Does anyone else miss the days when respectable people ran for president?
In 2020, Americans find themselves mired in a campaign that again forces them to select from the lesser of two evils — President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden, two unlikable old men who are squaring off in an effort to capture the support of the uninspired masses.
Joe Biden has a new ad out this week. The first 2:15 of the 2:30 ad is pretty powerful stuff, hammering Trump on his repeated refusal to acknowledge that the novel coronavirus that was spreading like wildfire in Europe after taking Asia by storm would be a threat in the U.S. To the contrary, Trump actually said on various occasions that the situation was completely under control — even that it would “miraculously disappear” with April’s warmer temperatures.
But the ad ends with the same disingenuousness that has caused so many Americans to become jaded towards presidential politics, as it attempts to pin the economic damage from the coronavirus outbreak on Trump.
“More than 33 million Americans lose their jobs to the pandemic. Unemployment reaches Great Depression-era levels,” the narrator drones, before continuing: “Donald Trump doesn’t understand. We have an economic crisis because we have a public health crisis, and we have a public health crisis because he refused to act. Donald Trump didn’t build a great economy. His failure to lead destroyed one.”
Hammering Trump on his failure to act is fair game. Trump’s handling of this public health crisis has indeed been shameful. In February, when he could’ve been preparing federal government for this threat, he focused all his time on trying to reassure Americans that it was all going to be okay, protect the stock market from losses, and dismissing or ignoring warnings from his cabinet and advisors that the U.S. was at risk of exponential spread from the virus.
Attempting to pin the economic crash on Trump, however, is utter nonsense. You know it, I know it, Joe Biden knows it.
There are two reasons 33 million Americans lost their jobs.
The first reason is fear of the virus — which is why I insist that the real economic impact from the government-mandated shutdown and social distancing policies isn’t nearly as dramatic as most conservatives insist. Much of the economic impact — maybe even most of it, when we look back on this at some point in the future — is self-inflicted. Remember the stock market decline? That preceded any action from the federal government or state governments. Also remember that there were stories emerging about the airline industry’s financial woes as people were canceling trips, and about the travel industry setbacks in general, that also predated the first actions that were taken by state or federal governments. People were canceling vacations, business trips and curtailing spending before the virus began to spread in the United States. This is the impact that Trump actually attempted to mitigate back in February, but his words fell on deaf ears — and for good reason, because it was pretty easy to see that his claims of complete containment and a miraculous dissipation of Covid-19 were incorrect.
The second reason is the response to the virus — closing schools, canceling events, then forcing restaurant dining rooms and so-called non-essential businesses to close. This is where the job losses began to pile up. Trump has been schizophrenic on this issue, as evidenced by his “LIBERATE!” tweets one day that were aimed at states with restrictive policies in place, like Michigan, and his throwing Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp under the bus just days later as Kemp attempted to reopen his state. But, at the end of the day, most of these job losses were out of the president’s hands. Orders to close weren’t issued by the White House; they were issued by governors across the nation.
As for the first reason, if Biden had been president, the job losses that were spurred by fear of the virus would’ve been magnified, because Biden would have sounded the alarm bells much earlier than Trump. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; clearly, Trump’s approach to this virus before it actually began to spread in the U.S. was a terrible miscalculation on the president’s part — a gross mishandling of an emerging health crisis.
As for the second reason, the job losses are completely out of the hands of any president. The governors, not the president, and the states, not Washington, have the power to issue shutdown orders and to keep people at home. It seems likely that many of these orders infringed on constitutional liberties, and the courts are ruling that way as the cases are presented to them. But the Constitution makes it very clear that the federal government doesn’t have that authority.
The only argument that we’re left with, then, is that the job losses mounted because Trump mishandled the virus. That’s what Biden appears to be arguing at the end of the ad, when he says we have a public health crisis because Trump refused to act.
The obvious question, though, is exactly what did Trump fail to do that Biden could’ve done differently that would have saved American jobs? There have been studies suggesting that if the federal government had acted days or weeks earlier, the spread of the coronavirus would’ve been mitigated and far fewer people would’ve died. Those are dubious claims that, I suspect, wouldn’t stand up to reality. But let’s assume, for a moment, that they’re true. The only way to stop the spread of coronavirus is to shut everything down. It’s really that simple. You can make the argument that the coronavirus wasn’t deadly enough to justify those shutdowns (though Joe Biden clearly isn’t going to make that argument), but regardless of its lethality, the virus spreads from person to person. You can’t mitigate its spread without shutting everything down.
Even if containment of the virus were possible — good luck building that case — it would’ve required millions of businesses to temporarily close, and millions of jobs lost, to stop it. There is simply no way around that.
I suppose one might argue that the U.S. could have taken the Sweden approach, a gamble for herd immunity based on recommended — but not enforced, in most cases — social distancing practices that didn’t actually result in mandates on the people. That would’ve saved the jobs under Reason #2 (but not Reason #1), if the president had the authority to order everything left open (he doesn’t) or could’ve convinced the governors to leave everything open. But obviously Biden would not have favored that approach.
If Joe Biden wants to argue that he could’ve saved lives by managing the health crisis better, that’s a fair argument. Plenty of folks would disagree with him, and I might be one of them. But no one can build a solid case that Trump’s handling of the health crisis that resulted from the coronavirus outbreak was splendidly handled. There were things the federal government did well, but there were plenty of things that the federal government didn’t do well, and most of those were because there wasn’t consolidating leadership at the top. Trump was more focused on trying to minimize economic impacts and save his re-election chances. The only people who attempt a serious argument that Trump’s handling of the virus was as good as could be expected are those who are concerned that fallout from his performance will cause him to be defeated in November.
So, yes, an argument from Biden that he could’ve handled the U.S. response to the virus outbreak better than Trump is absolutely fair game.
But Biden cannot offer any evidence that anything his theoretical administration would’ve done would have saved jobs. In fact, Biden and most Democrats have been more heavily in favor of shelter-in-place orders and non-essential business closures than Trump and most Republicans. Millions of jobs would’ve been lost if Biden were president — and there’s even a case to be made that Biden’s plan would’ve costed more Americans their jobs than Trump’s plan.
The blatantly and recklessly false advertising from the Biden campaign aren’t just in poor taste — they’re disappointing. Biden is supposed to be a gentleman in politics. I’ve never believed that … and if I did, I wouldn’t believe it after he called a factory worker “fat” and a “damn liar,” which was a very Trumpish thing to do. But that’s the image that he’s always attempted to portray. The fawning press has always assumed him a gentleman. He’s supposed to be a decent man.
The truth is, there is apparently no decency in presidential politics anymore … which makes me miss the presidential campaigns of my youth.
Oh sure, presidential politics was dirty business back then, too; and always has been — even if the dirt has been quickly swept under the proverbial rugs. But we’ve reached a new level of nastiness in Washington, one that makes the George H.W. Bush vs. Bill Clinton vs. Ross Perot campaign, or the Clinton vs. Bob Dole campaign, or the George W. Bush vs. Al Gore vs. Ralph Nader campaign, seem like child’s play.