Ben: Over the last few months, Joe Biden has managed to fend off persistent criticism about his record, his handsiness, and his age, among other things, maintaining a consistent lead in Democratic primary polls all the while. But with the explosion of the Trump-Ukraine revelations, he finds himself in the middle of a scandal that’s really about the president’s corruption — but which also makes him an easy target for the right, who claim that he and his son Hunter are the real villains in all this. Meanwhile, in a possibly related development, Elizabeth Warren is surging in Iowa and New Hampshire. Is this whole thing a curse for Biden?
Gabriel: There’s definitely a lot going on here, but first let’s note: Warren’s upward trend has been going on for quite a long time. It’s not like she’s shot up in the polls as Trump has pushed his line on Biden’s “scandal” — which, let’s also be clear, there’s still no evidence to support is a real one. All that said, it’s hard to see how this is a net positive for Biden if it continues to be covered and thought about like it has been so far. His team has made a fairly persuasive case that Trump has been so focused on Biden, including in pushing this Ukraine theory, because he is most worried about him in a general election. That, of course, makes sense: Just look at the preliminary polling that shows Biden beating Trump consistently. This is great for Biden’s central message of electability. However, a lot of the coverage — i.e., the way real voters are consuming this saga — has nonetheless put new scrutiny on Biden’s son, Hunter, in a way that’s hard for Biden to defend, even if the actual substance of Hunter’s work wasn’t illegal, and the specific accusations about Joe Biden, as vice-president, interfering in Ukrainian investigations is unfounded.
But I think it’s instructive to look at how Biden himself is talking about all this. Here he is at a fundraiser in California yesterday: “Now, I know that even though there’s not been one single shred of evidence substantiating any accusation made, and today, the leading prosecutor, the headline in the Washington Post was, the prosecutor in, that they’re trying to convince to say something differently, in, in Ukraine said there’s nothing anybody in my family did wrong or at all. But folks, this isn’t about me. It’s never been about me. It’s a tactic that’s used by this president to try to hijack an election so we do not focus on the issues that matter in our lives, in your lives. Health care, education, the godawful rampant gun violence that’s going on, and maybe the single most important consequential thing is climate change. So I’m not going to let him do it. This is not about me, this is about the American people and the issues that matter to them.”
This was after he recounted the actual big deal here: Trump’s call, and the whistle-blower’s report. So Biden clearly wants to talk about his own family … not at all.
Ben: Right. And he seemed a little bit tentative in his initial response to all this, which is a bit odd, considering the gravity and outrageousness of what the president was trying to do to him.
Gabriel: It’s useful to think of it all in the context of Biden’s whole career and political persona. He is very, very, very protective of his family, understandably, and simultaneously very invested in what he perceives to be his image as a straight shooter. So this is a double whammy.
Again, though, there’s no evidence that the accusations are true. Can’t stress that enough. So it’s understandable that there are a lot of nerves in Democratic circles that analysts/pundits are talking around that fact and immediately jumping to: doesn’t this look bad for Biden? I can’t tell you how many Clinton ‘16 alums have made a complaint like that to me in recent days. Not complaining about Biden’s actions, to be clear, but about how Trump has warped the public discussion around him to drag his opponent down.
Ben: So you’re saying the allegations might be true? #democrathoax
Gabriel: You’ll have to check the transcript memo.
Ben: Yes, it is crazy-making that we’re all aware of the game Trump is playing, and then we have to do this kind of meta-questioning of whether it’s working. I mean, I’m doing that right now. But, as I was saying to our colleague Ed yesterday, logic and fairness and rationality isn’t really the name of the game in politics, especially at the moment.
Gabriel: Well, I think it’s not crazy to assert that Biden’s entire pitch is based on the premise that you’ll be proven wrong about that.
Ben: That rationality is making a comeback?
Gabriel: That reason will prevail.
Ben: It may, but there will still be a dangerously high level of silliness floating around.
Gabriel: All this said, I think there’s a real question about how other Democratic candidates talk about this.
There’s already been some obvious discomfort. Warren was asked if her VP’s son could work abroad like Hunter Biden, and she initially said no, then said she had to check her plan to be sure. Castro has basically just defended Biden and refused to engage. No one has said “this is corrupt!” or agreed with Trump, obviously, but they’re proceeding with immense caution.
Ben: Yeah, it’s a bit like the age issue. Pressing it too overtly is likely to backfire, as Castro recently learned.
Reporting indicates that Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats want to do this impeachment thing pretty quickly. Do you get the sense that the Biden camp is relieved about that fact? That by the time Iowa rolls around, the process might already be over?
Gabriel: It’s very hard to tell, I think they’re still trying to figure it out, just like everyone else. If you’re a leading candidate, though, the prospect of an impeachment proceeding playing out during the primaries is a bit scary, since the politics of the impeachment are completely up in the air. It’s just an unpredictable landscape. That said, obviously Biden’s team doesn’t want “Biden,” “corruption,” “Ukraine,” “investigation” to show up in context-free headlines for the next six months (even if the other words in the headline are “Trump” “impeach,” etc.), but realistically the ongoing impeachment process is likely to move the national focus even further away from the narrow question of Hunter Biden’s work, anyway. Republicans may continue to press on the Biden accusations, but that’s likely the case, no matter how long the impeachment inquiry takes.
Ben: Biden hasn’t been shy about going after Trump directly — his whole early strategy was to paint the president as a sui generis monster, which was in contrast to some of his rivals, who tended not to focus so much on the president (until they saw how well it was working for Biden). Could this episode work to his advantage in that it provides more evidence that Trump simply needs to be thrown out of office, and the one person who can do that is Joe?
Gabriel: That’s what Biden is betting. Look at what his campaign manager said to Politico for a story this morning: “Why are you punching someone? Because you’re afraid of them.” The question is how Biden communicates that to voters without amplifying Trump’s attacks. And, just as importantly, how other candidates counter it without feeding into Trump’s line of argument.
Ben: To return to Warren: Perhaps the clearest sign yet of her threat to Biden is that his campaign is reportedly mulling a wealth tax, cribbing a page from her (and Bernie Sanders’s) playbook. Does this strike you as a sound political strategy?
Gabriel: I mean, he’s been saying over and over at private fundraisers, surrounded by rich people: Don’t expect anything from me, I’m not going to make your lives easier. So no one is going to start thinking of Biden as a crusader against the one percent, obviously, but it may soften some of the criticisms from the left, just a tiny bit. We don’t know what this’ll look like, yet, though. Reports just have his advisers “considering” the move. It’s not like he’s trying to win over the Bernie ‘16 crowd, just to prove he gets it. And FWIW I think the clearest sign of her threat to Biden is her beating him in polling.
Ben: Fair enough.
Gabriel: Going back to how Biden talks about all this, and everyone else responds, for a sec: We may have just gotten a very consequential development. CNN and the Times, who are co-hosting the next debate, just announced that it’ll be one night only. And we know that there are almost certainly going to be 12 candidates onstage, which by definition means candidates will have less time than ever to actually talk, unless the debate is, like, four hours long. There’s no way Trump’s impeachment doesn’t come up pretty prominently, obviously, so we’ll see soon how candidates talk about Biden’s side of this. What do you think would be an effective way for a long shot who needs Biden to falter to answer the question?
Ben: The questionee has become the questioner.
Were I a long-shot candidate, I don’t think my strategy would be to go after Biden directly on this issue. I don’t think it would engender any sympathy from Democratic voters — and this is the sort of thing that’s so thick in the air that it doesn’t need explicating. But perhaps you could get away with some more subtle questioning of Biden’s electability, which is his most powerful argument for the nomination. You could mention that Biden has a lot of baggage (which is true) without directly tying it to impeachment. What do you think?
Gabriel: You could try it, but the last three people to go after Biden in debates, however subtly or overtly, only got very momentary support, if any, out of doing it (Harris, Booker, Castro.) The most effective play in the eyes of voters might be to say exactly what Biden is saying: This is a distraction, and we can’t afford to be distracted. That’s saying something similar without actually saying it. But that’s also admitting Trump has way more power to set the conversation than you probably want to admit.