An 800-pound gorilla was hovering over Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s Sept. 17 drive-in town hall in Scranton, PA, and everyone tuning in, whether friend, foe, or neutral, was fully aware of it.
Democrats dearly needed the event, televised nationally by CNN, to send a strong signal that the soon-to-be 78-year-old former vice president, who has been plagued by loud public deliberations about his health and stamina, could stand on a stage and tackle a variety of subjects with verve and vigor. Aided by a friendly media network that handpicked the citizens asking the questions and abetted by a cooperative and unchallenging moderator, the program served as a dress rehearsal of sorts to see how Fall 2020 Biden will be able to acquit himself on a debate platform with President Trump.
The messaging was mostly familiar but there were a couple of key moments that revealed Team Biden might be pivoting away from the competent professional establishment posturing it has advanced. There was also an attempted disconnect from the disastrous piggybacking on a Black Lives Matter movement that has rapidly descended into ugly violence after enjoying a summer of basking in the sunshine of unreserved big-box media and Democratic Party acclaim.
Batting Leadoff: Death
The evening started out with a heavy emphasis on the Coronavirus crisis that Democrats appear to believe is a major winning issue. The topic plays into the gloom-and-doom storyline Biden has been so laboriously stressing about the state of the nation under the Trump administration. It was no coincidence then that the very first question of the evening was about death as CNN host Anderson Cooper dutifully played Charon, boatsman of the dominant media underworld, transporting Biden over the River Styx into the darkness of Trump’s America.
Shani Adams addressed the candidate, saying her sister had died of the Coronavirus and asking Biden what he would do to protect Americans and their jobs if he were elected president. The longtime former Delaware senator quickly took the opportunity to rip Trump for not being more assertive on mask-wearing, a particular talking point Democrats are eager to use as a hammer against the president.
“[Trump] continues to think that masks don’t matter very much, although he says it, and then he has these large gatherings only with everybody around with no masks on. And it’s extremely dangerous. And so there’s a lot of people, a lot of people hurt, a lot of people not being able to see their families. A lot of people gone. A lot of empty chairs,” Biden proclaimed.
Cooper then teed Biden up to further denigrate Trump. “If you were president, could you see a scenario where you downplayed critical information so as not to cause panic?” the alleged newsman asked. “Not at all,” Biden replied to the meatball query. “The idea that you’re gonna not tell people what you’ve been told – that this virus is incredibly contagious, seven times more contagious than the flu, you breathe the air, you get it sucked into your lungs – what has he done?”
“If he had just acted one week earlier, he would have saved 37,000 lives” Biden asserted, citing Columbia University’s medical school as a source. “He knew it and did nothing, it’s close to criminal,” he continued.
Here Comes the White Populist Democrat?
The rather lengthy amount of time devoted to the Coronavirus at the town hall provides more evidence that the Biden campaign will continue to promote a Good vs. Evil framing against Trump in the weeks before the Nov. 3 vote. But there were signs of changing tactics on other fronts.
At the Democratic National Convention in August, Biden’s squad featured a host of speakers representing the establishment heyday of 1988-2016, including former president Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Colin Powell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and John McCain’s widow Cindy McCain. Aging “moderate” Republican John Kasich even made an appearance to tout Biden’s ability to work both sides of the aisle in Washington, D.C.
It was all part of a “return to normalcy” theme being used to paint Trump as a disruptive force that has brought chaos to America. Unsurprisingly, the narrative has not proven to be the least bit successful in a post-2016 political climate clamoring for authentic change. And so Biden road-tested a new personality on CNN’s stage, that of “Populist Joe,” the scrappy Everyman from blue-collar America.
“I really do view this campaign as a campaign between Scranton and Park Avenue,” Biden said, portraying Trump as the spoiled rich kid from the big city. “All that Trump can see from Park Avenue is Wall Street. All he thinks about is the stock market … In my neighborhood in Scranton, not a whole lot of people owned stock.”
Does this mean the American people will now be fed the heretofore inconceivable sales pitch that a man who was first elected to the United States Senate in 1972 and has been seated at the leading tables of political power in this nation for the past 47 years is the true populist in the race? If Democrats really wanted to take this tack against an incumbent president who captured the White House by running as a total outsider from conventional politics, why on Earth did they select the most credentialed careerist by far in their overcrowded primary field to be their nominee?
Perhaps even more telling was Biden’s noticeable walk-back on the rabid clamoring for police reform in Democratic circles. “The vast majority of police are decent, honorable people,” he said in a comment that certainly could not be pleasing to BLM true believers in the party’s rank and file. He then laid out a calm, sensible approach to policing controversies that was clearly designed to tamper down Democrat rhetoric in the wake of rioting and violence that has seen police officers targeted and brutally ambushed in recent days.
“We have to have a much more transparent means by which we provide for accountability within police departments,” Biden blandly uttered before vocalizing the need to teach “people how to de-escalate” in policing situations. The only de-escalation that Biden was talking about here was that of his party’s shockingly shortsighted embrace of street rioters since the death of George Floyd in late May.
From there, Cooper asked Biden about white privilege. Once again, the man who has spent the vast majority of his adult life in Washington, D.C., broke into Scranton Joe mode.
“Sure, I benefited just because I don’t have to go through what my black brothers and sisters have had to go through,” Biden declared before immediately moving off that subject material. “Growing up here in Scranton, we’re used to guys who look down their nose at us,” he then said. “People who look at us and think that we’re suckers, look at us and they think that we don’t – we’re not equivalent to them.”
“Well, I tell you what bothered me, to tell you the truth,” he continued. “Maybe it’s my Scranton roots. I don’t know. But when you guys started talking on television about, ‘Biden, if he wins, will be the first person without an Ivy League degree to be elected president,’ I’m thinking, who the hell makes you think I have to have an Ivy League degree to be president?”
The remark, of course, is factually incorrect. Biden would not be the first person without an Ivy League degree elected president. He would be the first since Ronald Reagan in 1980 and ’84 and the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
But more significant by far was the fact that a prominent media figure spoon-fed Biden a cornerstone progressive talking point and he ran away from it and started talking like a Trump populist-nationalist. Does this quick spin away from “white privilege” as a cue for the candidate to start blathering about identity politics mean that Democrats are finally beginning to realize that racial guilt is not a winning formula in a general election?
Biden would have been burned at the stake for such comments during the Democratic primary process. Acknowledging that white people don’t always have it easy is sheer heresy in today’s progressive-dominated Democratic grassroots. Yet here was the party standard-bearer ruminating on his hardscrabble Caucasian roots on a leftist cable news network.
It would seem change is coming to the Democrat campaign strategy as Trump continues to rise in the polls. That leads to two questions going forward. One, is it believable? And two, is it too late? A third crucial question of the evening will play itself out over the coming weeks: Is Joe Biden truly up to the task of debating Donald Trump three times?
Read more from Joe Schaeffer.