I don’t know what Joe Biden was doing during the attacks in Benghazi, but I suspect we’ll find out soon. And if it’s not an accurate portrayal, it will be something tantalizing — some conspiracy-laced theory that prompts calls for hearings and leaves certain cable commentators foaming at the mouth.
I don’t know how many emails Biden has deleted over the course of his career, or why he would have deleted them, but I suspect we’ll know that soon as well, even if he trashed a bunch of junk emails for dating sites and cut-rate car insurance.
Russia, if you’re listening. ...
OK, I’m getting carried away. But I’m setting up a point that’s not far-fetched: As the clear early front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Biden, if he emerges as the nominee, will eventually face a problem that didn’t exist before the days of breathless cable news coverage, extreme partisan hackery and anything-goes social media. That is, there is plenty of time for the right-wing attack machine to set its sights on the former vice president and set a brand new Biden narrative — and ample time for a lot of Americans to buy into it. Whether it’s accurate or not.
On the campaign trail in 1968, eventual President Richard Nixon fought the image of a bitter loser from eight years earlier, and he won. “If people look at me and say, ‘That’s a brand new Nixon,’ ” he famously said. “Well, all I can say is, ‘Maybe you didn’t know the old Nixon.’ ”
President Ronald Reagan later battled the notion he was too old and flighty to be president, and this brilliant line helped him win his second term: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Of course, times have changed, and it’s harder to combat a narrative. There are media echo chambers now, and on the right the noise comes from Fox News, talk radio, Breitbart and countless Facebook and Twitter accounts — namely the one belonging to President Donald Trump.
Anything is fair game, and the end goal of winning elections always justifies the means, no matter how ugly or untrue the message is. Repeat it often enough and enough people will begin to believe it.
Strange as it might seem, Democrats might be better off next year if they didn’t have an established front-runner. With multiple contenders elbowing for the lead, the right-wing smear machine wouldn’t know who to focus on, and there would be less time for any single narrative about any single candidate to so thoroughly infiltrate our culture.
To be clear, critical coverage and opposition research are to be expected in politics. That’s nothing new, and it’s good for our leaders to be able to survive the scrutiny of an intensive campaign. But what’s different these days is that the bar has been lowered for truth and fairness. Or, has it completely disappeared?
Case in point: the doctored video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi slurring her words that recently made the rounds as an apparent news clip.
I have an indelible memory of the 2016 race. My son came home from school and told me about a political chat he had with a middle schooler, a boy who couldn’t have been too informed about the candidates, their backgrounds and positions. “She’s a liar,” the boy said conclusively of Hillary Clinton.
Never mind that Trump lies more than most people brush their teeth in a day; the Hillary’s-a-liar narrative had seeped all the way in. Just as intended. Remember, she too was an early Democratic front-runner. It was one of two simple, parallel anti-Clinton narratives: She’s a liar, and she’s corrupt.
So already, that smear machine is laying the groundwork for the new Biden narrative.
The trending bar at the top of Breitbart’s website, where Biden is a regular now, recently dubbed him “Creepy Joe.” And a headline in the conservative National Review read, “Is Biden the new Hillary?”
The National Review story didn’t dig too deeply into much — it read like a quick-hit “daily” story, as they say in the news biz. It touched on the policy similarities between Biden and Clinton on trade and the 1994 crime bill, but it also conjured recent stories that suggest potential corruption. That is, the “murky relationship” between Biden’s diplomatic efforts in Ukraine and the business ties there involving his son, Hunter.
That Ukraine story is a potential gold mine for the smear machine, no matter how the facts turn out. It can feed the conservative cable/radio/social media beast endlessly, using the exact same crooked narrative that worked so well in 2016.
Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine, Benghazi, Benghazi. Oh, and what about his emails?
Richard Fellinger is an author, former journalist and fellow in Elizabethtown College’s Writing Wing.