Joe Biden’s quick trip to Pittsburgh and his speech there Monday condemning urban violence show Democrats now recognize they made a major mistake in ignoring the problem at their convention. They’ve read the polls and finally realize voters care about the arson, shootings, and looting — and their own safety. That’s a problem for the Biden campaign, which had almost nothing to say about the violence all summer. Now, they are doing “cleanup on Aisle 6” and there’s a lot of broken glass around.
“Rioting is not protesting,” the Democrats’ presidential nominee told the Carnegie-Mellon University audience. “Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. … It’s lawlessness, plain and simple.” That’s true, but it was no less true two weeks or two months ago. Even now, Biden’s main thrust is less against the violence than against President Trump for “fomenting it” and “sowing chaos.” As Biden put it, “The simple truth is Donald Trump failed to protect America. So now he’s trying to scare America.”
That Biden was willing to leave home on short notice, fly to a swing state, and speak out about the rioting is the clearest indication yet that the election is tightening. Discussing the violence is one of three big, difficult decisions Biden faces as the campaign heats up. Each entails significant risks for a candidate who must hold together a fractious coalition and avoid major gaffes.
First, Biden must figure out a way to condemn urban violence without alienating his party’s activist base, which strongly supports Black Lives Matter. The political dilemma is straightforward. Everyday voters — the centrists Biden must capture to win — are appalled by looting, arson, and attacks on police, which the news media has only reluctantly begun to cover honestly. It’s one thing when it takes place in very progressive cities on the West Coast. What happens in Portland stays in Portland, at least politically. Not so in Minneapolis or Kenosha. What happens there hits much closer to home, especially in the swing states of the Upper Midwest.
When the Democrats refused to acknowledge the rioting during their four-day convention, they not only appeared to be on the wrong side of the issue. They appeared aloof and tone-deaf, clueless about what average Americans think is important. It shouldn’t take polls and focus groups to tell politicians that burning down police buildings, smashing store windows, and attacking courthouses is wrong. It shouldn’t take CNN’s Don Lemon or the New York Times to say, “Look at the polls. This is hurting our party.” But it did.
Now, Biden must craft a winning message about the violence, even as Republicans pound him for waiting so long. He faces the Goldilocks problem. If his message is too strong, he’ll receive pushback from the left wing of his own party. They still don’t quite trust him, and he needs their enthusiastic support to win. But if his message is too weak, he won’t convince centrist voters he intends to restore law and order on streets near them. They don’t want to hear his familiar message that Trump is to blame or that we can only have social order after we solve problems that have lasted for decades.
Americans want to know they can walk safely to the corner store, shop downtown, or just sit on their front steps. They want race-neutral policing, and they want bad cops held accountable. They don’t want to see excessive force used, and they want peaceful protesters protected. But they think wholesale efforts to defund the police are downright dangerous.
They’re not sure what Biden thinks, and that’s a problem for him. It’s not enough to blame Trump or waver on whether the police are systemically racist or their budgets need to be cut. They don’t like the idea that Biden waited weeks to speak about an issue he now calls “plain and simple.”
Second, Biden must lay out an affirmative agenda on a whole range of prominent issues. It’s not enough just to say, “Trump is dreadful.” That’s all the Democrats said at their convention, and the verdict is in. They got no bounce from it. The party faithful loved it, but Democrats need more than that to win.
This silence raises an important question: Why have Democrats been so reluctant to depart from that negative message, and so eager to downplay their party platform? Because what holds the party together is their opposition to Donald Trump, not a common agenda. Take their platform. Although it was the most progressive of any major party in American history, it didn’t go far enough for supporters of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Elizabeth Warren. Some 1,000 convention delegates voted against it. Even so, the party’s prime-time speakers said very little about it. It was simply too far left to pitch to average voters. It’s the Republicans who will tout the Democratic platform.
Third, can Biden risk leaving the comforting blanket of his teleprompter and notepad? To rev up enthusiasm, he’ll need to get out on the campaign trail and do more than read from prepared remarks. But doing so presents very different risks from those of explaining his policies. It’s not just his lifelong tendency to make gaffes. The problem is also that the 77-year-old former vice president’s gaffes are often accompanied by confusion, forgetfulness, and loss of concentration. Voters wonder if he is the man they remember from 2008 or 2012. Does he have the vitality and mental acuity to tackle the world’s most demanding job? If voters start to think, “I wouldn’t hire him to manage the local Walmart,” that would be devastating.
Biden must prevent that image from sinking in. Staying home wasn’t helping. That’s why he traveled to Pittsburgh and has another trip scheduled later this week. There’s a potential price to be paid for declining the Sunday talk shows and avoiding any situation that would require him to answer hardball questions. In the past two months, he has only taken questions from reporters twice. He favors softball interviews and, even then, he needs notes to answer. He glances, embarrassingly, to see what he’s been told to say. He tries hard to avoid impromptu responses and, when he does give them, makes unforced errors: “You ain’t black.” “Take a test for cocaine.”
Voters are beginning to wonder if those mistakes and Biden’s refusal to speak off-the-cuff are “tells” revealing deeper problems. They note that Biden’s supporters, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, don’t want him to debate Trump. Perhaps these insiders know something we don’t. Perhaps not. In any case, Biden needs to stop these questions from building and overshadowing his campaign. The only way to do that is to get out, take hard questions, speak extemporaneously, and brave the risks. When he refused to do that, voters were bound to ask why. Those questions linger, and they hurt.
Trump is eager to exploit these vulnerabilities. He wants to take the race to Biden and drive a very public wedge between the Democratic base and centrist voters. That’s Politics 101. The Republicans’ decision to speak to live convention audiences is part of that strategy. So is Trump’s decision to go on the road and campaign. The goal is to force Biden to leave his house, speak unfiltered to reporters, explain his policies to voters, and show he is truly up to the job. If Biden can do that, voters might hire him. If he can’t, they probably won’t. Resolving those doubts is Biden’s most pressing task.