Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Joe Biden’s campaign launch, Trump’s battle against congressional subpoenas, and the White House boycott of the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
After weeks of buildup, Joe Biden has officially launched his presidential campaign with an argument that he’s the best option for stopping a Trump second term and returning things to normal. Is it a convincing pitch?
Biden isn’t the only one who thinks he’s the best man to defeat Trump. Democratic voters favor him in polls, and it’s nearly impossible to find an article about his candidacy that doesn’t reiterate the common perception that he’s the “most electable” of the 20 Democrats in the field. That assertion is then usually qualified with two not insignificant caveats: (1) Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton were thought to be the most electable candidates at this point in the 2016 election cycle, and (2) every Biden presidential campaign has gone off the rails, sometimes even before reaching the departure terminal. Still: Might Biden’s last hurrah surprise us? One can never say never to any far-fetched political scenario in the age of Trump.
Intentionally or not, Biden’s campaign launch was weirdly Trump-like in the style of its pitch: heavily nostalgic for a vanished American past, deeply invested in the candidate’s well-worn personal image, and eschewing policy specifics in favor of a broad, emotion-based call to arms. Fittingly, the musical accompaniment was orchestral and plush, the cursive onscreen font was worthy of Hallmark c. 1965, and the black-and-white images apotheosized America’s 20th-century glory days. The content, to be sure, was un-Trump. Biden doesn’t aspire to Make America Great (i.e., White) Again but to make New Deal–Great Frontier–Great Society liberalism a rallying cry again. Biden’s post-announcement itinerary was no less retro: an old-style fat-cat fundraiser, a union rally, and a cozy drop-in at The View. He has a comfort zone as predictable in its septuagenarian ways as Trump’s rounds of golf at Mar-a-Lago.
In the video, Biden embraced the anti-alt-right protestors in Charlottesville and linked them, by newsreel juxtaposition, to Martin Luther King Jr. But in 2020 it may not be enough for Democratic candidates of a certain age to wrap themselves in the classic liberal tropes of their youth. It’s telling that the day before Biden announced, Bernie Sanders was booed by some of the black and Hispanic women in a Houston audience when he talked about marching with King; Sanders’s sin was to use that hallowed past as a shield to dodge answering a question focused specifically on the white supremacists of today. In the same vein, Biden’s own King evocation was deflated only hours later by an intrusion of present-day political reality: the Times report that he had reached out by phone to Anita Hill on the eve of his launch — a mere quarter-century late — and had impressed her not with his contrition but with his enduring cluelessness about the legacy of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings he so epically mismanaged.
For all the chatter about whether AOC Democrats in the party’s base will accept a centrist like Biden, the real threat to Biden’s viability is Biden himself. Not just his checkered past record, but his ability to adapt to present circumstances and react to them in real time. Given that he was far from fluent in the vice-presidential debate pitting him against Sarah Palin in 2008, it’s hard to imagine him besting Democratic debate opponents like Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg. The issue is not necessarily whether his views are progressive enough but whether he is culturally limber enough in a fast-moving new order. (This may also be a growing challenge for the didactic Sanders, Biden’s current runner-up in polling.) In the end, the only real premise of Biden’s candidacy, besides its comforting old-shoe avuncularity, is as narrow as he says it is: He is determined to bring down Trump. But so are his 19 primary opponents and the entire Democratic electorate. What makes Biden think he is the one man who can do it is that he sees himself as the corrective for the three states that cost Clinton the election. He presents himself as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania incarnate, as mandated by central casting — white and male and old and fluent in Rust-Belt-ese. But given his tendency to overdo, one imagines he’ll pander to Wisconsin, the state Hillary failed to visit, with such alacrity that he’ll be campaigning door-to-door in Green Bay wearing a Cheesehead hat before we know it. While I have no more idea than anyone else who will win the Democratic nomination, history is rife with generals who lose by refighting the last war.
Since the release of the Mueller report, Trump has vowed to fight “all” subpoenas for administration officials to testify in front of Congress, a move that hasn’t been seen since the days of Nixon. Is he helping or hurting his case?
There is no case. Trump is not on impeachment trial in the Senate, and he has not been indicted in a court of law. As his ever more diarrheic Twitter dumps tell us, he can’t even decide whether the Mueller report is an exoneration or a hatchet job. Having gotten away with obstructing justice — for now, anyway — he has moved on to the task of obstructing government lest any more damning evidence come to light between now and Election Day. If there is one legal concept he understands besides bankruptcy, it’s the value of wholesale nuisance litigation to stonewall adversaries (and creditors) and avoid consequences for his serial illegality. His blanket ban on any administration officials, past or present, appearing before Congress, even to testify about non-Mueller related issues (like the Census and the awarding of security clearances), will bury the remainder of his term in a tsunami of court battles masterminded for maximum distraction by his new Roy Cohn, William Barr.
Of all Trump’s defiant moves since the publication of the redacted Mueller report, the most telling may have been his declaration that “if the partisan Dems tried to impeach, I would first head to the U.S. Supreme Court.” That reaffirmed not just his ignorance of the Constitution (which gives the Supreme Court no role in impeachment), but his belief that Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh will subvert the law to protect him, just as Barr is doing. How do we know that they won’t? Now that Trump seems likely to get away with shutting down the congressional prerogative of applying checks and balances to the chief executive, it only makes sense that the Court would be next in his sights. Nothing is impossible as long as the Republican Party in general, and its Vichy tribunes in the Senate, have his back.
Trump also extended his feud with the press by barring administration officials from the upcoming White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, which itself has been criticized in recent years for fostering too much coziness between political reporters and the people they cover. Is his boycott a gift to the organization?
Yes. This annual circus should have died of embarrassment in 2006, when Stephen Colbert, that year’s comic host, affronted the audience by daring not only to be rude to George W. Bush but to point out that many of the stone-faced journalists in the room had been stenographers for the administration’s false bill of goods for invading Iraq. That the thin-skinned and deferential Washington press corps of that time overwhelmingly treated Colbert’s appearance as a flop — even as it went viral with the public on YouTube — was as much evidence of the post-9/11 breakdown in the American press as all the fake news of Saddam Hussein’s WMDs that the Bush-Cheney White House planted in the Times and elsewhere. That these same reporters could be seen reveling on-camera and slobbering over celebrity invitees of far less consequence than Colbert only added to the cheesy horror of it all.
“It’s possible the White House Correspondents’ Dinner won’t even be the most glamorous thing on C-SPAN this weekend,” observed Politico. Sad! Trump’s successful crusade to usher this spectacle into oblivion — first by refusing to attend, now by refusing to allow his flunkies to attend — was undertaken for all the wrong reasons, of course. He wants to destroy, punish, and vilify a free press that is working hard to hold him to account, and he mistakenly believes that killing the dinner will help advance the goal. In fact, the reverse is true. The demise of this yearly ritual of journalistic debasement is a gift to the press and arguably one of the very few positive achievements of the Trump presidency.