Joe Biden and his handlers know that he should be out and about, weighing in daily on the issues of the campaign.
In impromptu interviews, Biden should be offering alternative plans for dealing with the virus, the lockdown, the economic recovery, the violence and the looting, and racial tensions.
Yet Biden’s handlers seem to assume that if he were to leave his basement and fully enter the fray, he could be capable of losing the election in moments of gaffes, lapses, or prolonged silences.
So wisely, Team Biden relied on the fact that the commander in chief is always blamed for bad news — and there has been plenty of bad news worldwide this year.
That reality was reflected in the spring and early summer polls that showed growing discontent with the incumbent Trump as if he were solely responsible for one of the most depressing years in U.S. history.
But news cycles, like polls, are not always static.
What was true in July is not necessarily so in September and especially in November. Volatile years produce volatile voters. Now, many voters think they see a waning of the virus, a need to get their kids back in school, and a glimmer of hope that the economy is recovering.
A large segment of the public is becoming irate at the nightly looting, destruction, and arson that no longer seem to have much to do with the May death of George Floyd while in police custody. Where are the police, the mayors, and the governors to protect the vulnerable, the law-abiding, and the small-business owners?
Biden knows the mercurial polls now tell him that he must re-emerge and cease being a virtual candidate. Yet he knows that if he does, he risks losing the race. So his surrogates talk of mandatory fact-checking of the debates — or even canceling them entirely.
Hillary Clinton recently said that Biden “should not concede under any circumstances,” apparently even if he loses the November election. If the rules no longer favor Biden, then it seems time to change the rules.
So Biden has become a tragic prisoner of his own paradoxes.
He is an old centrist who forged a Faustian bargain with socialist Bernie Sanders and his hard-core leftist supporters. That alliance was felt necessary to win the Democratic nomination and the general election.
The hard left provided the urban fireworks this summer that seemed to drive down Trump’s poll numbers. Blue-state governors and mayors contextualized the violence as a “summer of love” or “largely peaceful.”
Biden stayed mum — both because the polls suggested he should remain so, and because he could hardly criticize those whose often violent acts were creating a sense of national anarchy under Trump’s presidency and thus undeniably aiding the Biden candidacy.
But as CNN news anchor Don Lemon recently warned his fellow leftists, now the polls are changing. Lemon apparently fears that the public is sick of seeing the urban unrest. Suddenly, many members of the media want Biden to condemn the rioting and violence.
But if Biden did, he might alienate his now-critical left-wing Bernie base. Yet Biden’s continued reluctance to unequivocally fault the rioters and arsonists may be alienating moderate suburban swing voters.
The same paradox surrounds the debates. Should Biden, as promised, debate Trump?
Yes. But would he thereby blow up his candidacy in a moment of incoherence?
No. But would he end up ridiculed in absentia, like Clint Eastwood’s empty chair at the 2012 Republican convention?
Trump never sits still. So should Biden match the president’s frenzied pace and hold town halls, impromptu interviews, tarmac rallies, photo-ops on the campaign trail, and daily unscripted press conferences? But to do so could well confirm to voters that he is frail and confused.
How did Biden become a prisoner of his own paradoxes?
Perhaps he knew that he was not physically or cognitively up to running a real campaign. But he ran all the same.
Perhaps he knew that the violence of antifa and other agitators could eventually hurt more than help him, but for months he kept silent about the violence all the same, given the perceived political damage to Trump.
Perhaps he knew that he had always opposed the wacky agenda of Sanders, but Biden wrongly felt he could pose as a moderate in 2020 yet if elected keep a promise to the socialists of the more radical wing of his party to govern as a leftist.
Perhaps he knows that his new progressive allies would be happy for him to win them a presidency but even happier for him to then disappear as soon as possible.
Paradoxes happen when what seems real is not — and is known not to be real by those who act as if it is.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won,” from Basic Books. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected].