The last month was perhaps the worst for the Biden 2024 campaign in some time, and an embarrassment to the United States, displaying the worst instincts of the American political class. The images being broadcast nationwide, of wildfires ripping through Hawaii, destroying communities, and killing more than 100 people, was an illustration of impotence. One not helped when it was the Japanese Prime Minister of all figures who stepped in with a promise of relief. Biden’s week-long delay in even committing to a visit to the ravaged state reinforced suspicions that his age may be starting to catch up with him.
However, there were two legal developments, neither of which is likely to lead to a trial before the next election, which have the potential to do even more damage to Biden’s re-election bid.
The first is the appointment of David Weiss as a special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden. Tapping the same prosecutor who just cut a plea deal with the younger Biden that was so one-sided that it did not survive the barest scrutiny in court reeks of corruption and unequal justice. Republicans were quick to point out that this likely meant not investigation, but cover-up.
The second is of course yet another indictment of former President Donald Trump, along with eighteen others, this time by a local Atlanta prosecutor whose office “accidentally” posted the full indictment online before it had even been voted on by the grand jury, and has expressed a desire to rush to trial within months.
Entire books could, and almost certainly will be, written cataloguing the legal intricacies of the cases and the personal dramas between the protagonists involved, and Netflix will be eager to snatch up the rights to a TV series.
To spend any more time on such drama would only reward the commercial ambitions of those involved. Fani Willis, Hunter Biden, and the rest of the dreary list of characters have already gained far more exposure than they deserve.
The targets of public ire should be those who allowed American politics in 2023 to become a 1990s courtroom TV drama. The very same Democratic Party and media elites who denounced Donald Trump for supposedly turning American politics into “reality TV” and promised a restoration of “seriousness” are the ones who have caused this to happen. Donald Trump promised drama and delivered the WWF of politics. Joe Biden promised Masterpiece Theater and delivered the O.J. Simpson trial, split across a half dozen states and courtrooms.
Without a doubt, partisans will enjoy the spectacle, cheering on their champions. Most swing voters, however, will not pick sides in the sports game. They are skeptical and frustrated with both sides.
The problem for Biden is that his position is far more dependent on a perception of personal integrity and empathy than Donald Trump’s. Drama and energy were Donald Trump’s selling points. If it is a battle of the 1990s bands, there is no doubt who will win. The difference is that whereas Donald Trump has a relatively prosperous and successful presidency to fall back on for those voters who are tired of spectacle, Joe Biden’s tenure beyond the spectacle has been lackluster even to his fans.
A recent focus group conducted by a Democrat firm examining the attitudes of African American and Latino men revealed a general view that Joe Biden’s tenure as president has been a failure economically and when it comes to international affairs. “Pathetic” is how one African American respondent termed the Biden economy, while a Latino participant from Connecticut said, “Our economy is the lowest it’s been in God knows how long” before criticizing Biden’s Ukraine policy. Critically, a number of participants indicated they felt things had been better under Donald Trump.
The fundamental strength of Biden’s 2020 position is also his weakness today. Whereas opinions of Donald Trump as an individual are often lower than those of Donald Trump as president, the inverse is true for Joe Biden. Plenty of voters have been willing to say they like Biden better than his predecessor personally, but only a distinct minority are willing to view his presidency as even mediocre, and a majority view it as a failure.
What does this mean for American politics? It means that Donald Trump is far less damaged by further attacks on his personal brand, because it is hard for anything that occurred after his presidency to tarnish memories of his presidency itself. By contrast, Joe Biden’s personal brand is far more vulnerable to a general perception of corruption. If both candidates are viewed as personally flawed, it is much more likely that the electorate will vote for the candidate who they thought was a better president.
Talleyrand once remarked of a particular Napoleonic blunder that “it was worse than a crime, it was a mistake.” The legal pursuit of Donald Trump may or may not be a crime, but the decision to treat Donald Trump like a criminal increasingly looks like a major political mistake. It assuredly makes the former president appear as a martyr to some.
By keeping the issue of political prosecutions in the news, it also serves to keep the Hunter Biden story in the public eye. This, in turn, reinforces the view that the political class as a whole is corrupt. Swing voters are not revolting against the Trump prosecution because they believe Donald Trump is a saint. They are revolting because they believe almost everyone else, including the Bidens, are clearly guilty of crimes themselves.
As dangerous, at least for Biden, is that the focus on legal drama has revived the worst conspiratorial instincts of the Democrat base. From 2017 until 2019, MSNBC, NPR, and outlets catering to the upscale base of the Democratic Party resembled the behavior of CNN during the O.J. trial. Throughout Trump’s presidency, self-proclaimed experts commented on “breaking” developments and speculated over nonsense theories about Robert Mueller somehow removing the president from office. The opportunity cost was huge, and was revealed in both 2018 and 2020, when despite enormous financial and organizational advantages, Democrats demonstrated they had failed to develop a compelling message to win back Midwestern working-class voters who had left the party in 2016.
Even if the 2022 elections went better for Democrats than many expected, possibly due in part to a Dobbs effect, the Republicans still took control of the House of Representatives, and not a single Democrat was elected to the Senate in a state Trump won, whereas one, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, won in a Biden state.
The evidence from the aforementioned focus group is that voters are interested in hearing about what the White House plans to do about issues like the economy, the cost of living, what the endgame is in Ukraine, and how to counter China.
Instead, they are getting a courtroom procedural drama, with disaster footage from Hawaii playing in the background, and an economy they feel is in the dumps.
The problem for Biden is that the courtroom drama is precisely what the Democrat base wants to consume, and by feeding them, rather than the mainstream electorate, he is whetting their appetite for more. If he fails to deliver it, his base will turn on him.
If he does deliver it, Biden will end up confirming the suspicions of everyone else that the administration exists for one purpose only: to keep Joe Biden in the White House and Donald Trump out. Voters may decide that is not their battle, and change the station.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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