Then there’s the China strategy. The worse the pandemic becomes in America, the more Trump and his Republican allies will point to China as the real culprit. “He will continuously harp on that the Chinese government and the World Health Organization failed not only the United States but the world and to make sure that China pays a price for their recalcitrance, for their stubbornness for what they did to the world in allowing this to happen,” said a Republican close to the White House.
“More Americans are focused on China than ever before,” added Conway. “President Trump has been tough on China, from negotiating a pro-America trade and technology deal with them, to openly questioning their transparency about the coronavirus. Contrast that with Joe Biden, who was soft on China and complicit in the theft of American jobs and wealth that happened over the decades Biden has been swimming in the swamp.”
On Capitol Hill, there’s more interest among Republicans in defeating the pandemic than trying to find clever political narratives to explain any Trump failures.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he also sees fighting the pandemic as analogous to a war and has been thinking about what success would look like. He was even willing to offer a number of total deaths below which success might be measured.
“The closer you can have it to 120 [thousand deaths], I think you can say you limited the casualties in this war,” Graham said.
Graham understands Trump better than most, and he made a point of raising the president’s anti-China talking points.
“When I talk with the president, the first conversation is always about that decision with China [to curb travel] and about the numbers of lives saved,” he said. “He constantly talks about the number of people who could have died. I think that stuck with him really hard. … You can see through his public discussions and privately that he’s increasingly upset that China put the world in this spot and I think a strong response towards China will inure to Trump’s benefit.”
But Graham was clear, in a way that many Trump political advisers aren’t, that China-bashing is not a substitute for a strategy to defeat the coronavirus in the United States.
“I reject the argument that some are making on the right and left, but it’s mostly from the right, that we’ve overreacted,” he said. “I don’t believe that. If we had not engaged in this strong mitigation, social distancing and all the economic upheaval that has come from that, then the death toll would be in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.”
He has been telling Trump that there are four crucial metrics that must be met by November: having therapies in place that successfully treat those afflicted with Covid-19 (“take it from a level 10 effect on the body to a level 2 or 3”); a buildup of personal protective equipment so there won’t be shortages if the virus spikes in the fall; an economy that “is showing life”; and that “a vaccine is on the horizon.”
Ali Khan, a former senior official for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, argued one metric of success in November might be defined as “a few hundred cases a day at most in the U.S.”
The question is whether anything will matter aside from the overall death count.
“We are now at almost 85,000 deaths and we are not at the peak,” said Zeke Emanuel, chair of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania and an adviser to Joe Biden. “If you take out New York, the number of cases are still actually going up. And this reopening isn’t helping things.”
He added, “We are going to be at 200,000 deaths. People are still dropping like flies.”