Biden cannot keep letting Trump set the agenda

Biden cannot keep letting Trump set the agenda
© Getty Images

Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida Supreme Court reinstates ban on curbside voting in Alabama MORE passed his initial general election test over the past week, as the Republican convention totally failed to paint him as a sleazy socialist, and he responded well to the first of what will be many Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE political diversions.

After the president accused him of being soft on crime and violent protests, Biden, after some hesitation, came out forcefully against unlawful acts. He pointed to the president as the one recklessly inciting racial violence.

This mitigated — maybe only temporarily — the political backlash from the violence in Kenosha, Wis., after Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old black man was shot seven times in the back by police; he survived but is partially paralyzed.


At their convention, the Republicans were unable to convince people the Democratic nominee is a radical leftist — because he's not. They said he was a captive of Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden endorses Texas Democratic House candidate Julie Oliver Ocasio-Cortez rolls out Twitch channel to urge voting Calls grow for Democrats to ramp up spending in Texas MORE' government run health care plan, but voters know that was a defining issue in the Democratic primaries, with Biden opposing Sanders' “Medicare for All.” Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo On The Money: Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi bullish, Trump tempers optimism | Analysis: Nearly 1M have run out of jobless benefits MORE, the president's chief of staff, accused Biden of wanting to defund the police, since he has said some funds might be reallocated for other social services. Trump has reallocated about $3.8 billion from the Pentagon budget for the wall along the Mexican border — is that defunding the military?

At the convention, Republicans curiously chose former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, now a registered foreign lobbyist, to make the corruption case against the Biden family and nepotism. This was on behalf of Trump. In 2013, Trump gave Bondi an illegal campaign contribution, after which she dropped an investigation into his so-called Trump University.

Democrats, nervous nellies, remain anxious over the selective urban violence. Biden and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisObama to campaign for Biden in Florida Biden appears on Brené Brown's podcast to discuss 'empathy, unity and courage' The Hill's Campaign Report: Obama to hit the campaign trail l Biden's eye-popping cash advantage l New battleground polls favor Biden MORE have to address these concerns but not allow them to dominate the next few weeks.

It is certainly not mutually exclusive to forcefully condemn both violence and systemic racism in the criminal justice system. Biden did just that in Pittsburgh this week.

Harris — as well as explaining the rage that incidents like the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville and the shooting of Jacob Blake generate among African Americans — needs also to condemn the bloodshed caused by agitators from the right as well and left. If Jacob Blake's mother makes that case, so can Democrats.


Neither Biden nor Harris has to run away from their record on criminal justice, while acknowledging some misgivings. Trump simultaneously charges Biden is soft on crime and that the 1994 crime bill he authored was too harsh. That bill had plenty of good stuff and some bad. Rather than relitigate it, Democrats should note that violent crime has steadily decreased in America starting in the second Clinton administration. When the White House press secretary said that decline only began under Trump, that was untrue.

For Trump, the underlying motive certainly seems to be — as Biden charged — to fan racial tensions. The convention featured a number of well-known African Americans, from former football star Herschel Walker to Housing Secretary and renowned neurosurgeon Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonBen Carson attended indoor fundraiser where attendees didn't wear masks: report Building the Dream: We're in This Together The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Showdown: Trump-Biden debate likely to be nasty MORE, praising the president's racial attitudes. This, to borrow a favorite White House phrase, is a hoax. Trump championed the birther issue — that the first African American president really wasn't born in America and therefore wasn’t eligible to hold office; he disparaged Muslims; he questioned the judicial integrity of an American judge because of his Mexican heritage — “a textbook definition of racism,” according to former House Republican speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcCarthy faces pushback from anxious Republicans over interview comments Pelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats MORE, and Trump has made repeated racist remarks, according to his longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen.

He uses sports, as well as politics, for racial dog whistles. Trump assails the NBA for protesting racial injustice, charging that it's acting like a political movement; the league is more than 75 percent black. The president bitterly denounced black quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequities. 

It doesn't matter to Trump, but there is a long and proud history of athletes protesting injustice: from the Boston Celtics’ Bill Russell refusing to play an exhibition game 60 years ago at the University of Kentucky when a restaurant wouldn't serve people of color, to the iconic Muhammad Ali, to celebrated Olympic sprinters, and racial justice protesters Tommy Smith and John Carlos.

Trump will use Kenosha or the NBA — or any other issue — to create a fight, on his terms, with Biden. The Democrat can fight back, but he can't let Trump continually set the agenda as he did this week. 

The president doesn't want the focus to be on issues most affecting Americans, such as the terrible toll the COVID-19 virus has taken. The United States has the deadliest record of any major country in the world. The administration is seeking to end the Affordable Health Care Act and its protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

There should not be a day that Biden and Harris are distracted too much to talk about this.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.