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To stand any chance, U.S. President Donald Trump, seen here on April 10, 2020, has to debunk the narrative that he was asleep at the switch when the virus hit.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Since the 2016 shocker, there’s always been a tendency to give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt when talking about his re-election chances.

When all his negatives are raised, knees invariably start jerking. “Ah, but look what happened last time,” comes the response. He was counted out and still won. When it’s noted that he’s been trailing in the polls virtually every day in the past 3½ years, there’s the same reply: Look what happened last time.

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But it’s finally time to forget what happened then. Chances of it happening again this time are going up in smoke. Mr. Trump is running with a collapsed economy, one of the worst handicaps an incumbent seeking re-election can have. In addition, with the United States having suffered more losses in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic than any other country, he now has a war record to run on, a record of unpreparedness which has cost his country gravely.

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No president can realistically expect to win under such conditions, least of all this one. Mr. Trump had so much other baggage that he was trailing the Democrats even before the pandemic affliction bore down on him. If he was behind when his economy, in his words, was “the greatest ever,” how is he going to do when it’s one of the worst ever?

If he was behind when, to a large extent, there was peace, how’s he going to fare when it’s seen how other countries succeeded in containing and repulsing the enemy – countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore – while under his leadership the greatest power in the world was left flailing?

The Trump Republicans are hopeful that when the lockdown is lifted, the economy will come roaring back. Not by the fall it won’t. The stock market might be back up but the unemployment and GDP numbers will be brutal. The Republicans never win with the economy in the tank.

They lost in 2008 when George W. Bush left behind a shattered economy. They lost in 1992 when his father was in power and the economy was downward bound. They lost in 1932 when Herbert Hoover faced the country during the Great Depression.

There will likely be a huge sense of relief when the country starts getting back to work in a month or two as COVID-19 recedes. Mr. Trump might get a boost, a temporary one. But he’s taking a big risk if he reopens the country too early. And there are going to be aftershocks no matter what. Epidemiologists predict a second wave of the virus in the fall.

To stand any chance, Mr. Trump has to debunk the narrative that he was asleep at the switch when the virus hit. But he isn’t succeeding. The American media is probing deeply what happened in January and February. Revelations of Oval Office inertia keep on coming.

Time after time, he was warned of the seriousness of the virus, and time after time, other than placing limited restrictions on travel from China, he failed to respond. While other leaders are gaining popularity for their handling of the crisis, Mr. Trump is not.

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In daily media briefings of one to two hours in duration, he has been trying desperately to rewrite history. But his bluster isn’t working this time.

His chances of re-election took a turn for the worse when the Democrats quickly corrected course, selecting Joe Biden as their nominee over democratic socialist Bernie Sanders whom the Republicans considered easier prey.

The 77-year-old Mr. Biden ran a weak campaign, but through great twists of fortune came out on top. Who could have predicted Michael Bloomberg being knocked out cold by Elizabeth Warren, or Pete Buttigieg stunningly dropping out after such strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire and throwing his support to Mr. Biden?

Because of the coronavirus shutdown, the Biden campaign is next to invisible. When the candidate is visible he is derided as being in cognitive decline. But it likely won’t matter. He’s experienced. He’s normal. Americans will want change.

Incumbents defeat themselves and this incumbent won’t need much help from the Democrats. In politics there is always the prospect of unforeseen, strange events intervening. Anyone totally writing off Mr. Trump’s chances need bear that caveat in mind.

But given the extraordinary coupling of economic and pandemic destruction, the Democrats should be able to coast. Convulsive developments in combination with his own ineptitude have conspired to undermine Mr. Trump’s chances of repeating 2016.

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