For months, Donald Trump had been flailing, doing anything he could to change the arc of the election campaign and move it away from the albatross that is his response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden – sensing that momentum was on his side – has been running a relatively cautious campaign, leaving the sound and fury to his opponent.
It’s been a risky strategy. When Mr. Trump took over the Republican Party in 2016 and then won the general election, he was able to overwhelm his opponents with his 24-hour, in-your-face, gorilla-in-the-room media presence. No one could stand up to the onslaught. And now, he was up against an opponent he’s dubbed “Sleepy Joe.” Would he do the same to this Democrat?
Some in Mr. Biden’s flock have been worried that their candidate’s strategy was risky and that he was paying insufficient heed to a warning that University of Central Florida head football coach Josh Heupel laid on his players just last week: “When you’re juiceless, you’re useless.”
But surely, soothed Mr. Biden’s team, there was no need to worry much given all the crises confronting Mr. Trump. The opinion polls backed them up. Though the President was desperately trying to change the national discussion to focus on law and order, nothing could supplant the tragedy of COVID-19, with its death toll nearing 200,000, and his dithering in the handling of it.
Well, not so much. To the sure chagrin of Mr. Biden’s team, the Friday death of legendary liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg appears to have transformed the election’s dynamic. The story is now saturating the media and will likely continue to do so for weeks to come as the debate rages over the timing of a new court pick.
Within 80 minutes of her passing, the Republicans were already crassly politicizing her replacement. That’s when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced the party would nominate someone to fill the role as soon as possible, while his party still held the reins of power.
He could barely conceal his joy. Nor could the President, even if he initially reacted solemnly. This was the campaign shock, the game-changer, the lifeboat the Trump Republicans needed.
Nothing revs up their voter base like the prospect of a Supreme Court seat, one that would ensure a court majority for the pursuit of such cherished goals as the reduction of abortion rights. The escalation of the already-seething culture war could help the Republicans not only keep the presidency but their Senate majority as well.
Another advantage is that with the absence of Ms. Ginsburg, the conservatives have interim numerical command on the court to favour them in potentially critical decisions emanating from challenges to the election’s legitimacy – challenges that Mr. Trump has indicated he might well make.
But it’s not a given that the shakeup in ballot-box issues will benefit the Republicans. The Supreme Court stakes could galvanize voters on the left as well.
Within a couple of days of Ms. Ginsburg death, the Democrats already had US$100-million in new fundraising in the bank.
They faced what pollsters had noted was an enthusiasm gap, in that a healthy majority of Trump supporters were very enthusiastic about supporting him, while less than half of Democrats said the same about their candidate. With the broadened stakes, the latter could change. With their right to choose on the line, previously unmotivated young female voters are likely to get involved in the campaign.
If the Biden campaign was a bit complacent before – as Hillary Clinton’s was in 2016 – it won’t be so inclined now. Mr. Biden is facing demands from the party to take the challenge to Mr. Trump in a big way. Since the Republicans don’t want to let the election result determine who gets to nominate the new Supreme Court Justice, many Democrats want him to put forth the revenge threat that it could stack the court themselves if Mr. Biden wins, increasing the number of judges from nine to 13 to installing a liberal majority.
Mr. Biden has expressed opposition to such an idea in the past and thus far hasn’t picked up on the calls to change his mind. Instead, as he’s done all along, he’s tried to appeal to the good sense of Americans over the Republicans' manoeuvring. “To jam this nomination through the Senate is just an exercise in raw political power," he said on Sunday. "I don’t believe the people of this nation will stand for it.”
His strategists say he will keep the focus on the pandemic while alerting Americans to the fact that a conservative court would be a dire threat not only to the right to choose but their health care as well; such a court, after all, could well terminate the Affordable Care Act. And indeed, results of public-opinion polls support his argument that the new Supreme Court seat should be filled by the winner of the November election.
Mr. Trump also faces the risk that his slim support margin in the Senate (53-47) won’t hold up in a rushed vote for a new court nominee. A defeat would be a huge humiliation for him.
But he’s a happier president than he was a week ago. The debate has shifted onto the kind of turf where he is much stronger. Mr. Biden can no longer run a cautious campaign. The admonition of Central Florida’s football coach should be ringing in his ears.
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