The violent clashes in Portland and Kenosha are bad news for Joe Biden’s campaign.
It’s not that he is to blame for the riots. It’s not that he hasn’t occasionally condemned such violence, as he did in a more full-throated way yesterday in Pittsburgh. It’s not that everyone should automatically believe President Trump’s explosive charge that no one will be safe in Joe Biden’s America, since at the moment he holds no office.
But the Democratic nominee left himself vulnerable to this rhetoric assault, and he and his campaign have been less than nimble in playing defense.
To hold a four-day virtual convention and fail to mention the riots that have swept American cities in recent months was a major blunder, a gift-wrapped package to Donald Trump. By focusing exclusively on the tragic deaths of people like George Floyd, Biden’s convention sent a signal of indifference to the looting, burning and fatal gunshots of those protesting in the name of racial justice.
After two people were killed in the Kenosha riots that followed the shooting of Jacob Blake, Biden made a video denouncing both the shooting and the street violence. But how many people saw that video? Politics is about pounding away at a message.
The next day, as the Republican convention hammered him, his campaign hastily arranged interviews with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell and CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Biden, who has been talking to the Blake family, said he would consider going to Kenosha. And he should have gone over the weekend, taken possession of the issue, and driven it home by appearing on a Sunday show. Instead he hesitated, and the president is going there today–over the objections of the city’s mayor and Wisconsin’s governor.
In his speech, the former veep assailed that “senseless violence of looting and burning and destruction of property.” He said that “rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple, and those who do it should be prosecuted.”
Then he pivoted to accuse the president of “fanning the flames” of violence and offered a broader definition of safety–one that includes the pandemic, which he’d rather be campaigning on.
Trump hasn’t exactly been a unifying force during the urban riots. After his truck-driving supporters over the weekend staged a Portland rally–which tragically led to the fatal shooting of one of his backers–Trump retweeted a video showing them shooting paintballs and using pepper spray against the counter-protestors. “The big backlash going in on Portland cannot be unexpected,” Trump wrote.
The president also said that Biden “must always be weak on CRIME because of the Bernie Sanders Radical Left voter,” and called Portland’s Democratic mayor, Ted Wheeler, “wacky,” “weak” and “pathetic.” (Wheeler has refused federal help and blamed Trump for the violence.)
What’s more, Jacob Blake’s lawyer is denying a White House account that the president tried to reach the family of the paralyzed man but was unable to connect.
Street violence, as Biden now seems to recognize, is a visceral issue. This was captured by Andrew Sullivan, who is back to blogging and is anti-Trump:
“Rioting and lawlessness is evil…If one party supports everything I believe in but doesn’t believe in maintaining law and order all the time and everywhere, I’ll back a party that does.”
Sullivan says the Democrats have a “massive blindspot” because it’s “wedded to a new and potent ideology” and is “walking straight into a trap.” As for the thugs causing violence, “these despicable fanatics, like it or not, are now in part the face of the Democrats: a snarling bunch of self-righteous, entitled bigots, chanting slogans rooted in pseudo-Marxist claptrap.” And he says both the Biden campaign and the New York Times “are too cowardly and intimidated to call out these bullies and expel them from the ranks.”
In the far more liberal Atlantic, George Packer says it’s no use for Biden and the Democrats to dismiss the Trump attacks “as partisan talking points. They are effective ones, backed up by certain facts. Trump will bang this loud, ugly drum until Election Day. He knows that Kenosha has placed Democrats in a trap”–the same word used by Sullivan.
The headline: “This is How Biden Loses.”
Packer writes dismissively of Biden’s video last week: “In the crude terms of a presidential campaign, voters know that the Democrat means it when he denounces police brutality, but less so when he denounces riots. To reach the public and convince it otherwise, Biden has to go beyond boilerplate and make it personal, memorable.” His advice late last week–Biden should go to Kenosha–was not followed. Keep in mind that Hillary Clinton lost Wisconsin as she failed to travel to that crucial state.
I still think Biden needs a Sister Souljah moment. After the L.A. riots, candidate Bill Clinton denounced a black rapper who spoke of killing white people. Is Biden willing to get specific in taking on an extremist of the left?
There is plenty of blame to go around. Of course Trump wants to make the campaign about law and order, not the coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean the issue is illusory. The mayors who would rather denounce Trump than suppress the riots, the liberals who openly sympathize with those destroying communities, and the media outlets that display only selective outrage, are also complicit.
The question for Biden is whether he can convince the country that he is as determined to battle crime in the streets as misconduct by the police.