When the Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1980, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger opined on the hostilities this way: “It’s a pity they can’t both lose.”
With the presidential election less than four months off, a frustrated American electorate views it in the same fashion Kissinger viewed the war.
While President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have both adopted a campaign strategy that can loosely be described as “Vote for me because I’m not him,” voter enthusiasm has waned replaced by a plaintive is-this-the-best-we-can-do plea.
The nation is faced with choosing between an incumbent president leading an increasingly dysfunctional White House and a challenger sequestered in his bunker/basement, straying out infrequently never more than one hundred miles or so from home.
Both campaigns have been defined by a lethal pandemic sweeping the nation, sickening some 3.6 million, proving fatal to nearly 150,000, sending unemployment levels to record highs, crashing the economy, destroying businesses and dramatically altering everyday life in America.
Trump’s response to the most serious public health crisis in over a century has been less than compelling. He’s casually dismissed the pandemic, predicted it would quickly fade, suggested a vaccine will soon be available, blamed governors for failing to control the spread of the virus and trafficked in bizarre conspiracy theories about its origins and who is responsible.
As the cruise ship slowly slipped beneath the waves, Trump stood on the promenade deck bragging about his shuffleboard score.
Months elapsed as the virus raged across the country before Trump conceded what Americans had concluded long ago — the pandemic was a health hazard like no other.
He admitted that the situation would become worse before it got better and to prove he was serious cancelled the party’s convention activities.
While he praised his Administration’s record in dealing with crisis, two White House aides –neither of whom possess any background or expertise in public health — publicly trashed Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force.
Fauci, whose public approval and level of trust exceeds 60 percent, has been ridiculed by Peter Navarro, assistant to the President and Director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, and Daniel Scavino, White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications and Director of Social Media.
Fauci , with a 50-year history in public health and an advisor to every president since Ronald Reagan, is being sniped at by a glorified bean counter (Navarro), and someone whose occupation before joining the White House was general manager of Trump National Golf Club in Westchester, responsible for seeing to it that the fairways were watered, the grass on the greens clipped to the appropriate height and the hefty checks written for membership dues clear the bank. (Scavino).
In campaigns and government, one of the unbreakable rules is “Don’t step on your own story.” Translation: Deliver your message and say or do nothing to undercut it.
Trump has repeatedly not only stepped on his own story, he’s stomped on it with both feet until it’s an unrecognizable mess and then assails the media for covering his actions as “fake news.”
Meanwhile, Biden, safely cloistered (hiding, say his critics) at home, has ventured out in public in tightly controlled appearances, deeply sensitive to and fearing his propensity to misspeak or appear befuddled when his train of thought derails.
His campaign periodically issues position papers notable more for vague generalities and uplifting phraseology painting in bright colors the national utopia that awaits a Biden presidency.
His close advisors fret about the incoming fire from the far left, ultra-progressive wing of the Democratic Party while seeking common ground to either bring them aboard or, at the very least, mute their rhetoric.
His message? If not me, you get Trump. “Vote for me because I’m not him.”
They worry, too, about the impact of the outbursts of violence and civil unrest in cities and towns across the country. They are very much aware of the need for Biden to thread the needle, mollifying the vocals on his left while turning aside Trump’s accusations that he is anti-police and pro-anarchy.
He was quick to disassociate himself from the “Defund the Police” movement, but in the interim has inched closer to its goal by supporting a re-allocation of resources from law enforcement to social services, a rhetorical device his critics argue is a thinly-disguised effort to avoid the risk of becoming ensnared in the de-funding controversy.
He’s joined the opposition forces aligned against the Trump Administration’s decision to deploy Federal law enforcement officers to cities besieged by violence which has overwhelmed local police.
He again let his rhetoric careen ahead of his judgment when he described Trump as the first racist to be elected president, a remark that drew serious blowback from academics and historians alike. It was yet one more instance requiring clarification and damage control by his staff who scrambled to explain he meant modern U.S. history.
While polling in June and July is a notoriously poor indicator of results in November — ask Hillary Clinton — Biden has compiled leads ranging from a margin of error four points to a total blowout of 15 points even though the level of enthusiasm remains a concern.
Trump has gambled that his get tough law and order stance will resonate with suburban voters in particular and draw a sharp distinction with Biden, a strategy that up to this point has had mixed results at best.
Underestimating Trump while hoping he will self-immolate, however, is dangerous — again ask Hillary — but time is running out on the President.
Come November, Kissinger’s hope from 1980 won’t be fulfilled, and the American people will live with the result.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.