In the remarkable events of the last few days that have suddenly brought House Democrats together in determination to impeach the president, a name keeps coming up nearly as often as that of Trump. It’s “Biden,” as in presidential candidate Joe and his globetrotting son, Hunter.
Yes, the case for impeaching the 45th president is broad and deep. But for the moment, impeachment fever and the MAGA counter-fever it will inspire are dwelling on the story of Trump’s efforts to sink Biden by securing an investigation of Hunter by a foreign government. Trump failed to get the Ukrainian government to lower the boom on Hunter Biden. But his ultimate objective, ironically, could be nearly as well served by controversy over his likely illegal actions, which will keep the “Biden corruption” story in the news. It’s kind of a like a hurricane stalled on the coast, pounding unlucky residents who are suddenly the primary object of nature’s wrath.
No one, so far, has made a credible case that Joe Biden did anything directly to help his son in his career as a lawyer-lobbyist, a procurer of appropriations earmarks, and an international man of mystery — much less anything inappropriate. But clearly, Hunter benefited from his last name, and aside from questions about his business dealings in Ukraine and China, his personal problems will be catnip for hostile and even friendly media alike. Hunter Biden’s history of substance abuse, the allegations made against him by his ex-wife during an ugly divorce, and his relationship with the widow of his brother, Beau, have all been out there in the public record. But they will get fresh exposure so long as he is a figure, however peripheral, in the impeachment case against the man his father is trying to defeat. Obviously enough, Team Trump wants it to stay that way, which is precisely why Trump and his goon, Rudy Giuliani, were trying to drop a dime on Hunter Biden and smear Joe in the bargain.
Should Team Biden be worried about this problem, absent any real evidence of wrongdoing? It’s hard to say. His presidential candidacy has overcome more immediate blows, mostly concerning his friendliness toward bigots, his long Senate record with its questionable policy positions, and his tendency now and then to sound like an old man who has lost a few steps. His perceived “electability” is a powerful asset. And it won’t be that easy over time for Trump fans to hammer away at Biden for his son’s alleged missteps given the president’s own sketchy relationship with sketchy family members (not that fear of looking hypocritical is a major inhibition for most of them).
The main reason Hurricane Hunter could be a problem for Biden is the timing. The 2020 Democratic nomination contest is at a delicate point, with Biden very slowly but steadily losing ground as Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy takes off like a rocket. As recently as August 7, Biden had a 15-point national lead over then-second-place Bernie Sanders in the RealClearPolitics polling averages. Now he has a lead half that size over Warren. More alarmingly, Warren now leads Biden in the polling averages for Iowa, and has nearly caught him in New Hampshire (where the most recent high-quality poll, from Monmouth, gave Warren an actual lead). If Biden loses in both these initial states, history says his candidacy should fail (Bill Clinton didn’t win in Iowa or New Hampshire either in 1992, but that’s partially because he did not contest the former state, locked down by favorite son Tom Harkin). There’s even trouble down the road in California (which is voting just a few days after South Carolina), where a new Berkeley IGS poll shows Warren leading Biden by nine points.
In this period when voting intentions are beginning to form, it’s not a good thing for Joe Biden that his last name is hourly in the news in connection with a corruption claim associated with the biggest story in politics: impeachment. Perhaps Democratic voters will actually gain sympathy for the former veep as the victim of a notorious Trump smear. But voters obsessed with electability could see this as a preview of Trump’s signature ability to drag his opponents right down into the moral morass that is his natural habitat.