SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Thursday night, the finale of the Republican National Convention, staged on the South Lawn of the White House - a crowd of over a thousand, but few masks visible and lots of fireworks. NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: I want to put this to you directly. Isn't it against the law to use federal government property - in this case, the White House - for a political event and for federal personnel to be part of the events in uniform?
ELVING: They are running roughshod over at least the spirit of the Hatch Act - yes, Scott. But on the letter of the law, you get into the usual wrangles and tangles, such as, well, the White House itself may be off limits, but not the Rose Garden or the South Lawn. And there have been people in the administration who have been cited for violating the Hatch Act, but they've not really been criminally prosecuted. That situation could change if there were more public outrage. But as White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told Politico this week, quote, "nobody outside of the Beltway really cares."
SIMON: It's irresistible to compare and contrast the conventions. What did you notice this week now that both conventions are over?
ELVING: First of all, both of these were strange mini conventions scaled back from what we're used to. Both of them were largely about telling people what kind of a candidate Joe Biden is. Of course, the Democrats wanted people to know Biden better, and Republicans wanted to paint their own picture of him.
Now, in another sense, of course, at both conventions, the lead character, the central figure hovering over everything, was still President Trump. But there was a great deal of interest this past week in talking about Biden, calling him a closet radical, a Trojan horse who is hiding every wild-eyed liberal in America inside. And Republicans would very much like to have Biden under a microscope right now, to make him the target, expose him as some kind of a villain because otherwise, the election goes back to just being a referendum on Trump, the incumbent, and his first term. And despite all his claims to the contrary, that is not Trump's best argument for reelection.
SIMON: The speeches that even mentioned the pandemic during the convention often put it in the past tense as if it's gone, everything's fine. But, of course, the number of infections and the continuing number of deaths tell a different story. How decisive an issue do you expect the pandemic to be?
ELVING: It really depends on the trajectory of the virus, Scott. That is the key piece. That will determine what happens with schools at all levels, the mainstream - the Main Street economy and public opinion and, very possibly, the election. We've seen deaths per day go down a little this past week, but new cases per day continue on trend.
So if the reopening happens that the president is pressing so hard for - schools and businesses, college football, other sports - there may well be fresh spikes and hot spots to contend with. And if the numbers get really bad, the president will have trouble saying, it's just a matter of testing too much, something he continues to say. And by the way, we do not test too much. Sadly, in many cases, we are testing too late.
SIMON: How do you expect the Biden and Trump campaigns to take off from here?
ELVING: Trump is already on the trail today, appearing in New Hampshire last night. He's visiting some of the storm-damaged areas. You know, New Hampshire's a state he lost in 2016, but only by three-tenths of a percentage point. It's one he thinks he can flip.
We expect to see the president without a mask. We expect more of his supporters doing the same, more of the big bet against the infection. But Trump can't go out and do the mass rallies that were his weapon of choice. He tried that in Tulsa. It was a mess - poor attendance, many COVID cases among those who were there. And last night, we learned that at least four people who were at the Republican convention event in Charlotte on Monday have already tested positive.
Nonetheless, Biden needs to be careful about the virus as an issue. It's kind of scientific and technical, not really in his wheelhouse. He needs to tread lightly and defer to others and restore a sense that the White House simply has some limits and some restraints.
SIMON: NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving, thanks so much.
ELVING: Thank you, Scott.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.