Biden père et fils in 2016. Photo: Teresa Kroeger / Getty Images for World Food Program USA
Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: 2016 and all that

About halfway through Thursday’s unexpectedly enlightening presidential debate, Joe Biden interrupted a Donald Trump riff about his son Hunter’s overseas business dealings with a pre-canned line. “It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family,” he said before claiming that the president only wanted to talk about his son to distract from voters’ everyday priorities. “Just a typical politician,” said Trump before impersonating his opponent, “The family… around the table… Just a typical politician.”

Biden did not reply. But the Democratic candidate might have thought to himself, “guilty as charged”. He would put it differently, of course, but “a typical politician” has more or less been Biden’s pitch to America since he entered the primary last spring. 

If this were 2016, the exchange would have been ominous for Biden. Back then, Trump’s outsider status was his most formidable electoral attribute. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was the quintessential “typical politician”. Every indicator suggests that this time won’t just be different, but that the dynamic will be exactly reversed; the enervating Trump years have transformed Biden’s plodding normality from a liability to an asset. 

But even if 2016 and 2020 prove to be very different elections, this presidential race has nonetheless been haunted by the last. And nowhere is that more obvious than in the brouhaha surrounding the former vice-president’s son’s purloined hard drive. 

In 2016, the Trump campaign used hacked emails to create a whiff of corruption and malpractice around their opponent. This time, messages and photographs reportedly made an improbable sounding journey from Hunter’s laptop to the pages of the New York Post via Rudy Giuliani, who counterintelligence officials have warned the White House is likely the target of Russian intelligence operations. (Viewers of Sacha Baron-Cohen’s new Borat film will surely share this assessment of the reliability of the president’s lawyer.)

Before any of the facts had been interrogated properly, Americans were told the Hunter story was “disinformation”. Biden’s defenders, and the candidate himself, have made much of a letter in which 50 former intelligence officials argue that the Post story “has the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation”. The same letter makes clear that “we do not have any evidence of Russian involvement”.

There are difficult questions around how to handle such stories and good reasons to take a sceptical view of the Hunter Biden emails, but it is obvious that editorial decision making is first and foremost being guided by what happened four years ago. Saying the quiet part loud, Terence Samuels, the managing editor of public broadcaster NPR, explained the decision to ignore the story as follows: “We don’t want to waste our time on stories that are not really stories, and we don’t want to waste the listeners’ and readers’ time on stories that are just pure distractions.”

Distractions from what? Since Trump’s win, American liberal media’s already inflated view of its own importance has mushroomed. The very fact that Trump won four years ago is taken as proof positive that the press failed to do its job. In the post-mortem that followed, the way in which the New York Times and others discussed the Clinton emails was high on the list of mistakes not to be repeated. Four years on, rather than cover the campaign objectively and even-handedly, publications have decided to risk overcorrection.

The ghost of the last election also haunts the coverage of this race in a broader, less perceptible sense. Swarms of reporters, editors, columnists and talking heads are preoccupied by the question of whether or not lightning will strike twice to the exclusion of more interesting considerations. And so we are stuck with tedious discussions of shy Trump voters and  one-sided talk of potential polling errors when Joe Biden has the biggest lead of any presidential challenger in more than 80 years.

For months, there has been a stigma attached to pointing out the obvious — that Biden is winning — without adding the banal caveat that it is possible for Trump to triumph come November 3. In liberal circles, to confidently predict a Biden win is to tempt fate. To do so without the redundant acknowledgment that you could be wrong is a major breach of the rules. For millions of Americans, including the overwhelming majority of those making decisions in the country’s newsrooms, 2016 is first and foremost a psychological trauma. And any echoes of that campaign — from discussion of leaked emails to Democratic over-confidence — risk cursing the outcome this time around.

As a result, to simply assert that you would be shocked if Trump wins again is to risk looking like a fool in a few weeks’ time, even though all the evidence points in that direction. But here goes: I would be very surprised if Donald Trump wins this election. Just as I was when he won four years ago.

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