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Why Democrats' focus on Trump handling of COVID-19 is risky: Expert

Pangaea Policy Founder Terry Haines joins Yahoo Finance’s Akiko Fujita to recap the fourth night of the DNC as Trump gears up for next week's Republican National Convention.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Let's turn our attention to politics now. The Democratic National Convention wrapping up last night with presidential candidate Joe Biden calling for Americans to unite in what he described as this season of darkness.

JOE BIDEN: Here and now, I give you my word-- if you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I'll be an ally of the light, not the darkness. It's time for us-- for we, the people-- to come together. And make no mistake-- united, we can and will overcome this season of darkness in America. We'll choose hope over fear, facts over fiction, fairness over privilege.

AKIKO FUJITA: Well, with the DNC wrapped up, the attention now shifts to the Republican National Convention, which kicks off on Monday. Let's bring in Terry Haines with Pangaea policy founder there. Terry, you said going into Joe Biden's speech last night, the biggest question was going to be his mental and physical fitness-- something a lot of voters have had questions for. How do you think the speech did? Did it do enough to quiet some of those concerns?

TERRY HAINES: Thanks for having me, Akiko. I do think it helped quiet some of those concerns, but that's going to be a process. That's going to take a while. It's not going to be one speech that's going to erase that perception among voters. And it is a substantial perception among voters. One poll showed that 40% think Biden has diminished capacity, and almost six out of 10 think he's not going to finish his term.

So he's going to have to-- there's an ingrained perception there that's only going to dissipate by degrees. It's going to take a lot of strong performances, not just one. But he was off to a very good start last night. He did what he had to do. He was the empath in chief-- you know, the positive, the light over dark. And he is-- and they're putting the management of the pandemic directly at center stage and trying to make it a referendum on that, as much as anything else. Personally, I think that's a good play for Biden, but it also has a lot of risk as a strategy.

But generally speaking, he did well. The last thing I would say about the convention is that in a broader context, though, viewership is way down. There's no excitement, and that's unfortunate. Conventions generally are exciting things, but couldn't because of the virtual nature. Very few people are going to change their minds here. And so yeah, it was a good start for Biden, but I think it's only a start.

AKIKO FUJITA: And, Terry, you said the focus of the Democrats placed on the president's handling of the coronavirus is a risky strategy. What's the downside risk when you look in the next few months? I mean, is the that when the picture improves, that the president can then take credit for it?

TERRY HAINES: That's part of it, Akiko. But there's another part of it that I think needs to be unpacked a little bit. Democrats are putting an awful lot of cards on Trump failing to manage the pandemic well. We can have a great argument about that another time. But since so much of the pandemic has been managed by state governors, and, you know, they have a difficult record. You know, there was a lot of criticism of Governor Cuomo of New York, for example, and Governor Murphy of New Jersey because of the nursing home strategy.

In Pennsylvania, one of the swing states-- maybe the swing state that determines the election-- there is fury at Governor Wolf-- a lot of fury-- in a state that went for Trump in 2016-- by the way that that state has been handling the pandemic, and even kind of the government by fiat approach that a lot of people think Wolf and his health czars have been putting on in the last few months. That's done an awful lot to gin up Democratic opposition, and, you know, is another factor why I think that overall, Trump voters are more enthusiastic than Biden voters. So it's a strategy that can cut both ways electorally.

AKIKO FUJITA: So how do you think the Republicans respond at the RNC next week? Do they embrace the Democratic strategy to say, look, it's not on us. It's at the local level where the mistakes happen. Or are we likely hear more specifics about issues of trade and the issue of economy, given that the president has polled relatively well there against Joe Biden?

TERRY HAINES: Well, you've absolutely hit on a lot of this, Akiko. I think the theme-- the theme you will hear that was expressed-- won't be expressed quite this bluntly, but one Trump advisor was trying to sell a week or two ago was the theme of death and destruction-- the idea that what you're doing here is trying to kill the America-- you're trying to kill American jobs and kill the American way of life. It was put just about that bluntly.

The economy, as you point out rightly, is a strength. They will hammer that and hammer that and hammer that. We had to rebuild it not only once, but twice. But we've done it. Trump says that a lot. What they will seek to do is occupy the-- occupy the center of the economy and say, look, we are rebuilding the economy yet again, doing it successfully, and what the Biden-Harris ticket is doing is actually a Trojan horse-- that's the phrase that they've been using recently.

They want to-- they want you to believe they're centrists, but really they are progressives who are interested in vastly raising your taxes in a $4 trillion tax plan, in rejiggering the Fed, and for the economy, putting huge new burdens on it with the Green New Deal and a bunch of other things. That's something, by the way, that I've always thought that if Biden looks likelier and likelier to win in the fall, that'll start weighing on markets those concerns-- very different from 2016 where whatever Hillary Clinton would do was going to be seen as the continuation of the Obama-Biden strategy and not a surprise. Markets will increasingly see a Biden victory, I think, as a progressive step back.

But you know, they will hit the economy front and center. They'll hit the Trojan horse business. They will talk about the failures of states and cities, not only in dealing with the coronavirus, but they will also point out that the Democratic-run cities are not only incompetent to lead on COVID, they are the ones where a lot of violence happened this summer.

And so you know, in that-- in that sense, what Trump is going to position himself as, not just the law and order president, but somebody that's actually interested in maintaining law and order as a way to keep people safer and more secure. So it's very much a battle of dueling visions here.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, it'll be interesting to see if that message appeals beyond his base. We, of course, will be watching very closely when the RNC kicks off on Monday. Terry Haines, great to talk to you today.