It was early Friday afternoon, and we were talking about possible surprises that could disrupt the 2020 presidential race. Philippe Reines, a longtime top aide to Hillary Clinton, mentioned the Durham investigation, Attorney General William Barr’s ongoing probe into the origins of the FBI’s 2016 attempt to divine whether Russia was trying to help get Donald Trump elected. “If Durham’s report turns out to be about John Brennan and Jim Clapper and Andrew McCabe—sure, fine, that’s not going to transform the race,” Reines told me. “But it’s noise. And noise favors Trump. If he can’t come up with a message, and Joe Biden has a message, the thing you do to help yourself is to make it tougher for Biden to deliver that message. Eventually, you need to take advantage of it. But you buy yourself some time and space.”
Five hours later a far larger, grimmer, unexpected jolt arrived: the death of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The policy consequences of Trump choosing her replacement, including the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the repeal of Obamacare, stand to be catastrophic for millions of people. The political consequences for the next two months are harder to predict. Do more conservatives turn out in November, thrilled that their bet on Trump is paying off and eager to give him and Mitch McConnell four more years of shoving the judiciary, at all levels, to the right? Or do enraged liberals and younger voters show up in record numbers, delivering not just a landslide for Biden but a Senate majority for the Democrats?
The immediate problem for Biden, however, is exactly what Reines identified. Every minute that Trump spends talking about something other than his pandemic and economic failures is a win for him. He will be abetted in this diversion by the mainstream media’s coverage of Ginsburg’s death and the battle to replace her. Not that those subjects aren’t richly deserving of major coverage—they are. But they represent the kind of inside-the-Beltway set piece that the cable-news networks in particular love. They will fill many hours parsing the posturings of the confirmation hearing and carrying Trump’s daily appearances talking up his nominee.
All of that is bad for Biden—something his campaign recognized even before the candidate’s plane touched down Friday night, delivering him back home to Delaware from an appearance in Duluth, Minnesota. The theory of Biden’s case has always been that the coronavirus and the economy are the central concerns for voters, and they don’t see any reason to deviate from those themes now. “The narratives out there that this is going to dominate what voters want their presidential candidates to talk about—I think that is a real big misread,” says John Anzalone, a Biden campaign pollster. “Sixty-something percent of people still are very concerned about COVID and concerned about the economy. This has been an incredibly stable race. I still think you’re going to see a plurality of people believe that this issue makes no difference in how they would vote. And that the handling of COVID, the economy, and the recovery, and health care are going to still be the drivers.”
That steady focus fits with Biden’s personality, and with his greatest appeal against Trump: his calm and his attention to substance. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were the angry candidates; Biden isn’t about to change what won him the Democratic primary, and he isn’t about to alienate moderates by coming out in favor of court packing. The risks are that, with so much at stake and emotions so high, Biden’s low-key approach looks complacent and his message gets drowned out. That’s why he delivered a forceful speech on Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia calling on Senate Republicans to hold off confirming Trump’s Supreme Court nominee (highly unlikely then, moot now). The more important element of Biden’s remarks, though, was his attempt to fold the nomination fight into one of his core arguments, highlighting how Trump and Republicans want to strip health care from Americans even as the pandemic death toll in the U.S. has climbed to more than 200,000.