WASHINGTON (AP) – Democrats are wrestling over how best to assail President Donald Trump for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economyâ€™s shutdown even as the country enters an unpredictable campaign season during the most devastating crisis in decades.
Trump has provided Democrats with plenty of political fodder, including leading a slow-footed federal response to an outbreak that has caused profound economic, health and social disruption. Democrats are already using reams of video of Trump denying and playing down a crisis that is killing hundreds of Americans daily, costing millions of jobs and closing countless businesses.
Underscoring a Democratic consensus that Trumpâ€™s own words will be one of their most potent weapons, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., said, â€œDonald Trump does have the biggest bully pulpit. But fortunately for Democrats, Donald Trump has the biggest bully pulpit.â€
Yet seven months from Election Day, Democrats have not yet matched the pulpit that Trump has used to host daily, nationally televised briefings that can exceed two hours.
And theyâ€™re juggling conflicting instincts: attack Trump aggressively now and risk accusations of using a catastrophe for political reasons, or wait until society starts returning to normal. That might give him time to define himself as a wartime president battling a virus thatâ€™s enveloped the globe.
â€œThere has been gross incompetenceâ€ by Trump and thatâ€™s â€œa huge vulnerability,â€ said Jim Margolis, a leading Democratic communications consultant. â€œBut Democrats must take care not to gratuitously attack the administration or look like they are playing politics with a crisis.â€
â€œA purely partisan attack is inappropriate for the times weâ€™re in,â€ said former Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who once headed House Democratsâ€™ campaign organization.
Both approaches – strike vigorously now or later – are being tested in real time.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has faulted Trumpâ€™s response. But heâ€™s avoided the sharpest attacks, while trying to project an image as a steady, experienced crisis manager.
â€œTrump keeps saying heâ€™s a wartime president. Well, start to act like one,â€ Biden has said. His path to the nomination cleared Wednesday when his only viable rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., dropped out.
Congressional leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and Democratic governors including New Yorkâ€™s Andrew Cuomo and Michiganâ€™s Gretchen Whitmer have tangled with Trump. But theyâ€™ve mostly stressed legislation and other steps theyâ€™re taking to bolster the economy and the overwhelmed health care system.
Theyâ€™ve also presented themselves as calming alternatives to Trump, whose briefings have been marred by false and confusing assertions that often contradict public health professionalsâ€˜ views and angry outbursts at reporters whose questions he dislikes.
â€œThis moment is exactly wrong for President Trump because he canâ€™t distract people from a pandemic with a provocative tweet,â€ said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.
Yet at the same time, Democratic political groups are spending millions on television and online ads around the country that pull few punches.
â€œCrisis comes to every president. This one failed,â€ says one spot by Unite the Country, a political committee backing Biden. As red circles dotting a U.S. map ominously expand, the announcer says Trump â€œlet the virus spread unchecked across America.â€
â€œPerception can get baked in very quickly,â€ said Tara McGowan, who leads PACRONYM, an anti-Trump political committee. â€œYou simply canâ€™t afford to wait.â€
The message from Biden, congressional leaders and governors has reflected Democratsâ€™ lack of an undisputed leader in the months before Biden formally clinches the nomination.
â€œItâ€™s really going to have to be an all hands on deck approach,â€ said Guy Cecil, who heads Priorities USA, the largest Democratic outside political group.
Yet even collectively, Democrats have strained to match the spotlight that Trump and all presidents have to dominate news coverage. Thatâ€™s been complicated by the nationâ€™s lockdown, which has prevented public rallies and interactions with voters that are normally the lifeblood of politics.
â€œTrumpâ€™s press conferences blot out the sun,â€ said Adam Jentleson, a Democratic strategist.
Trump has noticed. He tweeted Wednesday that â€œRadical Left Democrats have gone absolutely crazyâ€ over his daily briefings and boasted of â€œâ€˜Monday Night Football, Bachelor Finaleâ€™ typeâ€ ratings.
Republicans say Democratic attacks now would be ineffective, with voters concentrating on keeping their families safe. â€œPeople are hungering for official information as opposed to a partisan response,â€ said GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini.
Other Republicans see big vulnerabilities for Trump.
â€œIf this is a war, itâ€™s hard to spin a war,â€ said long-time GOP consultant Stuart Stevens, a Trump opponent. â€œThere are body counts. And what are you going to do with these unemployment numbers?â€
After a slow start that concerned many Democrats, Biden has asserted a more visible role with television interviews, virtual town halls, podcasts and newspaper columns that describe his prescriptions for a recovery, such as accelerated aid for the jobless and small businesses.
Biden aides said his approach balances holding Trump accountable while still positioning himself to make specific policy recommendations. They said it also lets him display the empathy thatâ€™s been part of his public persona ever since his wife and daughter were killed in an auto accident shortly after his 1972 election to the Senate.
Still, Democratsâ€™ quandary over finding a messaging balance has fueled countless conversations within the party. More than 100 groups, from the AFL-CIO to Public Citizen, hold thrice-weekly conference calls to share research and strategy, said Leslie Dach, who runs the Protect Our Care Coalition, which hosts the calls along with the Center for American Progress.
â€œItâ€™s a moment to double down, but we have to do that in a surgical way, not a jackhammer on his head,â€ said Bradley Beychok, president of American Bridge.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death
Associated Press writer Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.