” bit.
We nonetheless always want to know what’s going to happen, and a pair of top-drawer political insiders gathered virtually via Zoom Thursday with University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs to discuss the lay of the 2020 presidential election. If Donald Trump had been there, he would have fired them all, because they see Trump in a deep political pit out of which he is unlikely to climb by November.
Former congressman and current lobbyist Vin Weber, the Republican on the panel and a Minnesota boy, said that Trump has spent some effort trying to portray Joe Biden unfavorably, but has failed. Now the Republican strategy is to portray the Democratic Party in general as dominated by crazy lefties and socialists.
‘A referendum on Donald Trump’
But since the party has rallied around the likable Biden, who can’t be believably portrayed as a socialist, the election, Weber said, will be “a referendum on Donald Trump.”
In various way, Weber and his co-panelist — Democratic consultant David Axelrod, who served as Barack Obama’s chief strategist — agreed that the “referendum on Donald Trump” frame is not a good one for Donald Trump.
A referendum on Donald Trump will be dominated by questions like how has Trump done in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and how is the economy doing — neither of which are good questions from the viewpoint of Trump’s re-election chances, they said.
Both panelists are smart, experienced political players, and they know that, as Yogi put it, it ain’t over till it’s over. But the theme of the panel was that Trump is in a deep hole and still digging.
In general, Axelrod said, it’s hard for incumbent presidents to win a second term if the election is a referendum on themselves, easier if they can rely on portraying their challenger as scary.
Relatively moderate, very familiar, likable Joe Biden is hard to portray as scary, which is why “Trump bought himself an impeachment” trying to prevent Joe Biden from becoming his 2020 opponent, Axelrod added.
Biden showing caution
Axelrod said Biden seems to be stepping carefully, staying away from ideas like defunding the police or pulling down statues, ideas that might make it easier to portray him to centrist swing voters as an agent of the scary left.
“That tells me he [Biden] is aware of the risk” of allowing Trump to paint him as a scary lefty, Axelrod said.
“The bigger problem for the president,” Axelrod added, “is that it’s tough to run as a law and order president when you don’t follow the law yourself, and disorder follows you around. And he’s the one pouring gas on the fires. And what voters see is chaos.”
On the anti-police protests in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, Weber said that Biden benefits to the degree the public “sees the protests largely as a matter of justice,” but it could shift to a concern for voters’ own security, which could help Trump.
Weber, a long-time mainstream Republican who warned his party about Trump in 2016 and has never been an enthusiast for him, agreed with many of Axelrod’s points.
Of course, they both spoke at a time when polls show Biden with a commanding lead nationally and in key swing states. And, the two speakers agreed, it’s hard for a sitting president to make the election a referendum on his opponent in the middle of a pandemic, which the president is handling poorly, and which has led to an economic crisis.
Betting markets have flipped
Of course, the election is still four months away. But I was surprised at the degree to which the two experts seemed to think Trump’s goose was cooked. Weber mentioned an old saying about presidential elections that “the turkey’s in the oven by the Fourth of July,” which I gather means it’s already too late for Trump to change the recipe. Just wait till it’s done cooking.
And Axelrod seemed to agree, noting that the betting markets, which previously favored Trump for re-election, have flipped, and that COVID has deeply wounded Trump, and that everything Trump has tried to do has made things worse:
“I don’t know what other tools Donald Trump has in his toolbox,” Axelrod said. ”But he’s pulled out a shovel and dug such a deep hole.”
My position is that I’ll believe he’ll leave when he has left.