Republicans want to define Biden early, but they're not sure how

Republicans have plenty of ideas on how to smear Biden, but they're not working. The result is an incoherent, occasionally offensive mess.
Image: Presidential Candidate Joe Biden Campaigns Ahead Of Primary In South Carolina
Joe Biden addresses a crowd during a campaign event at Wofford University Feb. 28, 2020 in Spartanburg, S.C.Sean Rayford / Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

The presidential primary phase has run its course; the parties are consolidating support behind their respective nominees; and with Election Day 2020 exactly 24 weeks from tomorrow, general-election ad campaigns are taking shape. This is, after all, the point in the process in which candidates try to define their rival, hoping to create an unflattering picture that will follow an opponent for months.

As campaign strategies go, it's often quite effective. In 2004, for example, after John Kerry wrapped up the Democratic nomination, George W. Bush and the Republican machine invested heavily in the idea that the then-senator was a "flip-flopper." It wasn't long before the electorate started making the same connection, influenced by the aggressive p.r. campaign.

To that end, it's hardly surprising that Donald Trump and his team are scrambling to define Joe Biden. The New York Times reported over the weekend, however, that GOP officials are unsure "whether his efforts to tar Mr. Biden are making any headway."

Last month, a poll commissioned by the Republican National Committee tested roughly 20 lines of attack against Mr. Biden, ranging from the private business activities of his son, Hunter Biden, to whether Mr. Biden has "lost" a step, a reference to mental acuity. None of the lines of attack significantly moved voter sentiment, according to two people briefed on the results.

In other words, Republicans have plenty of ideas on how to smear the former vice president, but their own tests have shown that voters don't much care about any of their preferred choices.

And so, what the electorate is increasingly confronted with is an incoherent, occasionally offensive mess.

On March 2, for example, Trump held a campaign rally in North Carolina where the president called Biden a "moderate." Four days later, Trump told reporters that Biden is "left wing." The Democratic candidate obviously can't be both.

Members of the president's team aren't faring any better. Yesterday, for example, On ABC's This Week, White House advisor Peter Navarro said Biden's son "took" $1 billion "from the Chinese." When George Stephanopoulos said that wasn't true, Navarro responded, "Be that as it may..." (Evidently, in Trump World, "be that as it may" is a euphemism for "I don't much care whether I've been caught lying on national television.")

A day earlier, Donald Trump Jr. apparently thought it'd be amusing to suggest Biden is a pedophile. The president's son later said he was "joking around" -- as if falsely accusing presidential candidates of pedophilia is supposed to be funny.

Around the same time, the Trump/Pence campaign operation sent a message to supporters labeling the former vice president a "crook" -- a bizarre claim for a candidate who's never faced corruption allegations over a lengthy career -- and it led one of Barack Obama's former speechwriters to highlight the larger problem.

"Is he a crook now?" Jon Favreau asked. "I thought he was old and confused. Or a puppet of China. Or sleepy. Or creepy. Or a radical socialist. Good campaigns figure out one story to tell about their opponent. They might get there, but it's May and [Trump campaign manager Brad] Parscale and co. haven't figured it out yet."

As regular readers know, Republicans had a similar problem trying to define Barack Obama. Americans were told he was both a ruthless Chicago thug and a weak pushover. He was a bystander who golfed too much and an activist president who engaged too much. He was a passive leader, afraid to step up, and an out-of-control tyrant seizing control of power.

Even after two full terms, it was never altogether clear what it was Republicans wanted us to believe about Obama. Years later, they seem similarly unsure what they want to say about his former vice president.