Joe Biden's conundrum: More like Ed Muskie or Gary Hart?

Joe Biden's conundrum: More like Ed Muskie or Gary Hart?
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Both the formal House impeachment inquiry and the Ukraine phone call transcript are minefields for President TrumpDonald John TrumpFed saw risks to US economy fading before coronavirus spread quickened Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Britain announces immigration policy barring unskilled migrants MORE — but they also present Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Biden will go after Bloomberg, Sanders at Las Vegas debate, aides say MORE with a big challenge: Is he the 2019 equivalent of Ed Muskie or Gary Hart?

Republicans insist that any investigation into Trump and Ukraine go hand-in-glove with a look into the former vice president’s dealings with that same country. To Biden’s backers, it’s birtherism all over again: a baseless Trump smear kept alive by constant repetition. Where does it go from here? That’s where Muskie, Hart, and a little bit of history come into play.

The late Sen. Ed Muskie (D-Me.) and former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) were two high-flying front-runners in Democratic presidential primaries brought down by sudden scandal. One imbroglio was dirty politics at its worst, the other was dirty politics with enough truth behind it to end a surging campaign.

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Muskie had been Hubert Humphrey’s vice-presidential running mate in 1968, and he quickly took the lead for the 1972 Democratic nomination. He was the establishment’s favorite and the candidate who most concerned President Richard Nixon — so much so, in fact, that Nixon campaign operatives created a phony scandal. Two weeks before the New Hampshire primary, they wrote up a fake letter from a sham Miami man, accusing Muskie of spouting derogatory comments about French-Canadians, who happen to make up a significant part of New Hampshire’s electorate.

Muskie was innocent, but the sabotage worked. He didn’t see it coming, didn’t know how to respond, and eventually was forced to drop out. (The dirty trick wasn’t uncovered until a few years later, as part of the Watergate investigation.) The nomination instead went to Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), a left-wing candidate who Nixon saw as his weakest possible challenger. Nixon won the 1972 election in a landslide.

Biden is in the same spot now as Muskie was then — a low-risk front-runner for the nomination, given the best chance to beat a divisive incumbent. Cast Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll 2020 Democratic candidates support Las Vegas casino workers on debate day Sanders takes lead in new Hill/HarrisX poll MORE as McGovern — the left-wing contender drawing passionate crowds of mostly young people eager for change.

But here’s where Gary Hart adds to the story. In 1988, the Democratic senator from Colorado was the front-runner to face-off against Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush. As his challenger status grew, so did rumors about extramarital affairs. Hart worked hard to ignore the chatter, refusing to respond directly. His supporters saw the gossip as part of an opposition effort to distract voters.

The issue would not go away. Finally, an exasperated Hart in May 1987 told reporter E.J. Dionne, then of the New York Times: “They (the media) should follow me around. They’ll be very bored.” As NBC anchor John Chancellor said a few days later: “We did, and we weren’t.” 

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Reporters from the Miami Herald found Hart spending the night with a woman not his wife.

The problem for Hart was that, unlike Muskie, the smear campaign against him wasn’t totally a smear. He was having affairs. In an infuriating twist, a former Democratic consultant asserted that Bush chief political operative Lee Atwater confessed, on his deathbed years later, that he helped to set in motion the particular alleged affair that ended Hart’s candidacy.

But the central truth of the scandal was there. You could argue, and Hart did, that infidelity should not be a political disqualifier — but in 1988, it mattered. (By 1992 and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFree Roger Stone Davis: Taking another look at Bernie Sanders Juan Williams: Don't count Biden out MORE, it mattered less. By 2016 and Donald Trump, it mattered not at all.)

Biden’s Hart-like challenge is this: He has to dispel, definitely, any nagging doubt that there is something — however minor — to the Trump smear. Biden has spoken openly that, as vice president, he held a $1 billion loan guarantee over the head of Ukraine’s president, forcing him to fire a corrupt prosecutor who was despised by the international community. That prosecutor at one time investigated the Ukrainian gas company on whose board sat Biden’s son, Hunter.

According to the Washington Post, among other media, the details show Biden was in the clear. But details often get lost in the fog of campaign warfare — especially against a politician like Trump who hammers home his bumper-sticker message every day. (“Lock her up.” “Build the wall.”)

Biden needs to show himself to be Ed Muskie but better — yes, the innocent target of a baseless smear, but this time someone who saw it coming, planned for a fight, and won. If he manages that, Biden should emerge stronger. But if he can’t shut this down, if he can’t give definitive, simple answers to Republicans eagerly playing “gotcha,” he might look more like Gary Hart — a guy who couldn’t fight the smear because, in the end, there was just enough “something” to it.

History remembers Ed Muskie as an honorable man up against a dishonorable opponent; it remembers Gary Hart as politician with extraordinary potential who brought on his own demise.

No doubt, Trump wants the latter: a self-damaged Biden out of the way, clearing the field. But, of course, that all assumes the president himself will still be around come November 2020.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.