In 2011, at the height of his Comedy Central period, Stephen Colbert launched a parody Super PAC called “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.”
Wednesday night, the gravely serious Mike Pence ended his workmanlike speech at Fort McHenry with a similar frenzy of repetition: “With President Donald Trump in the White House for four more years and with God’s help, we will make America great again, again.”
As presidential campaign slogans go, it isn’t “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” which helped elect William Henry Harrison in 1840.
Pence’s oratory is revealing since he is a disciplined politician who obediently follows the script and scrupulously avoids crazed Trumpian improvisations. In short, every line in a Pence speech is there because White House political strategists thought it represented shrewd politics—even Pence rhetorically sticking another scarlet “A” for “Again” on every MAGA hat. What the vice president is saying is that, despite Trump’s supposed Mount Rushmore greatness, America needs saving yet again. In Pence’s telling, the nation is akin to an innocent maiden in the silent movies who keeps getting tied to the railroad tracks.
Donald Trump, of course, has no responsibility for anything. Not the pandemic, not the economy, not White House incompetence, not a white vigilante killing protesters in Kenosha, and not Hurricane Laura devastating the Gulf Coast. Trump is simply the unluckiest president since William Henry Harrison died in office just a month after he was inaugurated in 1841.
Presidential politics, especially for an incumbent, doesn’t work like that.
Trump may be profiting off of government spending at his golf resorts, but he can’t pass the buck. Anything that happens on a president’s watch belongs to him, which is why Trump could get away with reveling in the economy that he inherited from Barack Obama and why he is now on the hook for all that has happened in the last six months.
In his speech Wednesday night, Pence had the audacity to claim, “President Trump marshaled the full resources of our federal government from the outset. He directed us to forge a seamless partnership with governors across America in both political parties.”
The fact-checking of just those two sentences would qualify as a Labor of Hercules. Hyping baseless cures, muzzling government scientists, leaving governors in both parties to fend for themselves, and discouraging coronavirus testing is just a small part of the Trump-Pence legacy of ineptitude and willful denial.
Pence was saying to voters, in effect, “Are you going to believe me or your own eyes?”
What the White House fails to realize is that you can’t spin a pandemic. In his speech, Pence offered the familiar GOP charge that Trump “inherited a military hollowed out by devastating budget cuts.” Americans, unless they are working in procurement at the Defense Department, lack the knowledge to understand that the military budget had declined under Obama primarily because of the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But with six million recorded cases of Covid-19 and 180,000 deaths, voters have their own firsthand understanding of the pandemic. And all the political speeches and all the wild boasting from Trump and Pence cannot erase the sad-eyed arithmetic of death and disease.
Pence teed up the expected October Surprise when he announced, without providing further evidence, “I’m proud to report that we are on track to have the world’s first safe, effective coronavirus vaccine by the end of this year.”
Probably the big debate in the White House right now is whether it is better strategy to herald this miracle cure in early October, when voters begin to mail in their ballots, or wait until late October for maximum preelection drama. While there is no sure way of calculating the political ramifications of such V-for-Vaccine triumphalism, my guess is that the president has squandered so much credibility from bleach and hydroxychloroquine that most voters will shrug off the medicine-show claims of Dr. Trump.
One of the most jarring sights at Fort McHenry was that of Pence’s 87-year-old mother and the rest of the audience wandering around without masks, with minimal regard to social distancing. Even if all the invited guests had been screened for Covid-19 in advance, the do-your-own-thing message embodied in this maskless ball was alarming.
Even now, six months after the pandemic hit America, it remains baffling that Trump and the Republicans have made a religious crusade out of mask refusal. No single action—this side of a real vaccine—would do more to slow the transmission of the virus. But even though their electoral hopes depend on a now unlikely economic rebound, Trump and his GOP enablers seem determined to carry the New Hampshire slogan, “Live Free or Die,” to fatal extremes.
All the efforts by Republican convention planners to send a coherent message to wavering voters will probably collide with Trump’s acceptance speech from the White House lawn. No one can predict whether we will get tedious Teleprompter Trump or unhinged Trump with crazed riffs and bilious attacks.
But either way, Trump will face a daunting challenge explaining why he needs a second term to repair the wreckage wrought by his first term.