Meanwhile, a faction of fiscal conservatives, reportedly led by new White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and budget chief Russ Vought, has suddenly discovered the concern for deficits that Republicans displayed throughout the Obama presidency and abandoned completely when Trump became president. They’ve returned to the theme at the worst possible time, both economically and politically. Austerity will only further crush the economy, and a cratering economy will make Trump’s reelection tougher.
Surveying the situation, Eric Levitz concludes that Republicans are simply “not cynical enough” to recognize the opportunity posed by stimulus spending: “For Republicans, some things are more important than winning elections—and, apparently, denying government assistance to desperate workers and their underfed children is one of them.”
That charge might be leveled at fiscal conservatives, as inconstant in their creed as they may be, but it is clearly not true of Trump. The president has no particular attachment to desperate workers or underfed children, as he has demonstrated throughout his life and now in his time as president. But he also has no attachment to fiscal conservatism either, nor will he be out-cynic’ed. For Trump, as for Vince Lombardi, winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.
David A. Graham: One death is a tragedy. 60,000 deaths are a great success.
Even with a clear imperative to spend, Democrats eager to work with him, and little need for wonky detail—all he has to do is sign a huge check—Trump hasn’t managed to commit to the most straightforward thing he can do to boost the economy and therefore his own reelection chances.
This isn’t because Trump is confident about November. White House reporters say the president is privately “glum and shell-shocked by his declining popularity.” His public behavior betrays the stress. He tweeted incessantly and manically on Sunday, then stormed out of a press conference yesterday after a jarring, testy exchange with reporters. He has begun a bizarre bombardment of his predecessor, Barack Obama, part of an unending search for villains. Trump is also deeply engaged in other efforts to boost his chances, including a campaign against voting by mail—a step many experts say is necessary to protect voters’ health, but which he has concluded (without much evidence) will help Democrats in November.
So much of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus was easily foretold. Experts had warned for years of a global pandemic. The president is obviously overmatched in his job. Trump badly botched the response to previous natural disasters, most prominently Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and pundits had predicted that he would stumble worse when faced with a larger test. His chaotic style of governance, lack of faith in his advisers, and inability to maintain his attention were all manifest before the coronavirus, and are on vivid display now. He has never been interested in the actual work of policy. None of this should have been a surprise to anyone paying attention for the past three years.
But through it all, Trump displayed a clear will to win, and a keen instinct for what it took to do that. This makes his failure to come up with even a semblance of a plan—good, bad, or unclear—a true mystery. Yesterday, the U.S. death toll crossed 81,000, a mark Trump had previously said it would never touch. More recently, he’s offered 100,000 as a likely figure. Will the president have a plan for the pandemic by then? At the moment, he’s in no rush.