What’s Next for the Presidential Campaign (or, Karma’s a bitch)

Let’s all complete our ritual nods in the direction of wishing our President and First Lady a speedy and complete recovery. Or, as my brother emailed me at the crack of dawn today: Karma’s a bitch.

Then let’s game out what this means for Trump’s re-election campaign, on a spectrum defined by the severity of his case of Covid, which has instantly become a national test case for what we think we know and what we believe about the pandemic that has wracked and divided the country.

Scenario One: Trump has only mild symptoms, and continues to function —if you can call his normal activity functioning — with only a hacking cough, an increased use of eye whitener, and sarcastic (we’re assured) requests for disinfectant injections.

In this case, at the very least, one or both of the remaining presidential debates and most of Trump’s rallies are cancelled, which is not good for Trump’s campaign. The first debate was a disaster that on balance hurt Trump. He wants another, but no one needs any further illustrations of what and who each man is, and Trump’s case of Covid provides another good reason to can them.

It’s also bad for Trump that he’s contracted Covid at all, since this undercuts the belief of a sizable portion of his base that the pandemic is a hoax engineered by the socialist Democratic Party to sabotage their leader’s historically wonderful economy and justify further governmental restrictions of our individual liberties, etc. etc. All those suspicious queries about whether you actually know anybody who’s gotten Covid will presumably be stilled. Now we all do. Anti-mask vigilantes will likewise shut up, and might even begin wearing them. One of the reasons Trump’s supporters love him — that he disparages experts of all kinds, and in particular medical ones — is revealed as a personal and national liability.

But if his symptoms remain mild and he recovers before Election Day, those same supporters will point to this as proof that the severity of the disease is grossly exaggerated, that the risks of the pandemic have been overblown by the media, and that Trump was right all along in downplaying it. They will say he contracted it because he wanted to be close to “his people.” They will extol his physical vigor and toughness, in contrast with the wimpy, mask-wearing Biden.

On balance, this scenario would further energize Trump’s base, and might even swing that tiny sliver of undecideds in his favor.

Scenario Two: Trump’s clinical obesity works against him, he’s severely sickened and must be hospitalized. This has all the foregoing negative effects on his campaign without the countervailing claims of his manly physical strength and I-told-you-so narratives of how little Covid really matters. Calls from Democrats and some Republicans for invocation of the 25th Amendment mount, but the cabinet stonewalls and Mike Pence is reduced to daily White House briefings about the President’s good spirits in the face of his condition.

On the plus side for Trump is the sheer human sympathy that his operatives will try to wring from the electorate in this instance, a sympathy that some may actually begin to feel. But on balance, voters don’t willingly choose overtly sick people to lead them, and this scenario would ultimately work in Biden’s favor (but see Scenario Four below).

Scenario Three: Trump is placed in a medically-induced coma and/or dies. God forbid, of course. The 25th Amendment is triggered, and Mike Pence becomes president days before the election. Despite a wave of sympathy for the fallen president (happily, Melania recovers without incident), few feel the same allegiance to the bland, ideologically nutty Pence that they did to the salaciously telegenic Trump. Biden wins in a landslide, hastens to organize one of the nicest, least political memorial services Washington has ever seen, and vows to sustain and improve the Affordable Care Act so that fewer Americans have to suffer the fate that has befallen our former president.

Scenario Four: Biden gets it too. And let’s assume his case is serious. The campaign devolves into a Covid-19 mano-a-mano. On balance this favors Trump, assuming the incumbent’s condition falls within Scenarios One or Two above. Biden is soberly but zealously portrayed by the right as a weak old man to whom the presidency can’t be trusted, and who might not make it to Inauguration Day. On election eve, Trump manages to lever himself out of his sickbed and totter onto the balcony overlooking the Rose Garden in full makeup, blue suit and red tie, and says not a word but gives a double thumbs-up. It’s enough. He loses the popular vote again, but wins narrowly in the Electoral College, taking Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin even as their Covid counts reach new highs…..

Have a great Halloween. Wear a mask.

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