Hiding Biden from tough questions hurts him more than it helps him

17 September 2020

7:52 AM

17 September 2020

7:52 AM

If you show up, people will vote for you. That was the lesson from crucial swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan last time around, where Donald Trump lapped Hillary Clinton almost at a 3-to-1 pace in the closing weeks of the 2016 election. Swing voters may not appreciate the President’s rank candor and blustery attitudes, but at least he turns up. Right now Joe Biden up six points nationally and is hoping to coast to an electoral victory on auto-pilot.

This time around, Team Harris-Biden has paid fealty to Wisconsin, through in-person appearances. The campaign also has Florida in its sights, where recent polling shows Biden in dire trouble with the southern part of the state’s Latino population. But Biden has other problems, such as the lack of scrutiny from a media which appears hellbent on protecting the aged candidate from gaffes, and how his staff shields him from tough questions. Hiding Biden away to read pre-screened questions off a teleprompter and hoping the professional media do the rest is not a good strategy. It’s a gamble. When Biden faced even the mildest of pushbacks from Jake Tapper of the Biden campaign-friendly CNN, he was forced to concede positives about the Trump administration’s trade policies.

Donald Trump has faced five times as many questions from the media as Biden since July, according to a recent New York Post story. And the ones Trump gets are often more hostile. In the fleeting moments Biden does get questions, from a list of pre-selected, staff-chosen journalists, they are often not about his record or his policies, but about Trump’s temperament. Biden has been asked about Trump’s soul and why he’s not angry enough (from the Atlantic’s Edward Isaac-Dovere and CBS’s Ed O’Keefe). While Trump sat for a town hall with a combative George Stephanopoulos from ABC News, Joe Biden was giving a scripted speech in a field and again not taking questions. As he walked away from his lectern, one reporter managed to ask him, ‘Are the gloves off?’ Real hard hitting stuff. Meanwhile Trump can throw ‘ambush’ and ‘fake news’ as red meat to his revved-up base, as he enters hostile environments. It’s what he does best. Biden on Wednesday did take questions after giving a short speech on the possibility of COVID vaccines: four of them, from ABC, CBS and CNN and then his hometown paper in Wilmington. Only one was about policy (his mask mandate).

There is clearly an active effort by both the Biden campaign and the media to sheath Biden in bubble wrap until November 4. Biden often points to his staff to direct questions, wonders out loud what his schedule is and remarks several times that if he continues talking too long he’s ‘going to get in trouble’. Get in trouble with whom, Mr Vice President? This is not a man in charge of his message. The media is doing him and the voters a great disservice by hailing his visiting angels to hurry him away at the first sign of trouble. Voters may not like Trump, but at least he bothers to take the questions, from adversarial interviewers like George Stephanopoulos or Jonathan Swan. Does anyone believe Joe Biden would sit for an interview with a Republican president’s former press secretary, like Fox’s Dana Perino? Voters simply might not care less about what the President is saying and more about the fact he’s made himself available to take the punches.

So why the tepid treatment of Biden by the media? It must go beyond simple bias or personal animosity for the current President. For three-and-a-half years now journalists have shamed their colleagues and themselves over what I will call the ‘but her emails’ dilemma. Those who reported dutifully on the ill-timed federal investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private server and spillage of classified information have been cast out and shunted away from the journalist cool kids’ table. Focusing so much on what was, at the time, a considerable scandal, has been written off by many in the media as a blunder. They believe their friends and colleagues helped put Trump in the White House by focusing on a nothing-burger of a Clinton scandal when they should have been highlighting Trump’s foibles. It’s an error no journalist wants to repeat. Simply put: no journalist wants to be the one to quiz Biden on his record on criminal justice, his campaign staff bailing out rioters in Minneapolis, the handsiness allegations, his cozy family relationships with China, his involvement in the Flynn unmasking, or anything else that might trip up the one man standing between them and Trump’s second term.

The journalist who asks the question that makes Uncle Joe stroke out at the podium would be treated as a professional leper. No book deals. No CNN or MSNBC contributor contracts. No cocktail parties.

But here’s the deal, folks: none of this actually helps Joe Biden. It hurts him and his campaign. When the debates kick off at the end of the month, Biden will not have a teleprompter, or aides he can defer to or friendly journalists from the Atlantic or CNN he can point to for a fact check. The second he calls upon the moderator to become a referee in his favor, his campaign slips.

If the media wanted to prepare Joe Biden for an unrelenting president with a total disregard for the old rules of politics, they could start by doing their jobs. Relying on the Washington Post or Saturday Night Live to drag an aged candidate’s bones across the finish line didn’t work in 2016, and it won’t work in 2020. No self-respecting wants to find themselves watching another late-night rendition of ‘Hallelujah’ through tears as they wonder, once again, ‘what happened?’

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