intelligencer chats

Is Biden Making a Mistake by Holding His Fire Against Trump?

Not the most enthusiastic pugilist in the field. Photo: Michael Dwyer/AP/Shutterstock

Ben: As President Trump and his allies launch attack after attack on Joe Biden and his family over their ties to Ukraine, baselessly accusing him of orchestrating the firing of a prosecutor there to protect his son, the Democratic contender has been fairly mild in his response. He has criticized Trump for the broadsides but not consistently, so the public may be left with the impression that he’s not fighting back very aggressively. Biden’s strategy, born in part out of his wish not to get dragged down to Trump’s level and in part by his wish not to involve his son further in all of this, has left some allies baffled, as the New York Times reported over the weekend. What does it say about his readiness to take on Trump in what would undoubtedly be a vicious general-election campaign?

Ed: Oh, I dunno. Biden will have plenty of time to fight back. Maybe looking like the victim is his strategy right now. The bigger question is whether the whole brouhaha will hurt him whether or not he’s pugilistic about it all. It’s kind of a three-fer: He’s in the news in a negative way just as he’s bleeding support to a surging Elizabeth Warren and lagging in fundraising.

Ezekiel: It is unusual for Biden, but I think he probably has the right strategy in trying to just let Congress handle it. The other school of thought would be that Trump attacking him is good because it sucks up oxygen from other candidates and forces other Democrats to publicly defend him. But I think they’re het up about it as it is.

Ed: Yeah, Cory Booker leaped to his defense today.

Ben: Is het up a phrase I don’t know?

Ezekiel: Yeah, it means “agitated.” Ezekiel’s Word of the Day.

Ed: Where I’m from, we say “got all riled up.”

Ben: That one I’m familiar with.

Ezekiel: I believe het is derived from a colloquial past tense of heat. This is the chat now.

Ben: Ha, back to politics. Obviously, the situations are different, but watching Biden over the past few days, I have flashbacks to John Kerry in 2004 (swift boats) or Hillary Clinton in 2016 (emails). There’s this notion that a candidate can simply ignore a made-up scandal and it will go away. But Trump is a master of repetition, and I think Biden risks letting him get away with quite a lot here.

Ezekiel: It would be different in an environment where impeachment weren’t a near certainty.

Ed: I have to say, Biden’s ability to get out of jams remains amazing. Speaking of three-fers, the day after the June debate, I observed that Biden’s performance had hurt him in three ways: showed his age, showed his complacency, and exposed his potential weakness among African-Americans. It was so striking I got quoted on Meet the Press. Three weeks later, Biden was exactly where he was before in the polls. So I’m not rushing into any claims that he’s on the ropes. Yeah, his third-quarter fundraising was, as I wrote, “meh,” but it’s not like he won’t meet payroll.

Ben: Yes, it’s been something of a pastime here to count him out preemptively. But it’s also true that he has trailed Warren in several recent polls — national and Iowa/New Hampshire — which wasn’t the case before.

Ed: Well, this is precisely why Team Biden has shifted its spin into projecting a two-way race in which early Warren wins just qualify her for the Big Fight with Biden — instead of croaking him and everyone else.

Ezekiel: Obviously, so much of his appeal to Democrats is tied up in his appeal in the general election, and his pitch is on a return to normalcy so this stuff could hypothetically be damaging to his chances in the primaries even if Democrats don’t buy it. But I don’t know whether we know yet whether it actually is.

It’s unclear to me whether that has anything to do with the allegations about his son. Has there been any polling from Democrats about that?

Ed: Don’t know of any polling, Ezekiel. There’s been some piling-on by lefty voices arguing that Hunter Biden is very relevant to the Democratic contest. Nothing by candidates. But it is worth asking if your average Democratic voter will hear all this and empathize with Biden as the father who has lost two children prematurely and can’t really control his wayward son. Or if said voter will look at Hunter and see the very kind of person Warren and Sanders keep warning us about.

Ezekiel: I can very much imagine them empathizing with him and also voting against him.

Ben: On that topic, the allegation put forward by Trump is bogus, but Hunter’s lucrative involvement with a Ukrainian gas company may not be something Biden wants to talk about. To what extent are Biden’s hands tied here if he did choose to mount a more frontal assault on the president’s claims?

Ezekiel: His hands aren’t tied — the only option not available to him here is throwing his son under the bus.

Ed: He could in theory come right back and say, “Let’s talk about kids profiting from their father’s power,” and get people fired up about the Trump clan.

Ezekiel: But I think under the current situation, “Biden Hits Back” headlines are not really what he wants.

Ben: What does he want?

Ezekiel: “Democrats Proceed Toward Impeachment Hearings.”

Ben: It’s not like that’s going to stop this talking point.

Ezekiel: Is hitting back going to stop the talking point? He doesn’t want a back-and-forth over Hunter’s behavior; he wants a back-and-forth over Trump’s behavior.

Ed: Part of me thinks that, like everything else problematic about Biden, the contrast with Trump makes him and his restorationist message look better, even nostalgically good. But Ezekiel is right; he needs the spotlight to be elsewhere right now.

Ben: I think hitting back may neutralize the talking point more effectively than doing nothing. Hanging back risks Trump’s owning the subject completely (yes, even during impeachment proceedings). But it also signals that Biden isn’t quite ready to deal with all the other crap Trump will throw at him should he be the nominee.

Ezekiel: I don’t agree. I think the situation would be different if he were actually the nominee, but in the primaries, I don’t think it gets him anything.

Ed: I’ve never thought Biden’s electability advantage is attributable to the belief that he’s a “fighter.” It’s mostly the relatable Uncle Joe who has reasonable ambitions and doesn’t frighten swing voters.

Ben: I agree, but you need to be a bit of a fighter against this opponent.

Ed: He’s not exactly sitting in a corner whimpering. I think he and his people are weighing their options and doing hundreds of focus groups. Part of today’s angst is from an article full of blind quotes from donors who are bitching about their investment. It’s sort of what they do.

Ezekiel: I think this may or may not hurt Biden and he may or may not win the nomination, but I’m not convinced that “hitting back” would accomplish anything. In fact, if he did, I’d start wondering if he were desperate.

Ed: I agree, and I think it’s a natural time for him to sit back and see how the story rolls out. Strategically, Bernie’s health problems and the failure of any other candidate to make a move means he really can take his time in the nomination race and try to position himself as the beneficiary of the inevitable jitters about Warren. And maybe not say anything weird at next week’s debate!

Ben: I’m not advocating that he focus on this all the time, but I think his response so far could have been a lot stronger and at no damage to his credibility or standing.

Ed: Speaking of the debate, I’m sure he’ll be asked about it, and the other candidates will probably feel called upon to defend him and attack Trump over it all. Again, he’ll have his chances. And for all I know that’s what he’s waiting on, to Ben’s great frustration.

Ben: “Now look, this whole thing is a bunch of malarkey.”

Ezekiel: Lol.

Ed: “I was discussing this with Barack, and I said, ‘Barack, this whole thing is a bunch of malarkey. Right, Barack?’”

Ben: Haha.

Is Biden Making a Mistake by Holding His Fire Against Trump?