The Corner

Politics & Policy

Donald Trump’s Weak, Self-Defeating Call for Delaying the Election

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during the first presidential debate with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., September 26, 2016. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Donald Trump went and kicked the beehive again this morning on Twitter, and it was even worse than usual:

Now, we can stipulate that voting is going to be a mess this year, and Trump is right that some states are clearly not prepared for the volume of mail-in ballots they will receive:

In fact, it was not so long ago that New York governor Andrew Cuomo, among others, delayed primary elections, and liberals and progressives were furious that the Supreme Court enforced the existing laws for scheduling Wisconsin’s primary election. But it’s one thing to point out the problems with the voting system, and another to drop a 1-2 punch of wild attacks on the legitimacy of the election (the way Democrats so often do) and then floating an unserious but scary-sounding trial balloon about delaying the election. (For good measure, Trump undermined his own campaign’s prior attacks on Joe Biden for claiming that Trump would try to delay the election.) This is bad for the legitimacy of our democratic system: The rules are the rules, you play by them and if you lose, you accept it. The fact that Democrats are incapable of doing this is all the more reason why Republicans have a responsibility to stand up for the constitutional democratic system, or nobody will.

The election won’t be delayed; Trump has no legal power to do this, and House Democrats have no reason to accommodate him by changing the law. Even Trump is likely aware of this. Begging for something he has no power to do and no leverage to demand just makes him look weak. It is also a glaring statement of no-confidence in his own ability to compete in the election.

Why do this now? One theory is that he is just trying to distract from a bad GDP report this morning, but that’s not a defense. It also makes no sense. Everybody knows the economy has taken a hit from the coronavirus, and in fact, polls show that voters still have a lot more faith in Trump on the economy than they do in his handling of the virus. In other words: Bad economic news by itself does not really even hurt him much right now, politically. Convincing wavering voters that Trump is a menace to democratic elections has a lot more potential to hurt him. The instant defenses of Trump from fans in the vein of “he’s just doing this to keep the Left busy flailing at him” ignore, as they so often do, the fact that the electorate consists of a lot more than just Trump’s base and the Left.

The other theory is that Trump needs to build conspiratorial excuses in the (not certain, but likely) event that he loses — the same instinct that has members of his team going after Dr. Fauci. If Trump has visions of running again in 2024, or anointing a family member or ally, or generally remaining relevant and powerful within the party, he cannot be perceived as a loser even if he loses, badly. He is not going to persuade the general electorate in 2024 that he was robbed, but what if he doesn’t need to? If the goal is simply to ensure that the Republican Party is never able to move on from Trump, and is trapped in a self-defeating cycle of relitigating 2020, then it makes sense to do things that actively harm his reelection prospects now, in order to save face for more Trump later. This is essentially the strategy that candidates such as Roy Moore and Kris Kobach have pursued at the state level following defeats.

If I were, say, a Republican senator running for re-election right now, I’d be furious. One lesson of past campaigns is that the head of the ticket is supposed to play all the way to the whistle to keep the bottom from dropping out of down-ticket turnout. Bob Dole, for all his flaws as a national candidate, understood that and ran himself into the ground the closing weeks of 1996, doing nothing to save his own failing ticket but salvaging Republican control of Congress. If Trump is already focused in July on making excuses for losing, that is a very bad omen for Republicans in November.

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