What a Maskless Trump Says About His Reelection Strategy
Published in The Washington Post
on May 26, 2020
The Memorial Day activities of President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden signified more than their honoring of fallen soldiers. Their decisions to wear or not wear masks may foreshadow a looming battle line in the fall election: risk tolerance.
Biden’s mask was in line with his party’s clear preference for risk avoidance in the face of covid-19. Polls show that Democrats are opposed to opening nonessential businesses until the pandemic is contained, are more worried about personally experiencing covid-19 and believe that social distancing should be maintained until after Sept. 1. These findings add up to a strong desire among Democrats to pay large economic and social prices to mitigate covid-19 risk. These beliefs more than anything else explain why Biden wore a mask: His party base and political coalition would revolt if he did not.
These beliefs will further tailor Biden’s approach to the pandemic and economic reopening as the summer moves on. He cannot be seen as favoring the economy over perceived safety, so he will have to counsel caution and support lockdowns. If he does not, he will stoke divisions within his party that he does not need as he pivots to fight Trump. Biden, therefore, will be the candidate of safety over risk. Because that will entail much greater economic pain than the alternative, he will also continue to support multitrillion-dollar government economic support measures. Biden, the purported centrist, will thus become the candidate of a bigger government that controls when you go back to work and that more people will depend upon for survival.
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Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.