Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re going to say. Now is not the time to talk about politics during these times of need that not only the United States and Puerto Rico are living, but the entire world is going through amid the COVID-19 pandemic. We are certainly living a historically frightening moment: a moment that requires great solidarity among us all to combat an invisible viral and uncompromising enemy that continues to indiscriminately claim lives throughout the entire globe.
However, it is not less true that during moments such as these is when we must remain the most vigilant of the political process. Ironically, and to the satisfaction of both statehooders and pro-independence supporters in Puerto Rico, I find it appropriate to cite a famous phrase expressed by Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers and fighters for independence of the United States, who allegedly said, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”
Today, these words have never been more applicable to the controversial figures of President Donald Trump in the United States and Governor Wanda Vázquez in Puerto Rico. Curiously, both of these leaders share much more in common than meets the eye. Both arrived at their respective positions of power in unexpected fashion, against all odds and projections and both have been linked to scandalous controversies.
Let us remember that Trump was very much behind within the overwhelming majority of national polls compared to his democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in 2016 and despite his impressive capability of mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people to his rallies, he was mostly seen as a joke during the campaign trail instead of a viable candidate to the presidency of the most powerful country in the world. However, as we all now and much to the amazement of everyone, he won, and not only did he win, but he did so convincingly.
Puerto Rico governor Wanda Vázquez on the other hand, wasn’t even on the ballot in the 2016 elections in Puerto Rico and also rose to power unexpectedly thanks to the order of succession laid out by the Puerto Rico constitution after the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló as governor during the infamous summer of 2019. Months later, very few people, myself included, ever viewed Vázquez as a legitimate leader with real options in becoming a viable gubernatorial candidate in the 2020 elections for the statehood party in Puerto Rico.
Let’s be honest, many of us saw her as a mere placeholder; a cosmetic figure who would temporarily occupy the executive seat of the country, only to later step aside and clear the way for Pedro Pierluisi or another pro-statehood candidate to become the statehood party nominee for governor. Boy, were we wrong. Although it would be an exaggeration to allege that Vázquez and Trump’s personalities are analogous, it is indisputable that both of their administrations have been mired in political turmoil as a result of scandals and/or controversies triggered by themselves or their closest advisors; scandals I will not elaborate on because it would take at least a dozen or more columns to do so.
However, despite of all the political hits that Vázquez and Trump have received during their terms in office so far, an indication is already blossoming towards the idea that the coronavirus has actually become a political blessing for both of them; an indication that is strengthening with every single daily coronavirus update press briefing that they hold. History has taught us that incumbents benefit greatly politically during moments of crisis, and Trump and Vázquez have proven not to be the exception.
These are the three reasons that I believe could lead Wanda Vázquez and Donald Trump towards an electoral victory in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus:
- The COVID-19 daily press briefings held by Governor Vázquez and President Donald Trump provide them the opportunity to speak directly to millions of voters on a daily basis, and the best part of this is that they can do it for free. The daily TV exposure that both of these executives enjoy in the middle of this crisis is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. This places their political opponents at a severe disadvantage within the media, because many of them do not hold public office, and even if they do, their positions cannot compete for free air time with that of a governor or president. This forces their political opponents to spend valuable campaign money in order to relay their message, thereby bleeding the finances of their political war chests. Of course, we all know President Trump has proven to be an arrogant buffoon and Governor Vázquez is still surrounded by the ghosts of disgraced former governor Ricardo Rosselló and his closest collaborators, however, a scared and desperate populace due to the COVID-19 crisis may just end up finding consolation and comfort in both of these leaders who every single day attempt to project themselves as energized, diligent and unstoppable in their attempts to search for solutions for the COVID-19 pandemic during their daily press briefings.
- Trump’s and Vázquez’s political opponents have indeed made legitimate points as part of their attempts to hold these incumbents accountable and they continue to attempt to plant doubt in terms of the effectiveness of the incumbents’ respective responses to COVID-19. However, opponents still seem to struggle to compete with the unlimited media exposure that Trump and Vázquez enjoy on a daily basis. Joe Biden has pretty much disappeared from the public eye, and his candidacy seems to have been long forgotten despite his impressive primary victories over Senator Bernie Sanders who seems to be more visible in the media than he is. Any political momentum and excitement Biden may have garnered in the democratic primary en route to the presidency has arguably vanished. In Puerto Rico’s case, political figures such as Alexandra Lúgaro, Pedro Pierluisi and Eduardo Bhátia have seen their campaigns become severely limited in their abilities to insert themselves into the public media discussion because the only important topic right now is COVID-19, a topic that is incompatible with their expertise and experience, therefore increasing the risk of their attempts to hold incumbents accountable being portrayed as cheap shots to score political points in the middle of a health crisis. The only candidate in Puerto Rico that seems to be making something of a dent is Senator Juan Dalmau through his eloquent speeches on the floor of the Puerto Rico Senate, but it doesn’t seem to be nearly enough. Let’s face it, Donald Trump’s approval ratings are at their highest level in his entire presidential term. Wanda Vázquez was recently named by Politico as one of the top 6 governors in the United States who have best responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and she is ahead on many polls in comparison to her primary opponent Pedro Pierluisi. This could be happening due in great part to the support of the undecided or independent electorate that do not identify with any party, who may actually be seeing Trump’s and Vázquez’s execution during this crisis as effective and comforting despite these moments of great anxiety produced by COVID-19.
- And lastly, money talks. The financial relief offered to the people by President Trump and Governor Vázquez will undoubtedly influence the electoral minds of many voters this November. A desperate populace found short on money during the COVID-19 crisis will feel indebted to President Trump and Governor Vázquez after receiving the $1,200 stimulus checks by the federal government and the local version of economic stimulus being rolled out in Puerto Rico by Governor Vázquez. Of course, much of that money is money that we have all already paid through taxes the opposition will say, but this argument, although true, may be drowned out amid the desperation and financial strangulation that COVID-19 is ever-increasingly producing. This is even more true in Puerto Rico where the practice of unscrupulous politicians buying stoves and refrigerators for constituents to buy votes has proven to be an effective political tool in Puerto Rican politics for decades despite of being totally unethical and illegal.
In closing, President Trump and Governor Vázquez seem to be firmly on their way towards electoral victory in November of 2020 (assuming there will even be an election) not necessarily because they are the best candidates, but as a result of the fear, desperation and anxiety the COVID-19 crisis is generating. We still have time to learn how to separate one from the other and to learn to control our emotions during these difficult times in order to effectively select the best candidates to lead us in the future. It is imperative that we remain informed and resistant to manipulative attempts by some of our politicians now more than ever. Otherwise, we shall continue to be victims of the same oppressive powers that continue to fail us election after election.
The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance…
Phillip Arroyo is a lawyer, writer, civil rights activist and political analyst who frequently appears on numerous national and international media outlets. Mr. Arroyo served both in the Puerto Rico Senate, the Puerto Rico Department of State and was selected as the only Puerto Rican to serve in the 2012 White House Internship, having worked in the office of the Vice President Joe Biden, where he analyzed domestic and economic issues while at the White House. You can follow him on Twitter @PhillipArroyo.