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Jules Witcover: Biden’s best asset is Trump

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — Amid all the regurgitation of former Vice President Joe Biden’s verbal gaffes, he has one increasingly obvious advantage in the 2020 presidential race. He is running against a self-absorbed opponent who can’t seem to stop sabotaging himself in word and deed.

Almost every time he opens his mouth, Donald Trump demonstrates his callous disregard or even contempt for others. Asked about the passing of civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who lay in state at the U.S. Capitol last week, Trump said he would not be paying his respects in person, adding, “He didn’t come to my inauguration.”

Regarding Biden, the sitting president has unable to find a rhetorical strategy with which to wound him. His schoolyard epithet “Sleepy Joe” hasn’t gained any traction against Biden’s steady climb in the polls. Nor has Trump’s jibe about Biden “hiding in the basement” of his Wilmington, Del., home instead of hitting the campaign trail, as Biden has obviously sought to observe the safety protocols of the coronavirus pandemic.

Rather than taking presidential leadership and aggressively rallying the nation against the unprecedented intrusion of this natural health disaster, Trump has wished it away. First, he insisted it would disappear on its own. Then Dr. Trump prescribed common household disinfectant against it, despite a dire warning from the country’s leading allergic diseases expert.

As the fallout from the pandemic wore on, a new challenge occurred: public outcry over lethal police violence. As protests and rioting spread across the nation in reaction to the videotaped murder of African American George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the president seized the moment for some ill-considered posturing. After law enforcement agents used riot control tactics, including chemical agents, flash grenades, rubber bullets and clubs to clear the White House perimeter of peaceful protesters, Trump gave a law-and-order speech in the Rose Garden and then sauntered across the street to Lafayette Park to stage a photo-op in front of St. John’s church with a bible in his raised hand.

None of this presidential bravado had the intended effect, as opinion polls turned sharply in Biden’s favor.

Trump could have been used the immense powers of his office to mobilize public sentiment behind a patriotic surge of national unity, to quell and defeat the pandemic by following the simple recommendations of medical experts and the governors of affected states.

Instead, he continues to adhere to his lifetime strategy of divide and conquer, or at least disrupt. In so doing, he makes it easy for Biden to hold to the road of letting a president, in disarray and increasingly on the defensive, help build the case for ousting him in November

For all of Trump’s boasting that he is a “very stable genius,” he reveals his desperation in his latest drive to discredit voting by mail as fraudulent. Most elections officials contest that charge, along with Trump’s repeated warning of a “rigged” outcome against him.

All this validates Biden’s game plan of countering with his own vision of an “FDR-style” presidency to bring the country back as Roosevelt did in assuming the job in wake of the Great Depression. Biden is resisting the urging of some Democrats to take on Trump more directly and combatively. With the way the campaign is going now, Biden is better off letting Trump rant as he stays his own largely positive course.

In any event, Trump obviously needs to change the current public perception of approaching defeat, generally echoed in the news media and in his own desperate eruptions.

At this point, his reelection looks even less probable than his improbable victory four years ago.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.

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