Democrats are criticizing Joe Biden for doing the bare minimum of media interviews, worried that the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee is repeating a mistake made by 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Clinton has called her low-profile media strategy in 2016 a “miscalculation” that played into President Trump’s hands.
While the coronavirus has effectively sidelined Biden, Democrats say an easy way for him to cut through Trump’s noise is to conduct his own media blitz from his home in Delaware.
There were signs on Thursday that suggested Biden was taking note of the criticism.
Hours before Trump addressed the Republican National Convention, Biden sat for virtual interviews with CNN and MSNBC to discuss racial unrest in Kenosha, Wis., following the police shooting a Black man.
The cable news interviews marked a relative outburst of media hits for Biden, who had only done two other broadcast interviews in the month of August. Biden also rarely does press conferences with the reporters who cover his in-person events.
The lack of availability for the national news media has led to charges from the Trump campaign that Biden is in hiding.
Privately, Democrats worry the Biden team is playing it too safe and missing opportunities to draw a contrast with Trump.
“If you’re not going to be out on the trail, you should be doing interviews every single day,” said one Democratic strategist.
“For whatever reason, they have determined that they can’t put him out there,” the strategist added. “That’s the worst strategy. They need to get on the offensive, get out and talk to press. Their strategy is running out the clock but they better f—— pray for a kickass debate.”
Clinton has expressed regret for avoiding the media in the run up to the 2016 election, when there were countless stories about how she refused to take questions from reporters.
In an interview last year with Howard Stern — who is a huge fan of Clinton’s — the radio host said he had tried to get her to come on his show during the 2016 election, believing it would help her show a more personal side and potentially help get her elected.
Clinton said it’s likely she would have turned down the opportunity down at the time and that it was a mistake to not take more risks.
“I often did not prioritize media the way I should have,” Clinton said. “Trump would interview with everybody, in his pajamas they would take him, so he was just a constant presence, and I think I made a miscalculation.”
One of Clinton’s aides in the general election expressed some regret about not being able to keep up with Trump, who was dialing into TV and radio shows with little effort during the 2016 general election.
“She was always very hesitant and Trump was manipulating the earned media apparatus,” the former Clinton aide said. “We got into a situation where Trump was outpacing her.”
Biden campaign insiders acknowledged that up until Thursday, it had been a quiet few weeks on the media front while the conventions were center stage.
But they pushed back on the notion that Biden is avoiding the media, saying the campaign’s strategy has been to focus on local and alternative media, rather than established Beltway political outlets that they believe do not reach many ordinary Americans.
In July, Biden conducted 10 television interviews. Nine of them were with local affiliates in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada. The 10th was with MSNBC’s Joy Reid.
While Biden has not done the Sunday morning political shows, he’s appeared on most of the late night comedy shows. The campaign says it’s reaching younger voters through interviews with social and traditional media outlets with large digital footprints, such as Snapchat and Wired.
The campaign views those interviews as having more value because they rarely focus on the micro-news cycles of the day that usually come in response to the latest outrage over Trump.
Some Democrats say Biden’s message is getting out just fine, with or without the national media’s help.
“However you want to characterize his media availability, is he struggling to deliver his message? I’d argue not only isn’t he struggling, but the nature of COVID campaigning means he’s giving more direct-to-camera clean remarks and speeches,” said Philippe Reines, a longtime adviser to Hillary Clinton.
Still, there is growing unrest among some Democrats who fear that Biden is trying to run out the clock, rather than going on the offensive.
That strategy appeared to be working for a while, as Trump’s numbers sank amid the nonstop scrutiny of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the race is tightening in the six core swing states that will determine the outcome of the election.
“They’re trying to do no harm but they’re also not doing any good,” said one Democratic fundraiser. “They’re thinking Trump is hurting himself but that’s a terrible calculation because Trump is at least getting himself in front of people and some of the people who see him think that he looks presidential. That matters.”
Since becoming the nominees, Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) have sat for interviews with ABC News anchors David Muir and Robin Roberts, and for a spread with People magazine.
Harris has taken on a highly visible role, giving a speech on the final day of the GOP convention and sitting for an interview this week with MSNBC’s Craig Melvin.
Some Democrats argue that Trump is digging his own grave and that Biden shouldn’t get in his way by trying to drive the news cycle.
“Trump is the one talking for us, especially to women, who are repulsed by him and put Democrats in charge of the House in 2018,” said Bob Mulholland, a Democratic National Committee member from California. “They’ll help us win this time too. Never get in front of something that’s already moving in your direction.”
But others say a case is to be made for making Biden more accessible.
In 2016, every Clinton interview became a major event because there were so few of them. The lack of access engendered bitterness between the Clinton campaign and the reporters who covered it.
Democrats would feel more at ease seeing Biden out there more, giving them confidence he’ll be able to take on Trump when the lights are brightest at the debates this fall.
“It does highlight a potential problem for Biden’s campaign, which is that they do have someone who is prone to making gaffes,” said Steven Livingston, a media studies professor at George Washington University.
“It raises questions about whether they’re trying to shield him or keep him in unchallenging situations, like in the interview with People Magazine. The Democrats decided at their convention that they’d run Joe as the nice and decent guy compared to the president, who is not a nice guy. That has the benefit of being accurate. The question is whether it’s sufficient to win the presidency.”
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