Wednesday

October 23rd, 2019

Insight

While Other Dems Play Chess, Will Biden Turn To Checkers?

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published Oct. 9, 2019

	Melina Mara for The Washington Post
Former Vice President Joe Biden has a monkey on his back – or so he thinks: President Trump.

Here's Biden, in his own words in Washington Post op- ed that ran over the weekend: "President Trump seemingly cannot tell the truth – about anything. He slanders anyone he sees as a threat. That is why he is frantically pushing flat-out lies, debunked conspiracy theories and smears against me and my family, no doubt hoping to undermine my candidacy for the president."

The problem with Biden's printed outrage: it's not Trump who's undermining the former vice president's presidential run. It's Biden himself – through uneven debate performances, mental lapses out on the hustings and a campaign whose raison d'etre doesn't get far past such high-altitude concepts as electability and a return to White House normalcy.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren presses on. She's sharp in debates. She offers specific ideas that the media eagerly lap up. She's moved ahead of Biden in some national and early-state polls.   

And Biden's obsessing over Trump? 

Primary seasons ebb and flow and the lead-up to 2020 could prove the same between now and next February. Biden enjoyed a formidable lead in national surveys until recently. He could regain momentum and go on to win Iowa and New Hampshire and quickly settle the question of the next Democratic nominee.

But in the meantime, his campaign has at least two problems.

One, Biden can't control: over-familiarity.

It's the former vice president's third presidential run. He's been a player in national politics for the better part of five decades – along record that doesn't always jibe with woke progressives.

Biden turns 77 in November – problematic for a party that gravitates to novelty and youthful enthusiasm. To the (tired) adage that "Democratic fall in love, Republicans fall in line," "the scrappy kid from Scranton" seems less lovable the more the attention turns to his family's finances – and the more the candidate snaps at reporters and his campaign tries to dictate to the media whom they can and cannot talk to with regard to the Ukraine scandal.

Perhaps this doesn't matter if Biden has a "moment" a week from Tuesday – a chance to reverse his fortunes at the next Democratic debate with a one-liner or a put-down of an intrusive rival that shows  a spark absent up to this point.

But what if the skid continues through October and into November? Once you get past the Thanksgiving holidays, the calendar turns to December and Iowa is only two months away. 

If I were the Biden campaign – and this will sound repugnant to Democrats who despite the name I'm about to drop — there's a past national candidate who shows how to reverse a skid: Richard Nixon.

In the second half of September 1952, Nixon had a political problem that makes Biden's current woes seem picayune by comparison.

Accused of taking $18,000 from his supporters for political use, Nixon could see the writing on the wall: pressure mounting for Nixon to step down as Dwight Eisenhower's running mate. For a lawmaker on a fast track (he wouldn't turn 40 until the following January, but Nixon already had served in the House and Senate), the vice-presidential hopeful seemed to be on an even faster track . . . to political oblivion.

So Nixon took matters into his own hands – and did something unprecedented back in the early days of television: the first-ever nationally televised address by a candidate, offering his side of the story.

What the candidate called "The Fund Speech" we know better as "The Checkers Speech" – Checkers being the name of the Nixon pet dog who was mentioned in the address.

Here's how the speech progressed – and why a 2019 version is worth Biden's consideration.  

First, Nixon introduced himself not only as a candidate, but as "a man whose honesty and integrity has been questioned."

Second, the candidate emphasized transparency: he had nothing to hide; the funds' books weren't cooked, he claimed.

Third, Nixon cleverly pivoted – from defense to offense. His opponents were trying to pay him back for his anti-communist crusades, he contended.

Then, a political masterstroke: a reminder, to the electorate, that the candidate and his wife came from humble beginnings.   

In Nixon's words: "I should say this, that Pat doesn't have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat . . ."

"One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don't they will probably be saying this about me too. We did get something, a gift, after the election . . . You know what is was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog . . . black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six-year-old, named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless 

of what they say about it, we're going to keep it."

Finally, Nixon managed to close out the address with a little class warfare – reminding viewers to which caste Adlai Stevenson belonged, as opposed to man-of-the-people Dick Nixon: "I believe it's fine that a man like Governor Stevenson, who inherited a fortune from his father, can run for President. But I also feel it's essential in this country of ours that a man of modest means can also run for President because, you know, remember Abraham Lincoln, remember what he said: G od must have loved the common people – he made so many of them." 

In a less cynical age of politics and journalism, Nixon's gambit worked. As one columnist wrote soon after the address: "The sophisticates .  . . sneer, but this came closer to humanizing the Republican Party than anything that has happened in my memory. Tuesday night, the nation a little man, squirming his way out of a dilemma and laying bar his most private hopes, fears and liabilities. This time the common man was a Republican, for a change . . . [one who] suddenly placed the burden of old-style Republican aloofness on the Democrats."

So how does this pertain to Biden?

It's not like his son Hunter – he of the curious personal and professional choices – is the same as a canine innocent. The father-son dynamic (the younger Biden trading on the family name) raises serious question as to what The Atlantic cleverly calls "perfectly legal, socially acceptable corruption."

But Biden faces a challenge not unlike what Nixon faced back in 1952: shifting voters' attention from what he is (a politician surrounded by a bunch of financial murkiness) to whom he is (relatable to the average American).

Nixon achieved that, back in 1952, by talking economics (his wife's modest clothing) and values (his daughters and their love for a dog). Biden has a similar card to play: talking about personal tragedy that's struck him repeatedly, but also has made him a better man and a better public servant. It's a card he can play only once, as there's a fine line between evoking personal tragedies and exploiting said pathos for politics use.

One final note about the Nixon 1952 experience: the first report of the secret fund broke on September 14 of that day; Nixon gave his address on September 23. That's nine day from problem to solution. How many days are we into Hunter Biden stories?

And to his credit, Nixon didn't outsource the big speech. He gave it by working off his own notes, not reading someone else's words as they scrolled in front of him. Good luck finding a national candidate who, doing the same as Nixon, wouldn't resort to a TelePrompTer and prepared remarks that were trite and overly cautious – the sad product of campaign groupthink.

How novel if Joe Biden could look straight into a camera and speak from his heart – not what his aides advise.

One wonders: what's his gut telling him?

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