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Dual Programming: The Trump Show versus The Biden Show (Washington Examiner) July 7, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Hamilton is not the only performance coming into your home this week.

After four years on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Washington, D.C., equivalent of Broadway, The Donald Trump Show is on the road, though appealing to smaller audiences. According to a recent Gallup poll, 38% approve of his job “performance” while 59% disapprove, a 19% gap. Even off Broadway, at his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, there were empty seats, and the overflow venue outdoors was closed due to the small attendance.

Meanwhile, The Joe Biden Show (really a kind of no-show conducted largely from his Delaware basement) has attracted growing interest. Most of the recent polls show Biden with a significant 8-12% lead over Trump. Biden has also attracted more investors than Trump, outperforming the president’s prodigious fundraising operation each of the last two months and for the last quarter. By those measures, candidate Biden would do well to stay in his basement.

The conventional wisdom is that people are frustrated by the president’s lack of leadership during the coronavirus and protest crises. A president’s campaign for a second term is generally a referendum on his performance in his first four years, so that is certainly an important factor. It is also the case that the strong economy on which the president had planned to run for reelection has been pulled out from under him.

I would say it differently, however. I would argue that having a disrupter for president, one more interested in performance than governing, might have seemed tempting in theory but has been more difficult to pull off in practice. If you remember Trump’s campaign premise, it was that someone outside of Washington needed to come in and “drain the swamp” — or disrupt a corrupt system. As Yuval Levin points out in his recent book, A Time to Build, Trump is the first president who was never formed and shaped by American institutions such as the military, large corporations, the legislature, or a governor’s office. He came to the presidency from a career in a family business and celebrity, so that’s what he knows.

As a celebrity president, Trump is more about tweets and speeches than legislative accomplishments or policy programs. As campaign veteran Karl Rove recently pointed out, he has yet to tell the American people what he would do if elected to a second term. His presidency is not about agendas and policies but about him — his values and his frustrations, which his base shares. But it’s difficult to run a government that way, and in the end, that’s what we have traditionally expected a president to do.

Along comes Biden, then, who seems to know how to run a government. His career has been shaped by the Senate and the vice presidency. In the face of recent challenges, Biden has released specific plans about what he would do with the coronavirus challenge, for example. His communications tend to be more about policies and programs than his personal grievances and frustrations. He appears to be interested in governing.

Frustration and disruption have their place, but it is difficult to lead an institution from that base. Leadership as performance has long been a part of politics, but never has a political leader tried to invest so much in those without showing more interest in policy and governance.

It appears that The Trump Show may not be renewed for an extended run. Critics have never liked it, but now, except for his stalwart base, even audiences seem to be weary of it. A non-performance from an experienced candidate’s basement seems poised to overtake the rallies and tweets, the disruption and grievance of the Trump candidacy.

As former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said, however, “A week is a long time in politics.” We’ll have to keep our eyes on the stage and the basement for another several months.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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