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Fauci’s Reappearance Is Awkward for Both Candidates 

The man who embodied science now embodies the uncomfortable truth of Covid-era incompetence and malfeasance.

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When Anthony Fauci was most recently hauled before Congress, it was evident how far he had fallen. Once science personified, he is now a political lightning rod, a career bureaucrat whose decisions are just as easily second-guessed as those of any other Beltway apple polisher or pencil pusher.

This is because the public now knows much of the pandemic response can be reasonably second-guessed and that a good bit of it was nonsense. And that does not just pertain to former President Donald Trump supposedly counseling people to ingest bleach to ward off Covid-19 (one fact-checker examining the commonly retold disinfectant story rated it mostly false), but also the guidance that kept schoolchildren in masks and businesses closed if they could not guarantee six feet of separation between customers. 

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Fauci would still probably poll better than many politicians, though that would be damning him with faint praise. But when President Joe Biden took office, Fauci’s endorsement was helpful. Biden’s ostensible liberation of Fauci was supposed to be a sign that science and reason were back in charge in Washington.

If anything, Fauci has been a mild liability to Trump this year. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made it a big part of his Republican primary campaign this year that it was Trump who made Fauci the public face of the federal government’s anti-Covid blitz and mostly heeded the doctor’s advice. Voters had moved on, so this only did so much for DeSantis. But it is still likely a factor in some voters picking independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr. over Trump.

Biden and his surrogates’ efforts to blame Trump for Faucism have gone more poorly still. When former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in an interview that Trump had the worst record for job loss of any president, even MSNBC’s Katy Tur felt compelled to push back by noting that this was due to the pandemic (though more accurate to say the business closures Trump went along with but the Democrats supported more enthusiastically). Pelosi hilariously called Tur an “apologist for Donald Trump.”

Yes, Trump and supporters sometimes have to dance around the exact phrasing of the “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” question, as Sen. Katie Britt (R-AL) did in her response to the State of the Union address. But they are still able to ask a version of the question and the answer does not redound to Biden’s benefit.

The electorate is basically giving Trump a pass for the pandemic, viewing it in retrospect as an event beyond a president’s control. Once you adjust for the virus, it becomes clear that a lot of the things that Biden can say are good now (solid economic growth, low unemployment, job gains) were also good under Trump while many of the bad things happening now (inflation and the international climate across multiple fronts) weren’t occurring then.

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As a result of this, voters are starting to reappraise Trump’s presidency and view it more favorably than Biden’s. This is why the rematch could end differently than the first go-round.

This is doubly bad for Biden because the pandemic was the difference-maker in the 2020 election. It was the final straw for suburban, college-educated voters turning against Trump, it freed Biden from having to keep up a normal in-person campaign schedule, and it led to battleground state voting protocols that goosed Democratic turnout. Now 2024 is looking like more of a do-over in which Trump faces Biden without Covid. It is pretty clear the former president would have been reelected four years ago if that had been the case.

DeSantis could plausibly hit Trump from the right on the lockdowns, mandates, and inflationary Covid spending. Biden cannot. He also pursued one last stimulus package right as people were returning to work and is committed to keeping spending near pandemic levels as a matter of fiscal policy.

It’s possible that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg can do what Fauci no longer can: turn the race against Trump, sticking the presumptive Republican nominee with the “convicted felon” label instead of the Herbert Hoover moniker, moving voters who don’t want four years of legal drama. Sufficient post-conviction polling has yet to be seen.

But four years ago, Fauci could have cured what ails Biden. Now his reelection campaign needs a much different prescription if it is to prevail. Biden needs the lawyers, not the doctors, to save him.