There’s no good way for a politician to spin a full-spectrum failure. If he manned up here as head of the executive branch and took responsibility for his deputies’ failures, Democrats would use that soundbite in a million attack ads against him.
If he denied responsibility, as he did in the clip below, Democrats would use that soundbite in a million attack ads against him. And they will.
The reason so many pols resort to some variation of “the buck stops here” when asked about a failure by their team is because it communicates authority and pays lip service to accountability. Most voters are savvy enough to understand that a bureaucracy, especially the federal bureaucracy, is so enormously complicated that the person on top is rarely directly responsible for their underlings’ logistical screw-ups. Certainly Trump isn’t responsible for the CDC’s catastrophic failure to develop a functioning test at a decisive moment in this process when the virus could have been contained. But as a political matter, showing humility and personal remorse for a mistake earns back some trust and goodwill. And it’s basic good leadership, and good character.
But he’ll never take the fall for someone else, even if it’s to his benefit to do so.
Q: Dr. Fauci said earlier this week that the lag in testing was, in fact, a failing. Do you take responsibility for that?
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) March 13, 2020
I don’t quite follow Anthony Fauci’s point at the end there. What he’s saying, I think, is that the CDC’s testing system was never designed for huge numbers of people. No one plans for a once-in-a-century pandemic that’ll require 50 million tests in a matter of months. Our home is on fire and we’re being forced to assemble a fire truck on the fly to try to put it out before it spreads further.
I get that. But the whole point of the CDC’s failure, I thought, is that they weren’t ready to test small numbers of people at the earliest stages of the outbreak, when quickly identifying and quarantining those people would have contained the disease. Everyone understands the difficulty of building a fire truck quickly in order to fight a raging inferno. The question being asked, though, is why the CDC’s household fire extinguisher didn’t function back when the inferno was just a small fire on one burner of the kitchen stove.
Trump was asked later in the briefing if he took responsibility for disbanding the global health response team on the National Security Council in 2018. That housecleaning was ordered by new National Security Advisor John Bolton, a ripe target for blame given the impeachment-related antagonism between him and Trump. The president doesn’t mention him, though, which makes me think he probably doesn’t know or remember why the pandemic team was purged. Instead he shrugs it off by saying it’s a “nasty question” before trying to drag Fauci into it.
Yamiche questions the President on not taking responsibility vs. his decision to disband the White House pandemic team… The President pleads ignorance as a defense pic.twitter.com/LmTZUPc0Y5
— Acyn Torabi (@Acyn) March 13, 2020
Real talk, though: His own soundbites will be used against him more or less effectively by Biden and the Democrats depending on how well managed the rest of the outbreak is. If, against all odds, we look back at the epidemic in a few months and conclude that it wasn’t that bad, Trump will be credited for a major policy success in putting out the fire. No soundbite will hurt him. If instead we look back at it as a rolling disaster, no soundbite will help him. Speaking of which:
Biden 49% / Trump 43%
Sanders 38% / Trump 45%
— OHPI (@OHPredictive) March 13, 2020
That poll was conducted more than a week ego, before coronavirus anxiety really began to spread among the population. If you think the result is a fluke, another poll of Arizona today that includes “leaners” finds Biden ahead 50/42. It’s certainly in play; Trump won it by just three and a half points in 2016 against a weaker candidate. That’s 11 electoral votes suddenly at risk in a state that’s only gone blue once since 1952. Maybe six months of exposure to Joe Biden’s obvious mental deterioration will convince swing voters to stick with the guy who’s in charge now. But a bad stretch from coronavirus is apt to make the election a pure referendum on Trump, with the alternative nothing more clearly defined than “a team of center-left technocrats with Joe Biden as figurehead.” Who wins that?
By the way, Trump told reporters that he’ll “most likely” be tested for coronavirus soon, which is good. He shook a lot of hands at the podium today and was in close quarters with a lot of important people. If someone in that group gets infected, the entire coronavirus brain trust is at risk. Exit question from citizen Donald Trump, 2013:
Leadership: Whatever happens, you're responsible. If it doesn't happen, you're responsible.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 8, 2013