WASHINGTON — As U.S. Catholic voters weigh their options ahead of Nov. 3, two events have shaped the 2020 presidential election in an unprecedented way: the global COVID-19 pandemic and the protests and riots after the fatal arrest of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by police in Minnesota.

The Trump and Biden campaigns have crafted policy proposals and rhetoric around the new normal of coronavirus restrictions, and have eyed different methods of police reform and addressing the concerns of Black communities.

President Donald Trump has been campaigning on a message of law and order, using federal agents to protect federal property in a few cities, such as Portland, Oregon, while also pushing to reopen the economy, churches and schools despite the coronavirus still flaring in some states.

Meanwhile, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has taken aim at  the president’s handling of the pandemic, telling supporters that Trump “can’t deal with our economic crisis without serving, saving and solving the public-health crisis.”  His campaign has focused on addressing the economy, racism, climate change and peeling back pro-life policies advanced by the Trump administration.

The digital campaigning over the response to the coronavirus heated up recently, as Biden and former President Barack Obama released a video July 23 in which they also criticized Trump for comments in which he said he did not “take responsibility” for the slow rollout of coronavirus testing in March. Trump said at the time that they were dealing with “regulations and specifications from a different time,” which weren’t “meant for this kind of an event with the kind of numbers that we’re talking about,” adding that his administration had “redesigned” things quickly to meet the circumstances.

In response to the Obama-Biden video, Trump placed blame on the former president and vice president for the nation’s lack of preparedness for the current health crisis, tweeting that he “wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for them. … They did a terrible job!”

 

Pandemic Response

As the number of known cases in the U.S. now has topped 4 million and continues to rise, and the number of deaths is more than 145,000, Trump’s response has shifted. While previously calling mask use a “voluntary thing,” Trump acknowledged in a briefing July 21 that masks “have an impact,” and he is contemplating a mask mandate for federal buildings.

He also announced that he would not hold the planned in-person GOP convention due to coronavirus concerns, as Jacksonville, Florida, has become a hot spot for the virus. In addition, the president has revived the White House coronavirus task force briefings, which had stopped when the administration’s focus shifted to reopening the economy in May.  On Aug. 3 the president touted the success of his administration’s plan to invest in the development of a vaccine, projecting to have “a vaccine available this year, maybe far in advance of the end of the year.”

Trump earned criticism from both sides of the aisle July 30 by tweeting that universal mail-in voting would make the 2020 election the most fraudulent in history, asking, “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” Experts quickly pointed out that the Constitution gives the power of setting the election date to Congress not to the president.

The Trump White House has also suffered some setbacks in the process of pushing a second stimulus package through Congress, aimed at helping the many Americans and small businesses still struggling due to the coronavirus shutdowns.

For its part, the Biden campaign rolled out its own plan to tackle the coronavirus at the end of June, which included increased testing and contact tracing, a global effort to produce a vaccine and expanding unemployment benefits.

Biden’s plan did not address houses of worship and religious-freedom concerns amid restrictions. By contrast, President Trump emphasized the importance of reopening houses of worship early on in the pandemic and has insisted that they should be permitted to function at the same capacity as other facilities in their area, despite clashes with Democratic governors on the issue.

“I think they should open the churches. It’s up to the governors. But. … I’m recommending it,” the president told EWTN News Nightly Tracy Sabol anchor in an Aug. 4 interview. “The Democrats want to put them out of business. They want to put the churches out of business. And it’s very unfair. So they don’t complain about the protests, which are horrible in many cases. You look at Portland, it’s a disaster, but they don’t want the churches open.”

 

Protests and Police Reform

The nationwide protests, spurred by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police officers, has been another major catalyst for change on the 2020 campaign trail. Trump has drawn fire from detractors as he has attempted to respond to the destruction of federal property in major cities and has denounced efforts to defund police.

For his part, while Biden has not embraced the “defund the police” movement, he has stated that some police funding should “absolutely” be redirected.

As the destruction of statues, including Catholic statues, has escalated, Trump signed an executive order to protect statues and monuments, saying that “individuals and organizations have the right to peacefully advocate for either the removal or the construction of any monument. But no individual or group has the right to damage, deface, or remove any monument by use of force.” The order specifically triggered the enforcement of federal law to protect religious property from defacement including “depictions of Jesus or other religious figures or religious art work." 

Biden said in a recent speech that the government had an “obligation” to protect monuments to past slave-owning presidents such as Jefferson and Washington because “it’s not dealing with revering somebody who had that view. They had much broader views.” As for Confederate statues, he backed their peaceable removal to museums through the work of local governments, but said that he understood the “anger and anguish” of those who would like to see them destroyed.

In June, President Trump signed an executive order encouraging police departments to improve training and creating a database to track officers with multiple instances of misconduct. As the protests have continued, the president has met with criticism for the use of tear gas and force by police against protesters. However, polling has indicated that a slight majority of Americans, 52%, support deploying the military in response to violent protests.

Trump redoubled his efforts to prevent violence and crime in major cities July 22, announcing Operation LeGend, a plan to deploy “a surge of federal law enforcement into American communities plagued by violent crime.”

As Biden and Trump offer competing policy proposals, their rhetoric particularly around issues of race is heating up, as well. Last week, Biden claimed that Trump was the country’s “first” racist president. His campaign director later clarified, “There have been a number of racist American presidents, but Trump stands out — especially in modern history — because he made running on racism and division his calling card and won.”

The Trump campaign replied to Biden’s comments by drawing attention to Biden’s past remarks on race, including touting his work with segregationist senators and having to apologize for calling Barack Obama “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”

 

Effects on Policy

President Trump has rolled out policies aimed at providing new opportunities in Black communities, with a particular focus on education. He called school choice “the civil-rights statement of the year, of the decade, and probably beyond, because all children have to have access to quality education.”

Vice President Mike Pence has also highlighted school choice, remarking that “Biden says everybody ought to have a fair shot at the American dream. Well, we would say, ‘Well, why don’t you support allowing African American families to choose where their kids go to school?’”

In a marked departure from the Obama administration’s increasing funding to charter schools, Biden stated on the campaign trail in February that he is “not a charter-school fan because it takes away the options available and money for public schools.”

A document of recommendations for the Democratic National Committee platform from Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, would “ban for-profit private charter businesses from receiving federal funding.” It also opposed “private school vouchers and other policies that divert taxpayer-funded resources away from the public school system.”

Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, told The Washington Post that national Democrats are “misreading the politics” of the issue, noting the support for charters among black voters.

A majority of voters have historically trusted Trump over Biden on the economy, although recent polling has shown a dip in that approval. Biden’s agenda includes a $2-trillion plan to tackle climate change, which aims to cut the nation’s carbon footprint in half by 2035, and has a 2050 timeline to achieve a 100% clean-energy economy with net-zero emissions. Biden has tied what many are calling an “ambitious” climate plan with job creation, amid criticism over its hefty price tag.

And Biden’s unity task force recommendations for the DNC platform also appear to have shifted the party leftward, according to a leaked draft of the platform.

The unity task force included Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and also addressed issues related to the recent protests. The document supported a House “reparations proposal” bill to establish a “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans.” It also called for “federal funding to create a civilian corps of unarmed first responders such as social workers, EMTs, and trained mental-health professionals, who can handle nonviolent emergencies, including order maintenance violations, mental-health emergencies, and low-level conflicts outside the criminal justice system, freeing police officers to concentrate on the most serious crimes.”

On July 27, Biden released his “Agenda for Women,” asserting that “too many women are struggling to make ends meet and support their families and are worried about the economic future for their children. This was true before the COVID-19 crisis, but the current global health crisis has exacerbated these realities for women.”

The plan addressed abortion. It would undo much of the Trump administration’s pro-life policies by codifying Roe v. Wade, restoring Planned Parenthood’s Title X funding, and putting in place a pre-2014 contraceptive mandate. On “LGBT” issues, Biden’s plan would also “ensure coverage for comprehensive care, including covering care related to transitioning, such as gender-confirmation surgery.”

Pro-life Democrats and religious leaders have called for pro-life policies and a rollback of the party platform’s abortion agenda, which includes the repeal of the Hyde Amendment.

The Republican platform, meanwhile, will remain the same as the 2016 document through 2024, a decision that was met with criticism from moderates and conservatives who regretted a missed opportunity to update the party’s platform.

 

Implications Moving Forward

Michael Wear, who ran religious outreach for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, told the Register that “the Floyd protests, in particular, have given Biden the opportunity to reject Trump’s record and approach on race, while also drawing clear limits as well (protection of federal property, opposition to abolishing the police).” 

He said that “the last few months have not so much changed the candidates, as they have crystalized who each candidate is and what they offer to the country.”  

Carl Cannon, RealClear Politics Washington bureau chief, told the Register that, traditionally, nominees in both parties have appealed to the far-right or far-left in the primary and then moved to the center in the general election,

Biden hasn’t followed this model, as he has continued to move left, seeking Sanders and Elizabeth Warren voters. Cannon said from a campaign perspective, it’s not necessarily “a mistake,” as “it makes sense for the current environment we’re in: The Democratic Party has never been as liberal as it is now.”

Cannon said the pandemic has hurt Trump’s reelection “rationale,” which was the flourishing economy before the pandemic.

While “nobody in their right mind would blame Trump for the pandemic,” he said, “even if you thought he handled it well, what happened undermines his basic rationale for a second term in a fundamental way. … Suddenly, you’re in an environment where any incumbent would be in trouble.”

As for the social unrest over the death of George Floyd, Cannon said that it has exposed vulnerabilities for both parties but also provided an opening for each nominee. He said the issue has made Americans realize that “it’s important to have a president who can speak sensitively about race.” In his evaluation, this has proven difficult for Trump.

However, Cannon added that “as the protests turned violent … the Democrats now have shown a vulnerability of their own, … They can’t stand up to the lefties in their party.”

Eventually Biden and his vice-presidential pick will have to address the question “are you really excusing mob rule?” Cannon said, adding “You really think that people at a federal courthouse in Portland … should be dodging firebombs, rocks and bricks?

“They’re going to have to address that; and if the Democrats can negotiate that safely, then this environment should work for them.”

Joshua Mercer, editor of “The Loop” at Catholic Vote, told the Register that the pandemic and rioting has created “a feeling amongst the American people that 2020 is just a terrible, rotten year,” which will “have an influence on the way people think about the state of the country and the current president even if it’s not the president’s fault.”

He also viewed Biden’s leftward shift, particularly on climate issues, as something that could backfire due to their potential adverse effects on the economy. He said, “The Democrats think they’re going to win anyway so why not just move further and further to the left, and I think that’s going to provide Trump with an opening by November.”

 

Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.

 

EWTN NEWS NIGHTLY

Watch Tracy Sabol’s Aug. 4 interview with President Trump here.