The presidential campaign may be on hold, but not the politics surrounding the coronavirus.
Even as lawmakers work to pass bipartisan relief legislation in Congress, the two major parties have used the pandemic as a partisan cudgel. President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, his presumptive November opponent, trade rhetorical shots. Critics of the president have unleashed a string of advertisements assailing his response to the medical and economic emergency, with more in the works.
“Trump cannot be trusted. With our economy, our health and our future,” says a digital ad featuring a montage of Trump statements downplaying the contagion, which American Bridge, a liberal political action committee, is running in three states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — central to the election.
The two sides are quick to point fingers, saying, in effect, they started it.
“In the midst of an unprecedented crisis, the president repeatedly spouts self-serving lies and sows confusion instead of preparing and protecting our country,” Bradley Beychok, the co-founder of American Bridge, said in an email. “That makes it all the more important to hold him accountable.”
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Trump’s reelection campaign, responded: “At a time when the nation should be coming together to fight the unseen enemy of coronavirus, Democrats and the media have only increased their venom and attacks against President Trump, looking for political gain rather than national unity.”
The attacks began, Murtaugh said via email, “before Inauguration Day, continued through their bogus impeachment fiasco, and [go] on today.”
It’s not all-out warfare all the time.
In between jibes, Trump has traded compliments with Govs. Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York over the government’s response to the pandemic. One of the president’s harshest critics, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, praised Trump for, among other steps, suspending mortgage foreclosures and invoking the Defense Production Act to force private firms to address a looming shortage of medical supplies. (The president has since equivocated on his use of the act.)
“We should never let politics get in the way of good policy,” Omar said in a tweet that Trump allies circulated widely. “This is a great start and hope others will be part of a united front to push for good policies that will help us work through the economic anxiety the country is feeling right now.”
But those brief instances of amity have been the exception, in contrast to the political good will that flourished for a time after Sept. 11 — a cessation of hostilities that seems unimaginable in today’s hyperpartisan environment.
Attack mailers were shelved. Negative ads were scrubbed. Party leaders issued solemn statements saying it was time to forgo the usual partisan squabbling.
Even when campaigning resumed a month or so later, Democrats were careful to avoid directly criticizing George W. Bush as the country prepared, under its Republican president, to strike back at perpetrators of the murderous assault.
Several differences help explain the divergent responses.
No one — apart from some conspiracy-mongers — questioned whether the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place; the carnage was plain for all to see. No one in a serious position of authority minimized the damage, or acted as though the response to the catastrophe was overblown.
Though not even a generation has passed, it was also a different time. The country was not as politically polarized and the two major parties weren’t as homogenized or their followers as rigid as today, when seemingly every facet of life is filtered through a red or blue lens.
Perhaps the greatest difference, though, has been the tone set from the top.
Bush, seeing renewed purpose in his presidency, sought to unify the nation and undertook gestures such as visiting a Washington mosque, to show America was preparing for war with backers of the 9/11 terrorists, not all members of the Islamic faith.
Trump, by contrast, has played largely to his political followers. He was slow to respond to the pandemic, scoffing at those who urged him to take it more seriously and suggesting their concerns were intended to undermine his presidency. As he became more engaged, Trump used the crisis to lash out against Europe, China, the media, congressional Democrats and other long-standing targets.
His critics say they are simply responding in kind.
“We’re operating in the environment he created,” said Mike Madrid, a Sacramento-based Republican consultant and co-founder of the Lincoln Project, a group of GOP dissenters who produced an advertisement criticizing Trump’s response to the pandemic. “It would be inappropriate for us not to.”
If anything, the acrimony is likely to increase once the urgency of the pandemic passes.
On Sunday, the Biden campaign released a digital ad using footage from the last Democratic presidential debate to contrast his sober response with Trump’s tirade against a reporter who asked what message he would send Americans worried about the virus.
(The Biden and Trump campaigns have held off on more widely viewed television advertising, as has Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who continues to compete for the Democratic nomination.)
“This is a race against time right now,” said Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University historian, who predicted by summer — assuming the contagion is under control — the airwaves will be filled with Democratic spots “painting [Trump] as the Herbert Hoover of the coronavirus, who did wishful thinking and played ostrich with his head in the sand” while Trump airs advertisements “blaming it all on [former President Barack] Obama.”
In many ways, that will be more typical than the peaceable lull that followed Sept. 11.
Throughout its history, even in the most trying of circumstances — the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II — the country has waged heated and often acrimonious political campaigns.
That, Stanford historian David Kennedy said, has been one of its great strengths.
“It’s not something we should regret, but something we should celebrate,” said Kennedy, who has written magisterial works on some of America’s hardest times. “We continue to argue within the parameters of our political culture even in times of crisis. We don’t go inert and come what may ... And that’s healthy.”