Just as Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his vice presidential nominee, and a week before the Democrats' virtual national convention is scheduled to begin at various sites, the basement strategy he's been pursuing, hailed as the political equivalent of "The Emperor's New Clothes," was starting to look tattered and torn.
The basement strategy during the pandemic was an obvious choice for a 77-year-old candidate who was gaffe-prone even in his prime; particularly gaffe-prone against an incumbent president capable of stepping on his own best lines and tweeting himself into trouble; and perhaps even more so with a ticket mate whose own presidential campaign showed her chronically unprepared and undisciplined.
The New York Times has already run two columns, by Thomas Friedman and Elizabeth Drew, urging Biden to skip the fall debates. Stay in the basement!
But there's one problem with that. In working as a political consultant long ago, I always shied away from a campaign strategy, one essential step of which was "Step 3: The other side screws up." Sometimes they don't, and that's out of your control.
Recently, President Donald Trump doesn't seem to be screwing up as expected. The insightful New York Times poll analyst Nate Cohn spies "a clear Biden lead but consistent with 'tightening' over the last month and heading into the convention." Trump's upward trend is apparent in both national and target state polls.
Throughout his presidency, Trump's job rating has been remarkably steady, never above 50 percent, never as low as former Presidents Ronald Reagan's or Bill Clinton's. His low points came from June to December 2017 (the Russia-collusion hoax), in January 2019 (the Nancy Pelosi speakership), and in June and July this year (the COVID-19 pandemic). In those last two months, Biden's lead in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls zoomed up to 10 percent, a margin too large to be overcome by any Republican Electoral College advantage. At this writing, it's 7.5 percent.
It's not clear whether San Francisco's Kamala Harris helps. A March Echelon Insights poll that showed a Biden-Amy Klobuchar ticket leading Trump and Vice President Mike Pence by a 49-40 margin showed a Biden-Harris ticket leading by only a 47-42 margin. Those look pretty close to Hillary Clinton's national popular vote plurality.
"For liberals," University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner writes, "a dominant view is that, thanks to Trump's mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it unleashed, Republican and Trump-leaning independent voters are coming to their senses."
Three problems with that analysis. First, it's not obvious that anyone else would have responded to the virus better: U.S. deaths per million are well below those in Belgium, Britain, Spain and Italy.
Second, Trump continues to enjoy an edge on economic issues. Evidently, voters don't believe the COVID-19 shutdowns discredit Trump's previous policies that produced, for the first time in decades, above-average gains for low-wage workers and the lowest black and Hispanic unemployment ever recorded.
Third, that static analysis doesn't account for Trump's executive orders last weekend, with their $300 weekly unemployment payments from disaster relief or the payroll tax suspension. Many critics, including conservatives, argue that these measures, especially the unemployment payments, aren't authorized by legislation and are beyond the president's powers.
But former President Barack Obama's granting of legal standing and employment status to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (illegal immigrants brought here as children) was not authorized by legislation either, though he had previously argued it was. But he got away with it: Last month, the four Democratic-appointed Supreme Court justices and Chief Justice John Roberts ruled that DACA was illegal, but that remains effective because Trump's attempt to overturn it was administratively deficient.
I believe both presidents acted without constitutional warrant and beyond constitutional norms. But Democrats are poorly positioned to complain, especially Kamala Harris, who has promised to act without Congress to ban "assault weapon imports," to institute mandatory gun buybacks and to abrogate drug patents.
Currently, Democrats are charging that Trump's payroll tax suspension means abolishing Social Security. But that's not credible, and they're not going to oppose sending money out to the unemployed. Meanwhile, Trump's initiative may remind modest-income voters why they approved his economic policies until the pandemic hit.
Meanwhile, the intensely partisan division on responses to COVID-19 may help Trump. Democrats, much more likely than Republicans to support lockdowns and teacher union refusals to reopen schools, are not registering to vote as much as Republicans. Their much greater inclination to vote by mail increases the risk that their votes won't be counted in states that have had minimal mail voting in the past.
Biden-Harris remains the ticket to beat. But that's looking more likely than it did a couple weeks ago.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.