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What In The World Is Joe Biden Doing

I am going to do something I don’t normally do, which is try to be a little bit nice to Joe Biden.

I have pretty much accepted that, barring some humongous twist, Biden is going to be the Democratic presidential nominee. (Sorry, but it’s true.) I accept that the Biden camp’s decision to turn the “If Hillary had won, we’d all be at brunch right now” signs into a political campaign caught the mood of a weary and frightened electorate whose political outlook had been overwhelmed by the question of “electability.” (He was aided, of course, by the distressingly omnipresent and influential anti-Bernie drumbeat on cable news, but nevertheless.)

I know that we’re in a pretty extraordinary political situation at the moment, and everyone is flying blind a bit. I also know that it’s more difficult right now for someone who isn’t on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis to get a word in.

So I will give Joe Biden all of that, as painful as it is, which hopefully allows me some room to wonder aloud what the hell he thinks he’s doing right now.

Biden is overwhelmingly likely to be the Democratic candidate for president, which means that, no matter how bad he is—and he seems to be getting worse by the minute—it would behoove him to try and win the election against Donald Trump. Right now, Biden is choosing to put his theory of American politics—namely, that people don’t want too much partisan bickering, or change, and that he can be successful by soothing center-right voters and showing a supposedly “nicer” way of doing things—to an extreme sort of test.

I listened to the first episode of Biden’s new podcast (yes, he has one) this morning. In it, he talks to his longtime aide Ronald Klain about the coronavirus pandemic. It features this noteworthy exchange (emphasis mine):

KLAIN: As you’ve said, Mr. Vice President, the coronavirus isn’t Donald Trump’s fault, but how we responded to it is, and there’s no issue that illustrates that more than this testing fiasco, uh, Donald Trump didn’t take the steps needed to get the testing in place…that problem falls squarely on the shoulders of President Trump and his administration.

BIDEN: I, uh, I’m determined that this should not be political. This is not about partisan politics. It’s about how rapidly we can put in motion the initiatives that are going to save people’s lives and get us through this process.

He then went on to broadly lay out his own coronavirus plan in a way that was, for Joe Biden, relatively coherent. (It was better, at any rate, than his tweets about the subject.)

You can see what Biden is doing here: He gets one of his aides to attack Trump a little, but won’t let himself be attached to significant criticism of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. This is a version of behavior Biden has engaged in repeatedly over the past few days, and that his advisers are pushing behind the scenes. (“I don’t think the public wants to hear criticism of Trump right now,” one told Politico on Friday)

I am not going to predict what will happen in November, and I think anyone who does given what is happening right now is making a mistake. But it feels clear that there is now no issue on the table more relevant than coronavirus. That’s the election. Even if you are one of those bad people who likes Biden’s outlook on politics, everything has changed now. If Trump—a man who is likely to have untold gallons of blood on his hands because of the choices he’s made during this pandemic—comes through this having convinced even slightly more people that he has broadly handled this thing well, that’s very, very bad news for his opponents. If, on the other hand, people correctly identify him as the central figure behind America’s appalling response to coronavirus, that’s good news.

Given that, you would hope that the person running against Trump would put in even a modicum of effort to make sure Trump gets the blame he deserves. Instead, we have Biden, mumbling the odd critique softly in his basement and highlighting just how tentatively his campaign clearly feels about shoving him too far into the spotlight. (Why his team feels the need to restrict him from opening his mouth too much is a question I will leave hanging in the air.) He even made positive noises about Trump’s rising approval ratings.

I cannot for the life of me see how having the likely Democratic presidential nominee adopt such a gently-gently approach to Donald Trump at a time when Trump is on every network for hours every day, pummeling people with his message; when the contours of the election are being so sharply defined; when the enthusiasm level for Biden is at rock bottom; and when Trump is working his way into a statistical polling tie with Biden, is anything but reckless.

Biden’s deep conservatism, his total lack of vision, and his insistence on not rocking the boat or promising to make anything in America more than about 11 percent better won over a jittery Democratic base. It also seems to be powering his thinking that, as long as he keeps doing what he’s doing, Trump will lose the election for him. That is a gigantic risk to be taking.

Screenshot: NBC News