Here’s the 2020 presidential race in a nutshell: On Tuesday, Joe Biden unveiled the “third pillar” of his substantive plan to defeat our health and economic crises. A few hours later, Donald Trump droned on at length about the pandemic that he has cataclysmically botched - he conceded it would no longer “magically” disappear - and he finished by sending a verbal bouquet to Jeffrey Epstein’s child sex trafficker.
I won’t dwell on the fact that Biden is consistently polling well in all the pivotal states, and threatening to ride a blue wave. I’ll willingly cop to the usual caveats about how “it’s still early” and “a lot could change.” But as Will Ferrell remarked in a recent movie, “Every day is all we have.” And every day, the basic dynamic of this race continues to favor Biden. Three big interrelated reasons:
Biden is an elusive target. He emerges from quarantine on a limited schedule of his own choosing, to highlight his policy proposals and comport himself the way a president should. He refuses to play Trump’s game.
Trump thrives on smear-countersmear. When he lies that Biden is a closet socialist, lies that Biden will “abolish” the suburbs, lies that Biden will end religion, and lies that Biden is a doddering fossil, he desperately wants Biden to take the bait and engage. But Biden has no interest in fighting with Trump on Twitter. He ignores the attacks and assails Trump on his own terms.
There’s an old saying in politics that when your opponent is destroying himself, stand back and let it happen. Why should Biden get down in the mud with Trump when Trump is relentlessly heaping it on himself?
No wonder the Trump team is so flummoxed. As former Republican adviser Max Boot noted the other day, “Biden isn’t an African American like Barack Obama, a woman like Hillary Clinton, or a (real) socialist like Bernie Sanders. He’s a boring moderate white guy who has been around forever without ever being demonized.” In other words, he’s the last person Trump would ever want as a foil.
Biden leads a largely united party. Trump was hoping for a repeat of 2016, when the headlines were “Democrats in Disarray.” He got lucky last time. The Hillary and Bernie forces were bitterly at odds and never really closed ranks. But this time, Trump has nothing to exploit. Biden and Bernie have forged a peace pact, and Biden has selectively moved left on policy without abandoning centrist turf.
Biden’s coalition-building isn’t sexy, it will never sate cable news’ appetite for conflict, but it’s precisely what Democrats needed to do after the 2016 debacle. And it’s the last thing Trump wanted the Democrats to do. The best Trump could do, in his Sunday interview with Chris Wallace, was to concoct the lie (fact-checked by Fox News) that the Biden-Bernie pact will “abolish” the police.
“Sleepy Joe” is actually a compliment. Trump has eased off that intended insult because his beleaguered team has decided it ain’t working. Biden kept rising in the spring and summer polls, which apparently proves that a stupid nickname matters far less to voters than screwing up a killer pandemic. And what’s wrong with being “sleepy?” After Trump, we could all use some rest, a general lowering of the public temperature.
Ari Fleischer, the former Bush flack and no friend of the Democrats, said it best the other day: “With three and a half years of President Trump being as red hot as he is, and with the COVID scare underway, ‘sleepy’ also connotes calm, which may very well be the antidote for many voters.”
So yeah, the campaign calendar suggests that it’s still “early.” But the core dynamic of this race hasn’t budged for months, and, for the reasons I’ve listed, it may well have solidified. As Yogi Berra is reputed to have said, “It gets late early out there.”