Trump’s 2016 Campaign Strategy Falters in 2020

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The campaign rallies have been replaced with rambling, disjointed Rose Garden news conferences. Constructing a “garden” of statues is the new “big, beautiful wall.” It’s Joe Biden, now, who lacks the “stamina” and “strength” to be president.

In 2020, the Trump show is in reruns.

Rather than adopt a new political strategy for a campaign in crisis, President Trump is sticking with the tactics that first propelled him into office. He may be stuck in a pre-coronavirus, pre-recession, pre-unrest era, but the country most certainly is not.

In 2016, Mr. Trump could run as an outsider, promising to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Now, he’s president of that swamp. And polls show that most Americans believe the country is sinking, fast.

An ad released by Mr. Trump’s campaign on Wednesday is the latest example of how incumbency doesn’t suit his strategy. It features a ringing phone and a series of turbulent images from recent news stories — protests, flashing police lights and burning buildings — as a narrator warns that Mr. Biden will worsen the unrest and falsely accuses him of seeking to defund the police.

“Who will be there to answer the call when your children aren’t safe?” the narrator asks.

The problem is that the images and news stories capture events that happened during the Trump administration, raising the question of whether the president, himself, has answered that call.

(Sidebar: Can we please retire the ringing phone motif in presidential campaign ads? Or at the very least update it to a text message? K, thx.)

At the same time, Mr. Trump has all but ignored the most powerful tool in his arsenal: control of the federal government. Incumbent presidents are notoriously difficult to unseat because they transform into leaders able to marshal the power of the White House behind their re-election bids.

And yet, when it comes to the virus, Mr. Trump has focused his response on the kind of salesmanship that was a hallmark of his last campaign.

As cases soar, there is no clear national strategy for combating the virus, beyond vague promises of a vaccine. No federal plan for reopening, testing or contact tracing, apart from scattershot public health recommendations.

Even the public pageantry that presidents, particularly those up for re-election, perform to look like they are governing remains conspicuously absent. The president doesn’t hold televised round tables with top public health experts, and he hasn’t delivered an Oval Office address since March. He spent much of his time in the Rose Garden on Tuesday attacking Mr. Biden, breaking with a tradition that incumbents not overtly campaign from the White House.

Instead, he has tried to out-market the virus. In the early weeks, he took the White House podium for daily news briefings to talk about the “great” job his administration was doing to tackle the disease. He shifted responsibility for containing the spread of the virus to governors, while calling to “LIBERATE” states that didn’t reopen fast enough. And he attacked testing as “overrated,” saying it made his administration “look bad.”

As the death toll grows, state and local leaders across the country — including within Mr. Trump’s own party — have simply begun ignoring his directives.

Last week, his administration began a push to reopen schools in the fall; some of the nation’s largest school districts soon announced plans to remain closed. Mr. Trump has called for no more lockdowns; California, the most populous state, has begun rolling back reopenings.

Prominent Republicans say they won’t attend the party convention in Florida, which Mr. Trump moved from North Carolina to avoid social distancing restrictions. Senate Republicans appear unlikely to include a proposal for a payroll tax cut pushed by the administration in the stimulus bill expected next week.

Even at a time when trust in government nears historic lows, supporters of Mr. Biden see the lagging federal response to the virus as a political asset. No one is excited to take penicillin, one Democrat told me this week, but you’re sure happy to have that prescription when you need it.

Mr. Biden released an ad in Texas on Wednesday, urging Americans to wear masks, wash their hands and socially distance. It features images of families and emergency medical workers, and makes no mention of Mr. Trump.

“I will not abandon you,” Mr. Biden says in the ad. “We’re all in this together. We’ll fight this together, and together we’ll emerge from this stronger than we were before we began.”

In 2016, Mr. Trump was able to drive programming during the campaign, steering the news cycle into covering the twists and turns of his extraordinary run.

Now, the pandemic is the top story. And Mr. Trump can’t change the channel.

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