The president is showing signs of panic. Yet Democrats seem no less jumpy about November

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By James Bennet

Editorial Page Editor, NY Times Opinion Today 5/27/20

Donald Trump is an unpopular president, and it’s hurt his party. Since he took office, the Republicans have lost the House of Representatives and several governorships. Democrats have substantially improved their standing in traditional battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania and in southern and southwestern states like North Carolina and Arizona.

And now Republican leaders are pushing for some unpopular policies, from threatening the Postal Service to granting new legal immunity to corporations, that seem likely to cause them problems in the fall, note the political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson.

The president is showing signs of panic — his rage-tweeting seems like a cry for help. Yet Democrats seem no less jumpy about November.

Hacker and Pierson argue that to overcome their apparent political liabilities, Republican leaders are counting, among other things, on a “tribalized voting base” that they can stoke via right-wing media. This made me think of an argument that Politico’s John F. Harris advanced last week about what he called the Trump Trap. Trump’s outrageous behavior is intended to draw condemnation, Harris wrote, to rally his supporters against what they see as the priggish left.

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How will Joe Biden handle this? It’s a little surprising that we still don’t know. Normally, a presidential race comes into focus around Memorial Day, but the pandemic is blurring everything.

Biden’s campaign quickly cut an ad over the weekend attacking Trump for golfing while Americans are dying, and Biden has experimented, clumsily, with the put-down “President Tweety.” But he seems to be trying to avoid falling into the Trump Trap by neither campaigning on the president’s terms nor in his smashmouth style.

Hacker and Pierson argue that, besides seeking to raise racial and cultural tensions, Republican leaders are out to stack the electoral process itself by making it harder to vote. They point, for example, to the decision by the Republican National Committee to sue California to stop it from sending mail-in ballots to all voters.

It’s a dismal prognosis (and I continue to hope that we’ll see more constructive campaigns from state and local candidates of both parties). But given how drastically the world has already changed this year, we shouldn’t expect today’s political dynamics to stay stable. Already, some are predicting an economic bounceback that, come the fall, could give Trump bragging rights to the fastest monthly growth in history.

There’s certainly good reason, in other words, for both political camps — and all the rest of us — to be jumpy.

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