Both strategies make sense.
Like a football team leading in the final quarter, Biden’s goal is simply to keep the clock ticking down to zero. Nothing fancy. Just avoid mistakes and prevent the other team from getting the ball back.
To avoid those mistakes, Biden is rarely leaving his basement. When he does, his goal is less to rouse voters than to prove he’s still alive and capable of traveling across state lines. He speaks to small crowds and says whatever’s on the teleprompter. He avoids impromptu comments, where he repeatedly makes unforced errors, and refuses to hold press conferences, where he might face hard questions.
Avoiding press conferences has been easy. The COVID crisis has been a perfect excuse for Biden and Kamala Harris, his vice presidential candidate. Harris has not given a press conference since she was named several months ago. Joe has given very few and almost none recently. The supine media hasn’t pressed them.
Reporters aren’t demanding answers or making the candidates pay a price for the silent treatment. The reason is painfully obvious. It’s not just that most reporters and media operations consider the Democrats ‘our ticket’. That’s been true for decades. What’s different now is that they consider this particular Republican a danger to the Republic.
Protecting the country from another four years of Trump in the White House is a more important, more patriotic duty for journalists than their normal job of asking hard questions, demanding evidence and investigating big stories. That’s why, when reporters do get a rare opportunity to ask Joe Biden a question, they toss him softballs. That’s why, when CBS finally asked Harris a crucial question about how progressive she really is, they allowed her to wave it off. She laughed uproariously and, in a non-sequitur, started talking about her family heritage. For CBS, that was good enough. No follow up. They let stand her answer as a laugh.
Although the media refuse to press Democrats, Trump is not so delicate. He’s campaigning like he’s been handed the ball one last time and is driving for victory. He’s traveling to several swing states every day and holding large, enthusiastic rallies. CNN, MSNBC and the Biden campaign damn them as ‘super-spreader events’, underscoring the Democrats’ edge on COVID. By contrast, Trump is using the rallies to emphasize America reopening, its economy reviving and its energy sector secure and free from dependence on Middle Eastern oil. He’s attacking his opponent as ‘Sleepy Joe’ and his family as thoroughly corrupt.
Important as these themes are, Trump’s rallies convey a larger message: America is roaring back and its future is bright. He has adopted Ronald Reagan’s most successful reelection advertisement. To quote from the iconic 1984 TV ad, ‘It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?’ That Reaganesque message is what Trump wants the country to see at his exuberant rallies.
Joe Biden gave Trump this opportunity when the former vice president concluded the second debate by saying, ‘We’re about to go into a dark winter.’ The attack was hardly new. The problem is that Biden failed to seal the deal by saying that, under him, America’s future would be sunny and upbeat.
Biden’s omission actually reflected his campaign’s central message, which has been almost entirely negative. He hasn’t emphasized his own programs for two reasons. First, he thinks he can win that way because enough people hate Trump. Make this election purely a referendum on Trump and his failures. Don’t make it a ‘me-against-him’ battle. Second, the more Biden says about his own programs, the more he alienates either his party’s left-wing base or the centrist voters he needs to capture. The wedge between those groups is obvious now as Biden tries to explain his back-and-forth positions on fracking and the ‘transition away from oil and gas’. He said one thing in the primaries and another to general election voters. Trump is driving home those contradictions, of course, and folding them into a larger depiction of Joe Biden’s dark future for America. Smart move.
Biden’s ‘dark winter’ fumble reinforces the subliminal message of his stay-at-home campaign: we are locked down for a while. We’re frail, feeble and vulnerable. It’s too dangerous to go back to work, return to school, resume our daily lives. Trump is grabbing that opportunity to say Biden and his party are all doom and gloom. They are going to raise your taxes, kill the energy industry and unleash a parade of horribles. By contrast, he promises to cut taxes, slash regulations, unleash American energy and manufacturing, sprinkle magic dust and make everything great. He’s energy and optimism. Joe is ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.’
Americans don’t believe in pixie dust, but they do believe in a brighter future. That’s why David Axelrod’s message for candidate Obama was so brilliant. ‘Hope and Change.’ They wanted voters to ‘throw the bums out’, but they were smart enough to sugarcoat it with optimism.
That optimism is Trump’s most important theme in the final stretch. Confidence and enthusiasm sugarcoat his angry message of ‘throw the bums out of Washington, drain the Swamp.’
The overriding questions now are: was Biden right to bet everything on a negative campaign? Can Trump sell his positive message? And is there enough time left on the clock for the embattled president to come back?
Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago.