‘While Biden was in his basement, @realDonaldTrump had 5.3 MILLION+ viewers tune in to his rally,’ wrote GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel last week. It’s a variation on a theme for the Republican party of late: take the vacant airwaves left by a subdued Biden campaign and fill them with spurious claims about the whereabouts of the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Sure, Biden has been quiet, relative to Trump — who isn’t? — but he hasn’t been totally basement-bound. The former vice president has been venturing out for socially distanced local speeches. He gave one on healthcare in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on Thursday, stopped off in the Pennsylvania towns of Yeadon and Darby the week before, and hosted an economic round table in Philadelphia on June 11. But his post-lockdown approach hasn’t come close to the bluster of, say, a 6,000-person rally in Tulsa. When contrasted with the visceral and vocal protest movement that’s swept the country over the last month, Biden seems practically mute.
Trump’s erratic recent performances are perhaps one reason for the Biden campaign’s relative silence: when an incumbent President is making a sequence of unforced errors, why try and steal the limelight from him? But the protests also present a problem for Biden: how can he address the widespread social unrest in a way that doesn’t ostracize a key set of voters he’ll need in November? Might standing up to the young people in the streets present Biden with a Sister Souljah moment?
Joe Biden has expressed support for changing the names of military bases that honor Confederate generals, and has said that the Philadelphia government was right to remove a statue of Mayor Frank Rizzo, a former cop who had a torrid record with African Americans during his tenure. But Biden has yet to strongly criticize hauling down statues of supposedly complicated historical figures like…Abraham Lincoln. This sets him aside from Emmanuel Macron of France, who said the ‘Republic won’t erase any name from its history’. Presumably, the Biden campaign is terrified that criticizing the protests could make black voters stay home in November, despite conflicting polls about the removal of statues. But what about the other votes that count? What do working-class voters in swing states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin think about civic unrest? How do they feel about the potential consignment of George Washington to the trashcan of history?
This is the Biden balancing act — second-guessing how not to peeve off energized sectors of potential voters. The absence of a concrete answer gives Ronna McDaniel the chance to say he ‘condones the destruction of our countries monuments’ [sic].
On other protest-adjacent issues, the President has goaded Biden off the touchline. ‘Biden wants to Defund the Police!’, Trump wrote on June 4. On June 7, he tweeted, ‘Not only will Sleepy Joe Biden DEFUND THE POLICE, but he will DEFUND OUR MILITARY!’ and ‘Sleepy Joe Biden and the Radical Left Democrats want to “DEFUND THE POLICE”. I want great and well paid LAW ENFORCEMENT. I want LAW & ORDER!’
Then on June 10, Biden wrote in USA Today:
‘While I do not believe federal dollars should go to police departments that are violating people’s rights or turning to violence as the first resort, I do not support defunding police.’
There might be mileage for Biden in defending norms against the mob; but doing so would probably take courage that is lacking from his campaign.