When the Wall Street Journal, once the house-magazine for the old Republican Party, chides President Donald Trump for not having an agenda for his second term, the GOP should be ringing alarm bells.
The polls aren’t any more promising – a weekend New York Times poll has Joe Biden ahead of Trump 50% to 35%. Other polls are showing the over-65s, who tend to vote for the Republicans, are swinging to Biden.
Trump is unfazed – or so he says. He has a “good team” around him and his next term would see more of the same, rebuilding the economy.
But Trump is not a strategic thinker and his ratings have fallen to 40% or below the levels recorded by presidents George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, the last two Presidents who failed to win a second term.
The Journal says with the November 4 election only four months away, voters know Trump well and he has reverted to his worst form.
His record fighting the coronavirus is better than his critics claim after a bad start in late February and March. He mobilised Federal resources to help hard-hit states but wasted his chance to show leadership by turning his daily pandemic press conferences into
“ … brawls with the bear-baiting press and any politician who didn’t praise him to the skies”.
His default now is defensive self-congratulation.
Trump is now out on the campaign trail and refuses to wear an anti-virus mask. Insiders say the White House has been damaged by a tweet from Liz Cheney, Republican Congresswoman from Wyoming. This featured her dad, former vice president Dick Cheney, wearing an anti-coronavirus mask, saying “real men wear masks”.
Trump is working law-and-order as hard as he can. Over the weekend he issued an executive order mandating prison sentences for those defacing or damaging statues. Statues of even non-controversial figures like Abe Lincoln and Ulysses S Grant, victor in the Civil War, have been defaced or hauled-down. Police blocked demonstrators trying to haul down the stone figure of President Andrew Jackson, who succeeded Lincoln, arguing he acted harshly towards American Indians.
The Journal says Americans don’t like racial enmity and they want their President to reduce it.
Trump has preached racial harmony on occasion, but he gives it all back with riffs that misjudge the national moment. The law and order message might resonate if disorder and rioting continue through the summer, but only if Trump is also talking about racial reconciliation and opportunity for all.
Biden is walking a narrow line on the police-brutality issue. He says much police work should be transferred to other agencies in the community (although a commentator notes this will require armies of social workers, in short supply in the US even today).
Along with tax reform (meaning higher taxes on the wealthier), decriminalising illegal entrants, the left of the Democrat Party is calling for “police defunding” which hands the issue to Trump and the Republicans. Middle America, much as New Zealand, values law and order. All this is meat and drink to Trump.
He’s also mindful, though, of the US Electoral College. This arcane body – and not the popular vote – determines who wins the presidential elections. Ask Hillary Clinton about 2016 when she won the popular vote by a margin.
The college was created by the US Constitution and meets to elect the president and vice president after the vote. It has 538 members formed from the states and is made up from the total of members of Congress and the Senate in the states.
Currently there are 100 senators and 435 Representatives. Washington DC gets three “electors”.
A majority of 270 votes out of the 538 is required to win the election. A guide to the college says each state counts its popular votes according to state laws designating presidential electors. In most states, the winner of the plurality of the state-wide vote receives all of that state’s electors.
Electors are typically required to pledge to vote for the winning candidate, but there is a continuing legal dispute about whether electors are required to vote as they pledged.
Controversy has rolled on for decades. Supporters argue the College underpins the federal nature of the US. Opponents claim it gives small states much more clout over those with large city populations.
The next four months are critical. Covid-19 is surging in many GOP-run states which opened early. The economy is still stuttering with 21 million out of work. According to most-recent data, the African-American unemployment rate is 16.7%, compared with the white unemployment rate of 14.2%.
Biden knows he has to turn-out African-American voters who stayed at home in 2016. Hence his choice of vice-presidential running mate is critical.
He’s also mindful that race, sadly, remains a sensitive issue. In choosing a vice presidential candidate, he is already bound to name a woman and the commentators are having a field-day with African-American possibilities.
The GOP is watching this closely. There are already suggestions around the US capital that Trump may ask VP Mike Pence to step aside to have a woman step up. Despite appearances, Pence is a canny politician from Indiana and might accept this in the knowledge that should Trump go down, he would preserve his reputation for a nomination in 2024.