So off goes Joe Biden to Kenosha on Thursday with wife, Jill, to host a town hall meeting and “to make a local stop,” as the press release put it, which we can perhaps presume means a visit to Jacob Blake’s family (sans nonexistent pastor).
I guess this is a good idea. The first principle of campaigning against a bully is don’t be bullied. Show you’re not intimidated. Biden did that successfully Monday in Pittsburgh—his rhetoric was pugnacious and direct. So don’t leave the Kenosha optics to Donald Trump. Show you’ll play on his turf.
But there’s a tightrope Biden has to walk these next two months. Sure, take the moral high ground. But don’t go too high. Don’t get down in Trump’s sewer with him, but punch back when punching back is called for. And then, as fast as possible, try to change the subject from what Trump wants the campaign to be about.
That’s not going to be easy to navigate. No tightrope ever is. Trump will do what he does, which will be to lie and cheat and peddle conspiracy theories that even Laura Ingraham calls him on (in her case, to try to save him from himself, but still—fact-checked by Laura Ingraham?), and use every arm of the government to try to rig the outcome. This thing Chad Wolf said to Tucker Carlson the other night about Bill Barr bringing RICO prosecutions against Black Lives Matter leaders was the latest shocking-not-surprising example of what these brazen people will do.
The sewer is up to our waists and by Election Day will be up to our noses. I shake when I think about the things that are going to happen over the next eight weeks. What Barr is going to do. What John Durham might announce. What various Republican governors and election officials are going to do regarding voting rights and polling places. What other “friends’ stories” Trump is going to try to peddle to scare white people. Plus all the stuff that you and I can’t even think up because we don’t have warped Franco brains.
And, as sure as the sun is going to set tonight, we know that sometime in October, Trump’s going to announce that there’s a vaccine. And AstraZeneca or Moderna or whoever it is will say well, it’s not really ready yet, and Trump will say yes it is, and the manufacturer won’t want to say anything that will damage its stock price, and he’ll spend the last three weeks of the campaign crowing that he, Trump, made the vaccine happen.
It’s going to be hard to take. Absolute emotional torture, day by day, hour by hour. And that’s just for you and me. What about the Biden campaign? And Biden himself?
Cede the sewer to Trump. You try to crawl in his sewer, you lose. That’s what Marco Rubio did in 2016. It was amusing for a while. They were like Don Rickles and Joan Rivers trading one-liners. But Rubio lost, because Rubio has a conscience (not my kind of conscience, exactly, but a conscience all the same), and any human being with a conscience just can’t say any fucking thing that pops into his mind to help him win the next two minutes. That comes naturally only to sociopaths.
Biden must be a contrasting man of conscience. He’s been doing a very good job of that. All that rhetoric about the presidency isn’t about me, it’s about you; I’m a Democratic candidate but will be a president for all the people, those who didn’t vote for me as much as for those who did; that’s all good stuff. The moral contrast between the two is very sharp now, I think, which was not inevitable—it’s a result of some specific decisions the Biden team has made. The main point of being in Kenosha on Thursday, I think, is exactly that: make the moral contrast.
But at the same time, he has to be on the prowl for opportunities to punch and counter-punch. He has counter-punched well on law and order. But he has to throw punches too: on the virus, the economy, and especially on what Trump said about eliminating the payroll tax, about which I’ll write in more detail soon.
It’s an old truism of campaigns that it almost doesn’t matter what the candidates are saying specifically, it’s the issue that’s being discussed that affects public opinion, because people’s preconceptions of the parties are by now so hardwired. So if we’re talking about law and order, that’s going to help the Republican, because it just is. It’s a Republican issue. But if we’re talking about health care and Social Security, it’s going to help the Democrats, because those are Democratic issues.
So while Biden has to make this Kenosha trip, he needs to change the subject pretty fast. He tried Wednesday afternoon with a good speech about school closings. He and his campaign need to throw everything they can at Trump over these next two months to keep Trump on the defensive and to keep the focus, to the extent possible, on an issue terrain that favors Democrats.
Remember in 2016 when Michelle Obama said “when they go low, we go high”? A great line, and the applause was rapturous. But it’s only half true. Biden needs to stay high most of the time. But he needs to show he’ll give as good as he gets. That’s how you beat a bully.