This advice is so terrible that I half-wonder whether George has finally convinced her to join the other side and she’s now operating as a saboteur under deep cover.
In the abstract it’s good advice. For any other politician, it’d be a no-brainer to go out there every day in front of the cameras, say some reassuring things about progress, evince pity for the victims of COVID-19 and their families, and tell the country to hang in there. Look no further than Andrew Cuomo, a politician who culled New York’s population of many thousands of elderly people through his momentous errors in judgment yet currently enjoys a 66 percent approval rating. Why? Because he managed to come across as a reasonably well-informed and empathetic leader in his daily noon coronavirus briefings. If Trump were capable of the same thing, he might be over 50 percent approval now and on track to top his electoral vote haul from 2016 notwithstanding the garish death toll and daily case counts America is facing right now.
But he’s incapable of it and Conway surely understands that. That’s why the coronavirus briefings ended in the first place. They turned into endless grievance sessions for Trump to rant about his enemies. Any reprise of them would be destined to end the same way. The public did, and would, draw the same lesson from them as Clintonite Joe Lockhart has:
The most striking thing about @realDonaldTrump approach to the pandemic six months in is how little he cares. There is no emotion in talking about the victims or the fight America faces. He treats it like it's a political annoyance that hurts him more than anyone.
— Joe Lockhart (@joelockhart) July 17, 2020
POTUS appears to view the pandemic always and everywhere through the prism of how it affects him personally, specifically how it affects his chances at reelection. He believes an immediate economic revival is the only chance he has at a second term and so he’ll always choose the policy option that accelerates, or appears to accelerate, that revival no matter what it means for public health. Reopen businesses ASAP. Reopen schools ASAP. End of discussion.
If you could convince him to stick to brief scripted remarks in introducing a daily briefing and then hand things over to Pence, Fauci, and Birx to do most of the talking then yeah, I think that would help him in the polls. It would communicate to the electorate that he finally shares their sense of crisis about the virus and intends to keep them posted regularly on how we’re doing at containing it. Poll after poll after poll shows that most voters prioritize limiting the spread over restoring the economy (for the common-sense reason that we can’t durably restore the economy until people feel safe working and shopping again). A daily briefing at which Trump stuck to that message would improve his numbers.
But he won’t stick to that message. Either he’ll lapse back into hectoring people to open everything up before they’re comfortable doing so, as he’s doing right now with schools, or he’ll just veer off into rants about the “Russia hoax” or dishwasher efficiency or maybe using disinfectant inside the body to kill the virus or whatever. It’s unimaginable that he’d stand by and listen to Fauci and Birx undercut his “reopen everything immediately” message by urging caution in states that are currently battling major epidemics. He’d need to be convinced to adopt their approach before the briefings resumed, and he’ll never be convinced. If he was going to pivot from his position that plowing ahead with reopening is a good idea as we top 70,000 cases a day, he would have done it already.
Conway knows all that. Just like she also knows that it’s silly for her to say in the clip, “The president’s numbers were much higher when he was out there briefing everybody on his day by day basis about the coronavirus.” It’s true, but it’s not because of the briefings that his numbers were higher in April. It’s because the country hadn’t yet endured the protests over George Floyd’s death and the wave of new infections in the south and California and the president’s weirdly unempathetic reactions to both. On the contrary, the briefings back in April may end up being viewed by historians as the beginning of the end of his chances at reelection. That’s when his internal polling began to nosedive. He couldn’t stay on message and feign empathy then and he wouldn’t be able to do so now.
For Conway to disregard all that means she has some sort of angle she’s working here. My guess is that she wants the public to view her as a dissenting strategic voice inside the White House because she thinks Trump is unlikely to be reelected at this point. Maybe she intends to plant little Easter eggs like this on Fox News for the next several months (“I wanted to do X but the others insisted on doing Y”) so that she can say after the election, “I told them they should have done X.” Even though X in this case is completely cockamamie.
The other possibility is that Conway thinks Trump needs an excuse to be at a podium in front of a mic and a banc of cameras every day or else he’s going to behave even more “erratically” than he has been lately. That may explain the rally-style atmosphere in his Rose Garden events this week. Staffers seem to be trying to scratch his itch to vent to crowds as best they can, part of the project of managing the president’s mood that occasionally goes so far as to run campaign ads on D.C. TV in hopes that he’ll see them and feel better. But that can’t be what Conway’s after. She knows that turning coronavirus briefings into de facto rallies, a la April, would only make his current problems worse.
Maybe she’s a double agent for Project Lincoln now? I don’t know.