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OPINION

Trump, Biden, and the campaign terrain ahead

The incumbent tries to cross a swamp, while the challenger stands on firmer ground.

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photo

It’s a question that will fascinate historians: Could President Trump have won reelection if he had listened to the many early warnings about the coronavirus and shown the determination and discipline required to beat this now raging public health emergency?

Instead, the president is trying to thrash his way through to the far side of a treacherous bog. The further he goes, the deeper he’s mired.

The beneficiary of our incredible sinking chief executive? Joe Biden, a candidate whose primary-season weaknesses have been transformed into general-election strengths.

Short of an effective COVID-19 vaccine in the very near term, it’s hard to see what could save the embattled incumbent. The only possible path — a patient, painful, science-guided effort to bend the disease’s transmission rate — would require something this president seems incapable of: acknowledging by word or deed the many errors he has made.

And so his campaign, like his presidency, has become an exercise in let’s pretend: Pretend that we are beating the pandemic when new COVID-19 cases are surging in much of the country. Pretend there’s little risk in reopening schools in this situation. Pretend the healthy economy he inherited and goosed with a big tax cut is poised to come roaring back.

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What actually has roared back are the COVID-19 cases the president discounted for too long, addressed with insufficient rigor and seriousness for too brief a period, and is now ignoring again. That resurgence will thwart the economic rebound Trump hopes will save him.

It’s no coincidence that the four governors who most energetically followed his early-reopening urgings — Ron DeSantis of Florida, Greg Abbott of Texas, Doug Ducey of Arizona, and Brian Kemp of Georgia — are grappling with some of the most serious surges.

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Meanwhile, with the notable and large exception of California, states where governors took the coronavirus seriously early on, and responded in intelligent, sustained, science-driven ways, have made significant progress in curbing the pandemic.

That obvious reality leaves Trump with this choice: Retreat on reopening or push forward into the Big Muddy, all the while trafficking in conspiracy theories, accusing the experts of lying, and trying to undermine truth-tellers like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The former is more responsible than the latter, but neither gives Trump much to run on.

Not so Biden, who now finds himself on firm ground. The man whose political longevity was a primary season disadvantage now speaks as someone who knows how to make government work. During the primaries, Biden’s relatively moderate politics left progressives unenthusiastic. In the general election, however, his center-left stances make him hard to caricature as some sort of socialist revolutionary. Similarly, his more collegial approach to national politics, which primary rivals criticized as insufficiently combative, leaves him capable of being embraced by Trump-traumatized independents or Republicans who might well have been wary of Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont or Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

No wonder, then, that Trump and his team are desperately trying to portray the Democratic-nominee-to-be as in his dotage, a doddering Trojan horse a legion of socialists will use to sneak inside the D.C. gates.

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In one way, that effort plays to Trump’s strengths, since it allows him to call names and launch taunts, two activities at which he excels.

Yet if you yourself hop about like the Mad Hatter, uttering and tweeting things both false and nutty, it’s ill-advised to set up a compare and contrast with someone whose advice on the same matter has been both sane and sensible.

People will see the contrast for themselves when the two debate. A boyhood stutterer, Biden still has some occasional verbal glitches, but he’s not a man who thinks Finland might be part of Russia. He is aware that India and China share a border. And he is not easily duped by dictators, be they shrewd like Vladimir Putin of Russia or as clownish as Kim Jong Un of North Korea.

So Trump is actually doing his opponent a favor by lowering expectations for their encounters.

It’s just another mistake by a president sinking ever deeper in a morass of his own mismanagement.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh