The political fight over the coronavirus is being fought in an asymmetrical fashion, with two starkly different approaches that reflect the personalities and political values of President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
On one side, Trump and other Republicans are unified in trashing Biden in the most charged terms of treachery.
Biden, on the other side, is sticking with a less aggressive approach, letting his campaign, his allies and super PACs engage in the most combative attacks, a dynamic that points to the struggle within the Democratic Party over how much blame to try to pin on Trump for the catastrophic consequences of the disease’s spread.
While Trump is trying to convince the public that his haphazard response to the pandemic wasn’t that bad, his campaign is accusing Biden, in no uncertain terms, of siding with the disease and against the American people. Top Trump campaign officials instructed allies and surrogates Wednesday to portray Biden as “the opposition” in a national war against the coronavirus, NBC News’ Lauren Egan reported.
Treating a political adversary as the mortal enemy of the American people in the midst of a crisis — which has claimed more than 4,000 lives so far and pushed more than 10 million more people onto unemployment rolls in the last two weeks alone — fits with Trump’s attack-at-all-times philosophy.
But Biden has opted for a less bombastic approach.
He’s following the traditional political playbook, prefacing criticism of the president with the caveat that Trump “is not responsible for coronavirus.” He told NBC News’ Chuck Todd on Sunday that it was “a little too harsh” to say Trump has blood on his hands.
The subtle conceit is that Trump is his own worst enemy, a modern-day Herbert Hoover whose presidency will collapse under its own weight. If that’s the case, Biden needs only to point out how he would do things differently and avoid being perceived as an additional burden on an overwhelmed president.
Biden’s approach fits with the profile and the narrative he’s developed for his campaign. He is promoting himself as an antidote to the chaos of the Trump era, as a more traditional leader who would rely on expertise more than instinct and as a person of superior character to Trump who can unify the country rather than divide it.
But it stands in stark contrast to the way other Democrats, including Bernie Sanders, are escalating their attacks.
“I think his inaction has cost the lives of many, many Americans,” Sanders said Wednesday on ABC’s “The View.”
And Biden’s more sedate approach may give the president time to recast his actions in the early days of the pandemic, convincing the public that he acted swiftly without the most prominent Democrat countering him in the most illustrative terms.
Still, many Democrats believe Biden is handling the battle with Trump the right way at a time when the nation is in crisis and the risk of appearing to exploit tragedy for political gain is high.
“Americans know Trump has failed to protect them, and Biden is showing them things can be better,” said David Di Martino, a veteran Democratic strategist.
It is Trump who is trying to find a way to capitalize politically, according to Democrats who say Biden’s tamer approach is the right one.
“Sadly, Trump is losing the fight against coronavirus, so he’s desperate for a different enemy — there’s no need to get down in the mud and fill that role,” said Jesse Lehrich, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign for president. “Biden’s greatest strength as a candidate is his unique capacity for empathy — something this president is devoid of. … I’d continue leaning into that contrast rather than trying to fight a dumpster fire with fire.”
The contrast in styles gives Trump more freedom to launch any kind of attack he likes on Biden, who is somewhat boxed in by the standards he’s set for himself. Biden’s campaign believes the former vice president has been plenty tough on Trump.
“As Joe Biden has said many times, Donald Trump is not responsible for the coronavirus itself, but he is absolutely responsible for downplaying and misrepresenting the threat to the American people — for months; for disregarding repeated warnings from his own medical, intelligence, and military experts — for months; and failing to prepare our country for the worst public health crisis in generations — for months,” campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement sent to NBC News.
“Now there are more coronavirus cases in the United States than anywhere in the world, while job losses skyrocket, and the Vice President will hold Donald Trump accountable for his malfeasance,” Bates said. “And he will also offer a powerful contrast, giving the American people a reminder of what competent, dependable, and compassionate leadership in the White House looks like.”
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Some Democrats have taken a more aggressive tack — and Biden seems happy to let them continue.
The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, for example, produced an ad with audio clips of Trump playing down the risk of the coronavirus over several weeks. In the ad, which has been denounced by the Trump campaign, Trump’s voice plays over an image of the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. rising on a graph.
Biden allies on Capitol Hill, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have blamed Trump for mismanaging the federal response in stark terms. Pelosi has said Trump is culpable for a “deadly” denial of the threat of the virus and failure to marshal a quick federal response.
That, too, is a sign of more traditional politics than the brand practiced by Trump. While the combative president launches his own broadsides or issues them from his campaign, Biden’s friends are swinging hard at Trump. Biden isn’t complaining.