It’s the September surprise. A story that hundreds of Democrats and dozens of reporters have been chasing for half a decade. A revelation that Donald Trump has unwittingly been escalating in importance by repeatedly playing his “This is illegal — and also fake news!” card. But don’t expect Joe Biden to dive too deep into the president’s taxes on the first presidential-debate stage on Tuesday night.
The former vice-president — whose increasingly populist pitch these days has framed the race as “Scranton versus Park Avenue” — isn’t likely to talk about Trump’s shady “consulting fees” on foreign deals or the intricate mysteries of to whom exactly he owes so much money. When he brings up the New York Times story, which reveals years of stunning tax avoidance and losses, Biden is almost certain to use only its highlights to make his top-line point, according to a range of aides, advisers, and supporters: Donald Trump doesn’t care about your family; he only cares about himself. “How Donald Trump looks on the American people is represented in this tax story,” Delaware congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Biden campaign chair, told Intelligencer. “It is that he’s above the law. That he doesn’t have to be treated like all of us.” And they expect this argument to work specifically because voters have more important things to worry about right now.
“If you ask people what is the most important issue in their lives, far and away it is COVID. The reason my daughter isn’t in a classroom, and is sitting on a computer, is COVID. By far, the biggest stress in my family life is COVID,” said Philadelphia-area congressman Brendan Boyle, a longtime Biden backer who is helping the campaign in battleground Pennsylvania. “That will understandably be the No. 1 issue — and will continue to be.” Once you acknowledge that, however, those close to Biden spot an opportunity: “By far, this race is about the poor performance of the incumbent, most importantly, and everything else is secondary,” Boyle continued. “But saying ‘If you’re watching this and you make $25,000 a year as a waitress, you paid more income tax than Donald Trump’ could be effective.”
One longtime Biden adviser told me this week that since the beginning of the pandemic, which has wrecked vast swaths of the economy, Democratic private polling and focus groups have revealed “the VP’s very-regular-person life story” as “one of the best arguments we’ve seen.”
“This is a guy who grew up with parents who lost their jobs; they moved for work; he put himself through college,” the adviser said, ticking through early points on the Biden bio that are familiar to anyone who’s heard him talk at length. “When you look at him, you say, ‘There’s somebody who gets what I’m going through, even though he’s been in Washington a long time.’” A long time is an understatement, but in Biden’s aides’ eyes, the case becomes all the more effective when directly contrasted with Trump’s life. So throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Biden has used his early-life personal experience to sympathize with struggling voters, and in recent weeks, he’s moved the more populist strain of argument — which centers his working-class Pennsylvania hometown — to the forefront of his pitch. The Trump tax news provides a clear chance for Biden to drill down on this notion onstage by way of a clearer than ever comparison between the candidates. The report “just further plays into the idea that Donald Trump has no idea what’s going on with real people,” the adviser said. “He’s never faced any issue that he couldn’t get out of without a fancy lawyer or tax accountant.”
Biden has been preparing for the debates on and off in Wilmington since long before the Times’ first report this past weekend, working with a core prep team of longtime aides led by Ron Klain — a senior Biden adviser and the party’s foremost debate expert — and including others like strategists Mike Donilon and Anita Dunn and attorney Bob Bauer. His schedule has intensified in recent days as he practices the motions of Tuesday night’s spectacle in Cleveland. In Biden’s mind, the good news is that the evening will look almost nothing like the up-to-one-dozen candidate pileups that defined the Democratic primary. Biden absolutely hated those nights from the start, often griping to aides and friends that with so many people onstage, they were hardly debates at all.
But while Biden has been participating in presidential debates for decades, he and his top advisers are planning for a showdown that looks essentially nothing like his previous turns on the biggest national debate stage, in 2008 and 2012.
“Typically, when you prepare for a debate — and as we prepared for the debate with Paul Ryan — you preview your opponent’s record and statements they’ve made. Because in a normal debate, if you catch your opponent in a big flip-flop or telling a lie or untruth, that can be an important moment,” said Maryland senator Chris Van Hollen, who played Ryan in Biden’s VP debate prep in 2012, and who is therefore one of just a handful of people with an inside view of how the nominee prepares. But “obviously,” Van Hollen continued, “that’s all changed when you’re dealing with a person like Donald Trump, who’s a serial liar who tries to bully his way through a debate. So it’s a whole different universe.”
As such, Democrats familiar with the process have hesitated to predict what exactly Trump will say and map out how Biden should respond, though a few of his likely lines of attack are obvious. For one, Biden has been steeling for the president to bring up his son Hunter and his business dealings in Ukraine — especially after GOP senator Ron Johnson dropped his report on them last week. But after weathering this storm once already (during Trump’s impeachment), Biden is not planning a point-by-point fact-check, though they expect Trump to drill down on payments the younger Biden got from Chinese and Russian sources — including, allegedly, $3.5 million from the wife of the late Moscow mayor — which the president’s campaign has tried using as evidence of Biden-family corruption. Biden’s advisers are insistent on avoiding Trump’s conspiracy-laden rabbit holes, though they know the ex-VP can grow defensive, and testy, about his family. Instead, as they’ve prepped, Biden’s aides have been talking about expecting an audience of 100 million, and so have repeatedly encouraged him to ignore Trump’s provocations about his son and to keep his eyes on his bigger message — usually focusing on Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic, repeating the “Scranton versus Park Avenue” line, and, when the conversation turns to the Supreme Court vacancy, talking about protecting the Affordable Care Act.
So Biden probably won’t spend much time at all on Trump’s lies. “That would consume his entire debate,” said Van Hollen. Accordingly, some in Biden’s broader orbit have bristled as moderator Chris Wallace insists he doesn’t want to play the role of fact-checker. (“My job is to be as invisible as possible,” the Fox News host recently told the Times.) Under normal circumstances, Van Hollen said, “I would appreciate Chris Wallace’s approach. But these are not normal circumstances.”
Nonetheless, to some high-ranking Democrats close to Biden, that’s less cause for concern than you might think. The tax story, after all, may be “another proof point” within “the larger frame we’re trying to operate in,” said the longtime adviser I spoke with this week. But it, like every other recent news development and any new fights that break out onstage, are landing at a perilously late time for Trump.
Not only have over 1 million Americans voted already — a stunningly high number — but plenty of recent swing-state polling has revealed that relatively few voters remain undecided: The most recent NBC-Marist survey of likely voters in Michigan, for example, showed just 3 percent of the state wavering. That means Trump’s uphill climb is significantly steeper than widely acknowledged — especially since the gap between him and Biden in national polling is essentially the same as it was a year ago, a sign of a remarkably stable race and a hardened electorate that’s not exactly open to a fundamentally new understanding of the president after five years of his domination of the national consciousness.
“We’ve reached the point,” said the Biden adviser, “where I’m not convinced any one thing matters anymore.”