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Keller @ Large: Trump's Threat Against Rebellious Governors

BOSTON (CBS)  -- Tell the Democrat Governors that "Mutiny On The Bounty" was one of my all-time favorite movies," President Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. "A good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain."

There's a lot to unpack in that latest presidential spasm, not least the implicit threat against rebellious governors. Too bad his 1991 bankruptcy cost him his 281-foot yacht, the Trump Princess – he could have used it to make them walk the plank.

But let's set aside Mr. Trump's unwise comparison of himself with the mentally unstable Captain Bligh and focus on the somewhat less bonkers political strategy at play here.

Trump awoke this morning to daunting news about his re-election campaign. The latest poll out of Arizona, a crucial swing state, has Joe Biden ahead of Trump by a whopping nine points. Public approval/disapproval of his handling of the pandemic sits at 50/50, a far cry from the 60% he was pulling in mid-March; some polls have that approval percentage down in the low-40s. Even the Trump-friendly Rasmussen survey pegs his overall job approval at only 44%, down eight points from what the same pollster found in late-February.

The ground is crumbling beneath Trump as he nears the most crucial call of his presidency – whether or not to throw the weight of his office and his influence over pro-Trump red state governors behind an early reopening of the economy. His bluster at Monday's briefing about having "total" authority to override state-ordered shutdowns has been rejected by a bipartisan array of lawmakers, including the likes of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Wyoming Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, chair of the House Republican Conference. Even New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who's been trying hard to avoid rattling Trump's cage, felt compelled to remind the captain that here in America, "we don't have a king."

But there's a method to President Bligh's madness.

Dating back to his public musings last month about an Easter Sunday return to business and public gatherings – which were also immediately dismissed by horrified pols and public health officials – Trump has been eager to cast himself as head cheerleader for ending the self-induced economic coma. There isn't a governor or mayor in the country who wouldn't second the motion of a quick end to our economic agony.

But by seizing that branding and framing those who resist a premature move as "mutineers" indifferent at best to the economic carnage, Trump may think he sees a path out of the political wilderness. He pleases his business buddies and donors, who've been aghast at the preference given to public safety over profits from the get-go. He feeds the insatiable appetite of his political base for narratives that fit their fantasies about anything that goes very wrong under Trump being fake news weaponized to undercut him.

And if it turns out that no, he can't force states to lift or modify their emergency orders before they deem it safe to do so, it's the best of all political worlds – credit for trying and "caring," with none of the risk that such moves would squander all our hard-won curve-flattening gains. It sets him up to play his favorite blame game later on, when hopefully signs of normalcy return without damage – see? If only they'd listened to me back in mid-April!

Politics is also a factor in the sudden move by governors on the west coast and along the Acela I-95 corridor to form consortiums to work out reopening plans. They don't want to let Trump paint them as the bad cops, and heightening their own branding as eager to get back to business is the best way to avoid that fate.

And keep in mind, the polling honeymoon being enjoyed by governors from Cuomo to Charlie Baker for leading the anti-virus charge won't last forever.

Consider what might happen down the Cape, a region profoundly reliant on the summer tourism season for its economic health, if this nightmare drags on through June. How much lockdown will business owners, their employees, and customers tolerate?

I've never heard Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce CEO Wendy Northcross sound as downbeat as she did last week when she told the Cape Cod Times that "business owners she talks to feel they can open as late as the Fourth of July and still salvage the season. 'If it goes deeper into July, I don't get many answers,'" she said.

That's the time of year when we celebrate our freedom and gorge on strawberry shortcake.

Maybe it's not so far-fetched to suspect that this time around, Captain Trump won't be the only one asking: who stole my strawberries?

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