Over the past few days, what we’ve seen is nothing short of a full-on media dogpile on Joe Biden.
His statements on James Eastland, a segregationist he served in the Senate with, were just the start. Then, it turned into a public feud with Corey Booker, who is also a candidate in the Democratic primary.
And now, we have stories with staffers saying they tried to warn Biden about making these statements and keeping him from making other problematic gaffes, more on his time with racists and segregationists in Washington, and even a piece at POLITICO titled “Grandpa Simpson runs for president.”
As thunderbolts crash around him, Joe Biden is facing an urgent question: What exactly is the rationale for his presidential candidacy?
The answers given by Biden sympathizers usually are rooted in character and personal history. Here is a decent man who has lived long and seen a lot, through setbacks and tragedy, and knows enough to understand and defend the timeless virtues that are so absent but also so needed in modern Washington. Late in life, the man and moment are in harmony at last for a heroic final chapter.
The hope is that voters will embrace Biden as a kind of American Churchill.
The past 24 hours raise, not for the first time, a more painful possibility: Grampa Simpson is running for president.
While it’s nice to see it happen to a Democrat for a change, it does raise some very interesting questions about the effect the media’s coverage will have on the voters. It’s a question that is being raised by some right-leaning elections analysts on Twitter, many of whom were also burned by the “Hillary Clinton is gonna win” polling of 2016.
As I’ve explained before, much of the mainstream media operates under a theory in the mass communications world that states the goal of the media is to set the agenda for the day through their coverage. They believe it is their job to tell us what’s important and what’s not. This is done in many ways, starting with the stories that lead the newscast and the stories that barely get mentioned. Then comes the framing of the story, the angle they take to tell it, and other editorial decisions like that.
Finally, it’s the presentation – how it all comes together.
At least, that is how it’s supposed to be. And, in fact, if you look at the leaked internal polling and the job approval polling for Trump, it is clear that the public does not seem to like him. When that polling comes out, it’s a major story. “Nobody likes Trump!” they scream.
But didn’t they say the same thing in 2016? The national polling showed Hillary would win. In fact, the percentages ended up being close to right. The problem is that no one focused on the state-level polling, and no one really got a feel of how the actual voters felt. We only knew what the numbers suggested.
So… what happened? Did the polls lie? I don’t think so, but I do think that polls focused on the wrong questions. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not you liked Trump over Hillary, but whether people were happy where the country was at the time – a time when Democrats ran it.
The answer, as it turned out, was “No.” And Trump won the election.
So the media’s narrative didn’t prevail there. And, in fact, people are still answering that question in the polling, just in a different way.
If you look at the RealClearPolitics average of the polling on the direction of the country, you see that way more people disapprove of the direction we’re headed than approve. But, if you look at the polling on Trump’s job approval, it’s not as bad – he’s holding his head above 50 percent for much of the polling that’s available.
Breaking down the job approval, you see that job approval on foreign policy is about as bad as the direction of the country polling. However, job approval on the economy is on top of the disapproval. When you have a nation of several million, and only a few of those million watch cable news and get their information from the agenda-setting networks, some of the messages won’t reach everyone.
But, the ability to get a job when you couldn’t before, get a bigger tax refund, pay less in interest, etc. does reach many millions more people. The media’s narrative doesn’t have that much of an impact when people can respond with “Yeah… but things for me are better than they were before him.” That is going to mean something over the next couple of years.
That’s why I have to wonder what the impact of Biden’s gaffes will be now. I’m not saying he won’t take a hit, but I don’t think it’s going to be as pronounced as the media are trying to make it out to be. Talking about how closely he worked with segregationists isn’t a good look, and people will not like that he’s bragging about it. Biden will see a gradual decline, but will still be a player in this primary as long as he wants to be, regardless of what the media class wants.
I have a hard time buying into the idea that the media’s ability to set the tone of the political debate is as strong as it was before. It still has some impact, but other media – partisan, social, etc. – are able to soften the blow of the bad news and pump up the good news (and vice versa!) with more ease than they had prior to, say, the Obama Administration.
That is going to mean something in 2020, but I don’t think many have figured that out yet.