Trump and the coronavirus

Daniel Henninger:

The costs of how the U.S. has conducted its politics the past three years are now obvious. Beset by a crisis akin to wartime, the country’s leadership is engulfed in political rancor.

Since Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the national Democratic Party has tried to stop his presidency from functioning. That irrefutably was the goal of the Russia collusion narrative, its attendant Mueller investigation and then the impeachment.

Say what you want in defense of these projects, but the reality is they inflamed the normal workings of our politics. The president’s opponents attacked relentlessly, and he without letup counterattacked personally.

Through this period, people often noted that the polarization of American political life had become corrosive and unhealthy. Everyone in Washington knew this, but no matter; it became an addiction. Every issue now defaults to the same petty level.

The greatest damage has been to the Democratic Party. Here a distinction is in order. By and large, the states are being capably led in their response to the coronavirus crisis by both Democratic and Republican governors. Apparently working below the radar of the national media is the antidote to political insanity.

But the national Democratic Party, run by people who live in a hothouse of their own making, looks to be in a state of meltdown. While everything in America is changing, they just won’t.

This is the party that produced a president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led the nation through the crucible of depression and world war. Faced today with a similar crucible in the coronavirus, with much of the country in isolation and shutdown, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, backed by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and virtually all their Democratic Senate colleagues, demanded that the national rescue package include—this is still hard to believe—airline emission standards.

The response by Joe Biden, the presumptive presidential nominee, is even more dispiriting. He has been parroting Mrs. Pelosi’s talking points, calling the rescue package a “slush fund” and writing: “We can’t let Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell hold small businesses, workers, and communities hostage until they get their no-strings corporate bailout.”

A central selling point of Mr. Biden’s has been that he’s the adult in the room who, unlike Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, still understands the necessity of a functioning private sector. But if leading from behind is what Biden presidential leadership would look like, we should skip it and let Speaker Pelosi run the country from Capitol Hill.

Who’s left?

Who’s left is the president we’ve got, the one elected in 2016. With Democrats bailing out on bipartisanship in a unique circumstance, the responsibility of national leadership—a historic opportunity—defaults to Mr. Trump.

Let us understand the stakes. There are national problems and there are national crises. In the latter, as in world wars, the task of national leadership is to protect a nation’s confidence in itself so that it can emerge intact as a society.

We’re accustomed in difficult times to saying Americans can do anything, and that’s largely true. But let’s not delude ourselves that this just happens, like sunshine. American success isn’t a random effect. It requires leadership.

No national leader plans to be in a position like this—not Roosevelt, Lincoln or Churchill. Mr. Trump will emerge from this crisis either as just another president or a president who led his entire country through a great battle. If Democrats choose to be the opposition in this battle, voters will judge that choice.

Some will say, from experience, that asking Mr. Trump to rise to presidential greatness is quixotic. He’ll never adjust no matter the circumstance. And yes, on Tuesday he was in a cat fight over ventilators with New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo.

Ironically, Mr. Trump’s path to presidential greatness may begin by doing something small but desired by virtually all Americans: Separate himself from the pettiness of our politics.

Mr. Cuomo is a governor with a job to do. Help him. If he wants to kvetch, let him.

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have self-isolated from what the American people want from Washington now. With the rescue package finished, if they choose to stay small, let them.

Praise everyone else—from factory workers to supermarket employees risking disease to keep the rest of us fed.

It diminishes a wartime president to spend valuable time tussling with the barely relevant nonquestions of NBC reporters. It diminishes the president’s most impressive accomplishment: delegating and distributing operational authority for the details of the coronavirus battle to Vice President Mike Pence and the task force’s scientific and administrative experts.

Churchill had his war rooms. The White House press scrum is no war room. The public will keep faith with the president if it believes policy decisions are being made in the Situation Room.

If by September Mr. Trump and his team are bringing the U.S. through the threat from this pandemic, he will be re-elected. Without a single rally. Rallying a nation is what gets presidents remembered.

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