October Surmise

President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus response meeting with Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and members of the Trump administration coronavirus task force in the Oval Office at the White House, April 29, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)Getting a read on the 2020 battleground

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he dating conventions b.c. and a.d. were early victims of cultural vandalism at the hands of those who cannot bear the thought of C. or D., and they were replaced with b.c.e. (“Before Common Era”) and c.e. (“Common Era”), leaving history bisected by the same apparently unmentionable Event but the Event itself unspoken. The 2020 presidential election can be divided with the same convention, having been launched in the now misty distance of history b.c.e. — Before Coronavirus Epidemic — a very different time from the present.

Republicans in May c.e. are worried. Trump’s poll numbers are down, and that does not seem to be the result of Trump’s Trumping his way through a press briefing and spit-balling daft ideas about mainlining Lysol or giving the old lungs a good scrubbing down with Clorox. Democrats are worried, too, having apparently just realized that Joe Biden is, was, and always shall be, Joe Biden.

May is a mess. What is October going to look like?

Barring some new dramatic development, Trump’s argument for himself going into the election is going to be, roughly: “Things were going great thanks to my policies, and then we suffered a setback from an unforeseeable and unpreventable epidemic originating in China, which I have been calling a threat for years. Thanks to my deft management, the horrible worst-case scenarios we all heard about never came to pass, we minimized the economic fallout to the extent that doing so was reasonably possible, and we positioned ourselves for a rapid recovery.”

If we take the Congressional Budget Office forecasts of April 24 as a guide, the second quarter is going to be an economic horror show, with real GDP crashing by 11.8 percent. For perspective, that crater will be deeper than the biggest quarterly decline in recorded U.S. economic history. How did that play out in presidential politics? It’s complicated. That earlier record-setting quarterly decline happened in 1958, during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the economy bounced back rapidly, growing just under 10 percent in the third and fourth quarters of that year. By the time the election of 1960 rolled around, the economy was back in the dumps, and Ike wasn’t on the ticket. But, even so, Vice President Richard Nixon pressed the charismatic young Jack Kennedy in the closest election since 1916. The Eisenhower recession surely hurt Nixon, but it was not dispositive.

(Here I repeat my usual disclaimer: Much of what we believe about the relationship between presidents and economic performance is pure superstition, but that does not change how those beliefs influence elections.)

The CBO forecasts describe a different situation for Trump. That harrowing 11.8 percent Q2 crash is expected to be followed up by strong growth (5.4 percent) in Q3 and modest growth (2.5 percent) in Q4. Looked at another way, the economy in Q2 is expected to be declining at an annualized rate of 39.6 percent and then to grow in the following quarters at an annualized rate of 23.5 percent and 10.5 percent, respectively. That’s an absolute roller coaster, but a roller coaster headed upward on the eve of the election.

On the flip side: The unemployment rate for Q2 is expected to be catastrophic at 14 percent — and to get worse in Q3, deepening to 16 percent. The unemployment numbers going into October are going to be horrible and, worse for Trump, moving in the wrong direction. The CBO expects that to reverse in the fourth quarter, ending the year at a much-improved but still awful 11.7 percent. Trump may get some credit for the GDP numbers but still get gutted by the unemployment rate. That is a problem for an incumbent president whose case for himself has mainly been an economic one. His prospects are going to be dependent on whether Americans are moved more by the fresh memory of the pain they have been through or by the fresh hope of the recovery that will — all of us must hope — by then be under way.

Again, for the purposes of setting the stage for the election, it does not much matter whether the assigning of credit and blame is fair or sensible. Do not expect the world to weep over the possibility that life has been unfair to Donald J. Trump. There is the possibility that things could go worse than the CBO has forecast. There also is the possibility that there is a major resurgence of coronavirus infections between now and the election. Consider that in Texas, which is in the early stages of reopening, there was a record increase in coronavirus deaths on Thursday and that Dallas County reported a record number of new cases on the same day.

Those are, in total, some potentially grim prospects.

The great ray of sunshine in the Trump camp is one Joe Biden of Delaware.

Trump may be facing ugly polls, economic catastrophe, and a biblical plague on the land, but he also is almost certainly facing Joe Biden on Election Day.

Biden, who is struggling under allegations that he sexually assaulted Tara Reade, a former aide, has named former senator Chris Dodd to head his vice-presidential search committee. This is political malpractice in one very obvious way and one less obvious one.

First, the obvious: Chris Dodd’s Joe Biden problems are worse than Joe Biden’s Joe Biden problems, and they include an account of then–Senator Dodd and Senator Ted Kennedy sexually assaulting a waitress, in public. This is not a story from some right-wing fringe blogger — this was from Michael Kelly, writing at the time for GQ. Joe Biden has pledged to name a woman to the VP spot, partly to muffle his Joe Biden problems, and this is who is running the show on his behalf?

What, Harvey Weinstein wasn’t available?

The less obvious problem with the Dodd arrangement is that Biden and other Democratic leaders are overwhelmingly rich, old, and white in a party that isn’t. Promising to put a woman on the ticket — but only if she gets the stamp of approval from a 75-year-old white male millionaire party hack — is a dramatic illustration of where the real power still is held in the Democratic Party. What Biden has done here is to emphasize that in the Democratic Party of 2020, women and minorities rise at the sufferance of Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, and their ilk, and that men such as Chris Dodd are the hurdle everybody else has to clear to get there.

Joe Biden made that choice — and, worse for his campaign, the brain trust around him allowed him to make that choice.

Some Democrats believed that nominating the familiar vice president intimately associated with the sacrosanct person of Barack Obama was, politically speaking, foolproof.

They underestimated the fool.

What are the next six months going to look like? Picture two enraged old men fist-fighting on stilts — in a minefield, in a tornado, after a flood.

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