CNN’s Anderson Cooper in the debate Tuesday night had an interesting exchange with Joe Biden:
COOPER: Mr. Vice President, President Trump has falsely accused your son of doing something wrong while serving on a company board in Ukraine. I want to point out there’s no evidence of wrongdoing by either one of you.
Making sure that readers don’t make it to the end of a sentence without being told Joe Biden’s son Hunter committed no “wrongdoing” in Ukraine has become a mandatory element in Ukrainegate coverage. Almost like a Surgeon General’s warning, the phrase has been jammed into story after news story:
The Guardian: “No evidence the younger Biden did anything illegal.” CNBC: “There is no evidence that Trump or Giuliani has produced which shows that Hunter Biden was engaged in wrongdoing.” Newsweek: “Although there is no evidence of illegal wrongdoing by the Bidens in those dealings…” NBC: “There’s no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of either Biden.” AP: “There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either the vice president or his son…” The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other papers also echoed the mantra.
Cooper affixed the requisite disclaimer, but still proceeded to go at Biden a bit. He asked him to explain why it wasn’t wrong (Cooper used the phrase “not okay”) for his son to collect a check from a Ukrainian gas company while Joe Biden was Obama’s “point man” in Ukraine:
COOPER: My question is, if it’s not okay for a president’s family to be involved in foreign businesses, why was it okay for your son when you were vice president?
Biden responded with what might as well be the official slogan of all news organizations on the left and the right dating back to 2015: “What we have to do now is focus on Donald Trump.”
He added he was “proud” of the decision his son made and said he “never discussed a single thing with my son about anything having to do with Ukraine.” This contradicted Hunter’s account to the New Yorker about his father’s reaction to news he was joining the board of a Ukrainian gas company: “I hope you knew what you’re doing.”
The exchange highlighted how impeachment and Joe Biden may be a package deal. In a new Rolling Stone feature about Biden, I wrote about the conundrum Biden’s role in the Ukraine story poses:
The Ukraine story might sink his campaign, but it also may help… Impeachment does commit Democrats to a strident defense of Biden and his son, even if, or perhaps especially if, there’s a real problem that needs regular PR response.
We saw in Tuesday’s debate how the impeachment story’s gravity may alter the race in unpredictable ways. In previous clashes, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker blasted Biden for having supported “every crime bill, major and minor” and “dipping into the Kool-Aid without even knowing the flavor.”
Tuesday in Ohio, Booker all but wrapped his arms around Biden, saying it was “so offensive” that he had to defend himself against allegations of corruption. Booker was one of many chasing what former Barack Obama adviser David Axelrod called the “free applause line” Democrats could get on the debate floor for defending Biden’s honor.
With candidates circling wagons to protect Biden, Elizabeth Warren for the first time found herself under mass attack, as if she were already the front-runner. In fact Biden remains the clear leader according to national polling averages. I’m convinced pundits think Biden has already slipped because he’s not on Twitter, which to modern reporters is equivalent to non-existence.
On the coverage front, Biden will have a sizable or even Trumpian advantage in media attention for as long as the impeachment effort goes on. Analyses by the site Media Cloud show Biden has had roughly quadruple the amount of coverage of his next rival, Warren, since the Ukraine story broke. Heavy press exposure tied to Ukraine may end up cutting against Biden, but it fundamentally changes the race either way.
Then there’s money. There have been rumors for weeks of big Democratic donors getting together to fund a Super PAC to defend Biden. Reuters just a few days ago quoted people in his circle saying Biden’s fundraising problems all but necessitate the creation of a Super PAC:
Some of [Biden’s] top backers worry Biden will lack the resources he needs for a sustained conflict… As distasteful as the idea has become in Democratic circles, a Super PAC may be necessary to battle Trump, some Biden donors told Reuters.
This would be fortuitous for a Biden campaign that is burning cash. Just before the debate, his team filed report indicating they have less than $9 million left, a shockingly low number compared to rivals like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who have vibrant donor bases and have over $30 million on hand. Biden is behind South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and even Kamala Harris in terms of bucks in the bank.
It’s a Catch-22. Democrats can’t pursue impeachment without a rigorous defense of Biden, but defending Biden may require a massive PR campaign in defense of the very brand of institutional payola Trump ran against to such great effect in 2016.
Biden’s defenders all say basically the same thing. Hunter Biden getting a lucrative sinecure from a foreign gas company, after having secured similar positions in the past on the board of Amtrak and with credit card company MBNA, represents a widespread, boring form of corruption, not worth mentioning when we could be talking about the more spectacular bad things Donald Trump does.
The Atlantic called Hunter Biden’s board seat a “common but distasteful practice.” Matt Yglesias in Vox said it was part of a “long and perfectly legal tradition of family members of influential politicians profiting off a vague sense that it’s politically and economically useful to cultivate these connections.” Yglesias called such behavior “sleazy,” but like Cooper was careful to avoid the word “wrong.”
In 2016, voters in both parties groaned when they were told repeatedly there was “no evidence” donations to the Clinton Foundation, or her millions in speech fees from banks, or her husband’s speaking fees (there sure were a lot of things to explain!) influenced her professionally.
Voters this year will surely come to be just as annoyed by the piles of disclaimers about the Bidens. Just because Donald Trump is worse and has an extensive history of personal and financial corruption doesn’t mean the Hunter Biden experience is not corruption.
It may be soft corruption, and commonplace, but that’s what makes it such a political liability. Similar to Hillary’s speaking fees, it’s an example of the institutional, legal corruption built in to a “system” that ordinary voters feel is arrayed against them, one that contrives to deliver disproportionate rewards for mere membership in an exclusive club of connections.
In Donald Trump, voters in 2016 saw a man with no scruples, but who they thought at least killed his own food (even if he too was originally a nepotism case). Trump fans even rewarded him for being clever enough to screw them over by clearing his debts in the public bankruptcy system. He was corrupt, but the subtext of Trump’s campaign was that he was at least open about it. “If someone screws you, you screw them back,” he said, adding, “Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich.”
First with Hillary Clinton and now with Biden and Ukraine, Democrats have tied themselves into contortions trying to sell the idea that profiting off political connections is not technically “wrong.” Worse, they don’t seem to get that making sure nobody in newspapers or on TV talks about Hunter Biden without burying the story in semantic excuses makes things worse, because it adds to the perception that this is symbolic of an institutional problem, which even the “very fake news media” is invested in covering up.
After the debate, pundits raced to declare someone other than Biden the winner. Buttigieg spent the night being a humorless, hectoring, superior advocate for non-change, which in pundit-ese meant he was burnishing his credentials for the nomination. CNN conventional wisdom arch-wizard Chris Cillizza listed Buttigieg as his first big winner, while Politico declared Buttigieg’s night a “breakout performance,” and MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace gushed that Mayor Pete was “chicken soup for my soul.”
Others seemed to genuinely believe that Amy Klobuchar “showed up” on behalf of “centrist-liberal moderation,” despite the fact that the bulk of her performance involved nervous recitation of the old “how are you going to pay for that?” cliché that campaign reporters call bold, inspired rhetoric every time they hear it. Despite being told all year how much they would love Amy if they just got to know her witty personality, voters have basically non-responded to her all year, and they aren’t about to change now.
It’s early yet, but this is beginning to feel a bit like the Republican race of 2015-2016, when the campaign media kept trying to convince themselves that one of the “establishment lane” candidates had momentum to unseat Donald Trump. Biden is not the villain to reporters Trump was, but he is flawed. It seems like press figures want to defend Biden against Trump’s charges without propelling him to the nomination, but as the debate showed, that may not be possible.