Even now, Republicans still don't know what to say about Biden

Trump and his political operation have had more than enough time to figure out what they want to say about Joe Biden. They're still struggling.
Image: Biden campaigns in Ohio
Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event in Toledo, Ohio, on Oct. 12, 2020.Rebecca Cook / Reuters

For much of the summer, Donald Trump and his allies attacked Joe Biden as old, feeble, and unable to speak in complete sentences. Even at the time, it was a dubious strategy: Republicans were lowering expectations for the former vice president, making it easier for him to impress.

All of this came to a head two weeks ago, when Trump and Biden faced off in this year's first presidential debate, and the Delaware Democrat came out of the event as the big winner. Even some of the White House's allies in conservative media acknowledged the strategic error: Fox News' Tucker Carlson conceded on the air that it was a "mistake to spend so much time focusing on Joe Biden's mental decline."

As the dust settled on the first Trump/Biden debate, the misguided effort to characterize the former vice president as "senile" quietly faded away -- at least for a little while. Evidently, as this report in The Hill suggests, it's back.

Ronny Jackson, the former White House physician-turned-GOP congressional candidate, suggested on Tuesday that Democratic nominee Joe Biden is mentally unfit for office, citing what he called cognitive decline. The remarks from Jackson, who has not evaluated Biden, came during a phone call organized by President Trump's campaign and are part of a sustained effort by Trump's allies to highlight Biden's gaffes on the campaign trail, arguing they make him mentally incapable of serving as commander in chief.

At one point, after Jackson questioned Biden's faculties, the former White House physician told reporters, "I'm not making a medical assessment." (The press call was organized by the Trump campaign, who made Jackson and former Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. McFarland available for the sole purpose of attacking the Democratic nominee's mental acuity.)

Even by 2020 standards, it was a ridiculous display, which was soon followed by the president holding a campaign rally, at which he continued to attack his rival's mental health.

But as ugly as the smear campaign is, what's surprising is the pattern of events: Team Trump attacked Biden's mental sharpness; the effort backfired; Republicans tried moving on but apparently couldn't think of anything else to say; all of which led the president's re-election team to return to the line of attack that already didn't work.

It was five months ago when we first discussed the GOP effort to try to define Biden in voters' eyes -- an effort that began in earnest shortly after the race for the Democratic nomination wrapped up. The point of the exercise made sense, since campaigns generally find it useful to create an unflattering picture that follows an opponent for months.

The trouble was, Team Trump wasn't quite sure what to say. The New York Times reported in May:

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 were eager to smear the former vice president, but their own tests showed that voters didn't much care about any of their preferred choices.

The result was an anti-Biden message that meandered from one strange point to the next. At one point, 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."

Months later, 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 soon after. "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 aides] haven't figured it out yet."

That was five months ago. Team Trump still hasn't figured it out.

The Associated Press reported this week that the president and his allies, no longer sure what to say about their rival, have begun focusing attacks on Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) with attacks "laced with sexist and racist undertones."

That's obviously appalling and indefensible, but it speaks to a larger truth: Trump and his political operation have had more than enough time to figure out what they want to say about Joe Biden. That they're still not sure isn't a good sign.