Once upon a time there was a President who expelled Iraq from Kuwait thanks to a very quick war in which smart weapons played a vital role. 

He gained the consensus of the international community to do so. His name: George H. W. Bush. Having served as Vice President under the Government of Ronald Reagan, Bush succeeded him between 1989 and 1992. 

The first Gulf War that started on August 2, 1990, when Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, ordered the invasion of Kuwait was condemned by the international community and the U.S. was able to agree at the United Nations Security Council the use of force to expel Iraqi forces from the little Arab country. 

Iraqi military capabilities were almost destroyed by a U.S.-led coalition and the country faced the strongest set of sanctions ever used against a transgressor of international law. The war outcome took some days to develop at the beginning of 1991, with very few American casualties and satisfactory results for the U.S. and the international community.

At home, the popularity of President Bush soared, and he was considered a war hero, a clever politician, a winner, not only of the First Gulf War. Quite often there were comparisons between him and Harry Truman, and at that point it was difficult to visualize a political contender, capable of preventing him from running – and winning – for a second term. Needless to mention that Bush was the man who led the country to the end of the Cold War with a victory over the then collapsing Soviet Union, which prompted him to deliver the very famous speech on the coming of a new world order.

Yet, as time went by, things did not go well for Bush. His popularity began to fall due to a protracted economic recession. He then raised taxes facing hostility even from his own party. To make things worse for Bush, the billionaire Ross Perot entered the presidential campaign in 1992 and took many votes that, otherwise, would have been for the President. This and the charismatic William Clinton made Bush a one-term President. Thus, Bush joined Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in losing a general election and failing to stay for a second term at the White House. It was in this context  that James Carville, campaign strategist for Bill Clinton, coined the now famous phrase “it’s the economy stupid!,” directed to workers so that they support the Clinton-Gore ticket against Bush, whose role during the recession was, as mentioned, highly questioned. Thus, “it’s the economy stupid!” reminds presidential candidates of the relevance of employment, competitiveness, and growth at electoral times.

That said, prior to the arrival of COVID-19 to the U.S. territory – it was on January 20 that the first case was confirmed in the country – President Donald Trump looked pretty much like George Bush Senior, when he led the liberation of Kuwait. The polls indicated that had the elections been by then, Trump would have walked to reelection almost without a challenger, no matter whether the Democrats had confirmed Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders their candidate. But then the epidemic – now pandemic – made its entrance into the lives of almost 7. 5 million Americans, causing the deaths of more than 200,000. The disease has also impacted Trump’s inner circle including himself, his wife, and key political advisors and strategists. 

Common sense indicates that people wish him well and a quick recovery. This is a fact: political leaders from all over the world, including Boris Johnson, Justin Trudeau, Narendra Modi, Benjamin Netanyahu, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Iván Duque and the heads of the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, among others expressed, their wishes for a speedy and full recovery of President Trump and the First Lady. Yet, there is a recognition in the world and in the U.S. that somehow Trump is paying the price of minimizing the importance of the disease. In previous months he repeatedly said that the virus would go away miraculously. He told the acclaimed journalist Bob Woodward, “I wanted always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

Today it is evident that playing the disease down was a terrible mistake. It leads to critical questions such as “is Trump qualified for the job?” or, better yet “will the after-COVID-19 recovery strategy be best served under a second term of Trump?” Sadly, Vice President Mike Pence does not help much. On February 26, President Trump tapped Pence to lead the U.S. response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Yet one may consider Pence’s role a complete failure, not only by looking at the figures of confirmed cases and deaths but most important, because his boss himself contracted the virus. 

Pence is a religious person, very popular among conservative Christians and he has been mocked for that by Trump a number of times. Thus Pence has patiently kept a low profile, hoping his time will come. The fact that Trump contracted the virus has put Pence in the spotlight. Yet he needs to do more to help the Republican ticket in the forthcoming elections – not to mention that mail-in-ballots, that represent around 20 percent of the votes, are being or have already been cast. 

On Wednesday, Pence and Biden’s running-mate, Senator Kamala Karris will face off. This debate will be extremely important for various reasons: the two will wear masks -Democrats have used them constantly but now there’s concern that at the September 29 presidential debate, by not wearing a mask, Donald Trump risked giving Biden the virus. Pence would have to show that his appeal extends beyond conservative Christians; that he could become President and solve problems; that he doesn’t despise debating a smart woman as Harris, etcetera. 

Harris needs to do a good job too, since aging is already an issue in the elections – both Trump and Biden are in their 70s and the later really looked like a diminished and fragile version of the Joe Biden of the Obama Administration. Harris may take over at some point, in case the Democratic ticket wins, either during the first Biden term or in the case of Biden deciding not to run for a second term. Harris needs to be trusted, which is why Wednesday’s debate could be more interesting to watch than the terrible episode led by Trump and Biden last Tuesday.

The disease has put the whole political structure of the not-long ago most powerful nation in the world on its knees. It has destroyed lives, harmed the economy, triggered social unrest, and created political turmoil. Trump’s response has been chaotic, insensitive, and internationally he has withdrawn the U.S. from the World Health Organization, created tensions with the People’s Republic of China, destroyed cooperation with key allies and put on hold the international response to a deadly virus. By contracting the disease, Trump has also demonstrated that he is not capable of handling the crisis, not even within his inner circle.

Thus, if the electoral outcome favors Biden it may be mostly because Trump deliberately ignored from the beginning the relevance of COVID-19 by pretending that by not paying attention to it, it would simply go away. Trump’s contenders are two: the Democrats on the one side and COVID-19 on the other. Trump now has problems in dealing with both of them. Sadly, his response was typical of the showman who was used to running “The Apprentice.” This time, however, Trump could not say to the virus “you’re fired!” Unlike the George Bush Senior presidency, one could not claim “it’s the economy stupid!” anymore. Instead, it’s the pandemic stupid!

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by María-Cristina Rosas, a professor and researcher at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian with the permission of the author. Rosas can be reached via email at: [email protected]

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