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It’s Time for Biden to Take Control of the Narrative

October 2, 2019
It’s Time for Biden to Take Control of the Narrative
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Unfortunately for former Vice President Joe Biden, making a “demand” that television bookers stop inviting Rudy Giuliani to lie on their shows is not going to cut it. Biden keeps telling us President Trump has shown us who he is by lying shamelessly along with Giuliani about both Biden and his son Hunter. It’s time for Biden—whose candidacy is facing a crisis—to show the voters who he really is and regain control of the narrative.

Since Trump and Giuliani began their onslaught aimed at both Bidens, the former Vice President has been playing by the old rules, remaining the statesman who is above the fray—campaigning and tweeting about health care—throwing around a few tough guy rejoinders about how Trump knows Biden will “beat him like a drum.” He told Jimmy Kimmel last week “I can’t let this distract me in a way that takes me away from the issues that really are the reason why I’m running.”

It’s true that one of Biden’s strengths has been the ability to absorb a blow so that it backlashes on his opponent—just ask Rep. Eric Swalwell, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Julián Castro how their attacks on Biden went. But Trump and Giuliani are now lying hourly about the Bidens in Ukraine, and have released a $10 million attack ad about Biden that may only be the beginning.

During all of this Biden’s party has rolled over and played dead. The Democratic National Committee, having already lost precious time, resources, and unity to an over-democratized debate process that has allowed Marianne Williamson to sell books and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard to attract more Russian bots, is now letting their former Vice President twist in the wind. There is no fact check on the Trump BS, no list of all the conflicts of interest Trump and his children have with business conducted with foreign governments while they are in office—nothing but dead air. By remaining pure and neutral so as not to appear to favor any candidates the DNC is allowing the president and his cronies to destroy Biden with falsehoods which will ultimately give Trump the nominee he wants: Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

While the candidates have taken pains to avoid criticizing Biden, few have stepped up to call for a unified fight against the attacks. Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, tweeted Friday: “Rebutting Trump’s ridiculous attacks on Biden is now the job of every Democrat no matter whom they support for President. DNC should consider launching a $50m campaign to rebut, attack Trump, ask all Dems to chip in. This is now abt defending our democracy fr Putinesque disinfo.”

Where are the others?

The Biden campaign cannot deny the effects of the Trump attacks on his electability argument in the Democratic field. Before last week Warren was already starting to eclipse Biden in the early states. But now the RealClearPolitics betting average shows Warren went from 38.6 over Biden’s 26.3, to 49.89 over Biden’s 20.3 in just the last eight days.

To stop the slide, Biden allies are seeking ways for him to push back against what could become a fatal blow. They should start with these: the campaign must put together a 90 second video debunking all the claims Trump and Rudy have made, and it can quote from the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post fact check on this but should be clear and digestible (right now there is nothing on the homepage of his campaign website answering the lies about Ukraine), the campaign must commit to sustained counter-programming that retweets and rebuts all Trump and Rudy tweets each day about the Bidens, and Biden must give an address to the nation—like the speech on race that President Obama gave as a candidate—to take this smear head-on.

Biden must trust the premise for his candidacy—that while he tells the voters “this isn’t about me,” the biggest problem they want Biden to solve first is the Trump presidency. He must lean into his integrity and honor, to give a broader audience that might not be watching the debates, or is trucking through the Iowa fairgrounds, or following him on Twitter, his “word as a Biden,” that he has told us about so many times over the years. And while this appeal, to truth and patriotism, and yes outrage, doesn’t need to match Trump’s thermonuclear earth-scorching, it will need to surprise enough that it goes viral.

Biden is understandably, terribly pained and protective when it comes to his son Hunter, and Trump is counting on this paralyzing him. Hunter Biden is an addict, something that worries his father all day, every day. All Biden should say is that Hunter is a good man who he deeply loves and who, like many Americans, has made mistakes as he has battled the demons of addiction. He should say he would like his son to be left out of political attacks, and if they don’t like the jobs Hunter had they don’t have to vote for his father, but explain that neither of them did anything wrong in Ukraine. A short description of the Trump kids’ conflicts in this administration, or Bill Barr’s kids or Rudy’s kids might be in order as well.

This is the moment for Biden to embrace his decades of national security experience, to sound the alarm on election security and to call out Russia hawks in the Republican Party. He should stress the importance of supporting Ukraine. He should stress why it was wrong for Trump to threaten their aid in a hot war with Russia—to remind voters that while Trump works to bring Russia back into the G7 it was ejected for annexing Crimea, and he wonders where Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s concern has gone. Most of all he should single out Sen. Lindsey Graham with particular disappointment as someone who knows better than anyone that what Trump is telling voters about the prosecutor general, Biden lead an international effort to oust is the opposite of what happened. Victor Shokin was not investigating corruption at the company Hunter served on the board of and was ignoring many other cases, which was the reason the United States was joined by the IMF and numerous European governments in calling for his firing. He might even note Graham’s tweet of May 14 of this year: “This idea of Rudy Giuliani going back to Ukraine, not a big fan of that. I’m not a big fan of putting Bill Barr in jail. I’m not a big fan of going after Hunter Biden. I’m a big fan of the rule of law.”

Biden is at his best when he is talking to, or about, Trump. He exudes confidence and reminds voters of why his life of public service, and his decency, are the antidote to Trump. On any subject, from the economy to health care to national security, Biden genuinely believes Trump is out of his depth. In his party, however, Biden has been told he is a useless relic from the sell-out era that the new pious progressives have summarily rejected and that no amount of updating or upgrading will bring Biden into the party of 2019. On the debate stage, he reflects an on-guard and reactionary defensiveness. But in a speech about his service, his family, Trump’s abuse of power, and what this election means for a badly divided country, Biden can reset.

Early on the Biden bet was that a majority of Democratic voters actually didn’t want more fighting, like Warren is always promising and that after Trump they wanted healing and—no matter how quaint it sounds—for the parties to solve problems together. Polling continues to bear that out. Biden should return to the theme of unity, to call upon the power of patriotism over partisanship and remind sane Democrats that a crazed GOP making a crazier Democratic Party will only lead to anarchy. He should return to his message about what is at stake, the soul of the nation, and the president’s betrayal not only of our national security but of our values and democratic principles—a betrayal of the voters.

This is a test of leadership, one Biden can easily pass.

A.B. Stoddard

A.B. Stoddard is a columnist at The Bulwark. Previously, she was associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.