It's time to bury the New York Times' Biden-stuck-in-the-basement narrative

Misreading the campaign

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Recent days have brought a wave of good news for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, as he opens up one of the largest leads over an incumbent president in modern American history. Weighted down by his incompetent response to a public health crisis and a heartless reaction to a national outpouring of protest over police injustice, Trump now finds himself trailing by significant margins.

For readers of the New York Times, this development might come as a surprise, since the paper's message this spring has leaned heavily on the idea Biden is struggling. Specifically, the newspaper has been obsessed with portraying Biden as stuck in his Delaware basement during a pandemic, broadcasting out messages, unable to counter the savvy Trump.

Indeed, the message from the Times has been that "perilously passive" Biden is "grappling," "uncertain," "tentative," "cloistered," "stuck at home," and "struggling with basic technical difficulties," while Democrats are "worried" and "perplexed."

The storyline is that Biden became a spectator while Trump was running the campaign show. Today, that narrative has proven to be dead wrong and it ought to be buried.  

This is a perfect example of the press firmly clinging to the idea that Democrats are in a constant state of confusion and that Trump and Republicans can easily outmaneuver them. (See: Dems in Disarray.) And preferred media narratives are hard to break.

"At a moment that is emerging as a critical test for both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, the presumptive Democratic candidate for president is constrained by the limitations of a pandemic that has confined him to his home in Wilmington, Del., for the past three months," the Times recently stressed, as huge protests against police abuse began spreading nationwide. Ironically, that weekend it was Biden who had met with protesters out in the streets while Trump was whisked down to the White House underground bunker as protesters amassed outside. Nonetheless, the Times insisted, "For Mr. Biden, the risks of staying in political isolation are likely to escalate as these twin crises play out."

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The Times and much of the campaign press have routinely presented the Biden-basemen coverage as reflecting a "fear" that "anxious" Democrats have. ("Democrats who fear he has slipped off the radar screen.") But a close reading of the coverage usually produces very few Democrats officials who are fearful, and certainly very few Democratic voters. Instead, the narrative seems driven by journalists assuming Democrats are freaking out.

Note that news outlets often raising doubts about Biden's visibility this spring are the same ones not covering Biden's public events, while simultaneously covering every Trump utterance as breaking news. The media's message is confusing: Biden's stuck inside vs. Biden's boring when he leaves his home so we're not covering him.

The continuous stuck-in-the-basement coverage has become reminiscent of the media's But Her Emails storyline from 2016, a Republican-built talking point designed to define the Democratic nominee. And make no mistake, the Biden narrative is a GOP taunt.

Today, poll after poll confirms that Biden's lead has ballooned since March, when the Covid-19 crisis struck America and Trump began fumbling his way through the national health crisis. In the latest Monmouth poll, Biden leads Trump by 11 points, up from a 3-point advantage in March. Monday brought a new CNN poll that showed Biden ahead by 14 points. Despite his absence from the campaign trail — despite being "stuck in his basement" — Biden's advantage has expanded.

Yet this spring, the Times was certain, "Mr. Biden faces the challenge of building enthusiasm for his candidacy, something Mr. Trump enjoys from his devoted base." When running for office, would you rather have enthusiasm from a devoted base or an 14-point lead?

By embracing the basement narrative, the Times and much of campaign press fundamentally misread the unfolding race. Convinced that Biden had to be as high profile as Trump, the press assumed that lots of attention on Trump would mean lots of good news for Trump. It's a continuation of a common narrative for the press: 'Trump grabs so much attention!' 'Trump sets the news agenda!' 'Trump has 80 million Twitter followers!' Trump maintains "an inescapable public presence," as the Times put it.

Turns out none of that mattered over the last month. In fact, that has all worked to Trump's disadvantage as Americans have watched his erratic mishandling of a public health crisis and then a nationwide protest movement.

During the height of the pandemic, many in the D.C. press were sure Trump was winning the messaging battle by hosting his daily briefings, even though they were awash in lies, misinformation, and petty partisan attacks. Turns out Americans were not impressed and gave Trump historically low approval ratings for handling a crisis, as compared to other world leaders during the pandemic, and even as compared to governors across the country who often received glowing reviews from voters.

The errant Biden narrative represents a clear misunderstanding about what this election is going to be about — a referendum on the most radical president in American history.

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You've probably seen it. But, so encouraging:

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Joe Jackson, "Jumpin' Jive"

In 1981, a young Joe Jackson was at the height of his commercial power. Having just released two landmark Brit pop/rock records, Look Sharp! and I'm the Man, Jackson then took one of the sharpest left turns in rock history when he made a swing jazz record. Or as he called it, a "whorehouse jazz" record, a full decade before bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Brain Setzer Orchestra made that sound popular and cool again. Relentlessly upbeat, brash, and fun, Jackson absolutely nailed the album, which I rank as one of my all-time favorites.

Here's the title track. It's an old Cab Calloway classic, sped up and infused with a bit of punk vibe. It's so great.