02 September 2020
Biden’s Basement Bother
By J.R. Thomas
Somebody should have told him. Running a presidential electoral campaign from your home basement, however sensible and prudent in these extraordinary times, is not a good look. Especially if your opponent is forever striding down the steps of Air Force One, no mask, looking healthy and confident. Finally Joe has emerged from the basement (“I forced him out” said Donald), but a bit late. It’s set a tone that needs some imagination to overcome, some originality and boldness. That is not really Joe’s thing, alas for him.
So welcome back to the 2020 Presidential campaign. Not a lot has happened you might think. Mr Biden finally named his Vice-Presidential running mate. It’s Kamala Harris, surprise, surprise. No, you are right, it is no surprise at all. It’s the obvious choice – so the question is: if it was so obvious, why did he not do it sooner? There has been, no doubt, a lot of careful prepping and negotiating behind the scenes, but damp squibs do not set campaigns alight. What the Democrats now have is a ticket that is carefully balanced, male and female, white and black, old and young(ish), West Coast and old rustbelt. It’s the classic formula and there’s nothing wrong with it. Except that the Democrats are facing a man who is above all else a salesman and a show man, a natural campaigner, a man with very few (none?) boundaries as to what he will say and do. Donald Trump reinvented politics in the US four years ago, and he’s out to win by doing it again. The President shows few signs of enjoying governing, but he loves campaigning, and he really adores winning.
That is The Donald’s strength and weakness; that all consuming urge to win can take him a long way. But the lack of interest in actually running things may trip him up. We have said it here before but it is worth repeating. Trump is a businessman, and for all the mud thrown at his business career, a successful one. And like many big businessmen, he sees his role as setting the course and appointing the people who will take the business – or country – where he wants it to go. Making the deal is what Donald does so well; the detail is left to others. That has worked well in some areas: in stimulating the American economy; in a non-interventionist foreign policy that any Democrat President would be proud of. Not so well though where personal leadership is required – the extension of The Wall along the Mexican border which required complex funding, and especially in the Covid19 emergency where Donald looked badly informed, out of his depth, and unsure.
Then came BLM. Trump looked uncertain, and failed to be either tough or emollient. But that hesitancy has taken him, as it happens, to a good place. The violence continues to flare and Democrat state governors and city mayors, trying to retain their voter support in what to some are election years, look weak, unable to control the mobs who are wrecking and burning (as it is so often) the property of the poor and disadvantaged. The President increasingly identifies the Democrats as failing to deal with the violence and destruction and nervous voters, it seems, increasingly are agreeing with him.
Mr Biden has that problem too; he is increasingly tarred as weak and not on the side of law and order (“law n‘order” as it used to be), but there he is, trying to hold together a highly disparate coalition of interest groups; what can he do? Whatever he speaks out strongly for or against, he will upset a significant part of his voter base. He might consider doing that on the basis that if he upsets one part of the Democrat coalition, they are hardly likely to vote for Trumpian Republicanism, and he might get back enough of that poor working class (white) vote that traditionally was the Democrat heart rock, but which Mr Trump stole away from Hillary. But it is not that easy. Money is a Biden problem and he cannot afford to lose the support of those groups that are crucial to his funding. And even in this era of on-line virtual campaigning, he needs the party machine to have sufficient active people working hard to get the vote out – it is not just about Joe, remember, there are lots of Senate and House seats that the Democrats must win, so that if Joe loses, the Democrats can still block Trump in Congress.
The opinion polls (this column has more respect for at least the serious professional polls than most Shaw Sheet readers have) say that Mr Biden is ahead, and in particular that he is ahead in the crucial swing states that Mr Trump won last time and needs to win again. But they also say the margins are tight in the swing states, and diminishing in most places. That should be no comfort to the Biden campaign; Hillary was further ahead in most of the places at this point in 2016 for one thing; and for another, even the pollsters think some voters are reticent about admitting support for Trump, more than last time. It is, how shall we put it, not fashionable to declare publicly for the GOP candidate, but those voters who think about the economy and tax and the defence of private property may well lean Republican in private.
And there are some other factors that suggest that unless Mr Biden has a bit of luck his lead may get narrower still. Mr Trump fights a better campaign, or is doing so far. It is not entirely clear why this should be so, but some of it must be because Mr Trump starts with no political history. The parties think they know how to fight election campaigns. Mr Trump doesn’t. At a time when advertising, marketing, selling, have changed enormously the parties are stuck in old fashioned ways; Mr Trump is open to the latest methods; it is one area where he will listen to specialist and radical advice. His big set piece speeches, the razzmatazz, the cheering, the sound bites, the pithy jokes and insults, all make great TV and send simple popular messages. “Joe is hunkered in his basement.” “Biden soft on crime.” “Biden prisoner of socialism.” “Sleepy Joe.” These all hit home and resonate with a lot of Americans. Mr Biden’s speeches, carefully arguing points and sounding moderate and conciliatory work for some electors – but for a lot they just pass on by. Maybe Ms Harris will be the attack dog, the angry passion to Joe’s kindness and moderation. But that has not happened so far and time is passing. And every time The Donald calls The Joe a prisoner of the left he jars nerves in voters to whom socialism is indeed something nasty and is hiding around every corner.
In the meantime, the initiative is Mr Trump’s, the advantage is Mr Trump’s, and the world continues to go Mr Trump’s way. Not least, the Covid death toll is falling, the economy is reviving, and the continuing violence is identified with the Democrats (unfairly perhaps, but it is). The Republican campaign is on a roll and Mr Biden needs to stick his foot out and trip it up soon, and in a spectacular way, if he is not to face an even bigger upset that the Clinton campaign in 2016.