The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Fox News thinks the ‘cognitive decline’ attack on Biden will work

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Fox News has been relentlessly pushing the line that Joe Biden might be suffering from dementia. A Fox News reporter asked Biden at a press conference on Tuesday whether he has “been tested for some degree of cognitive decline.”

That drew a sharp retort from Biden, who said this: “I can hardly wait to compare my cognitive capability to the cognitive capability of the man I’m running against.”

The Fox News website is playing this up in a big way, blaring this headline:

Biden, at rare news conference, says he’s eager to compare ‘cognitive ability’ with Trump

The careful reader will note the word “rare” slipped in there, which is in keeping with the Trumpworld talking point that Biden is hiding in his basement. That’s supposed to magically convert this into a bad contrast for Biden. Given how heavily Fox News personalities have promoted the “dementia” line, they likely think they scored big by getting Biden to comment on the matter.

Fortuitously, a new Pew poll digs into public attitudes toward the temperaments of both men. The poll, which finds Biden leading Trump among national registered voters by 54 percent to 44 percent, shows Biden with a solid advantage on many — though not all — such traits.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

For instance, Biden has a 35-point advantage on the question of whether each is seen as “even-tempered,” with 60 percent of voters saying this about Biden, and only 25 percent saying it about Trump.

On whether each is seen as a “good role model,” Biden has a 15-point advantage (46 percent to 31 percent). On whether each “cares about the needs of ordinary people,” Biden leads by 13 points (54 percent to 41 percent). On whether they’re “honest,” Biden leads by 12 points (48 percent to 36 percent).

However, on the question of whether they’re seen as “energetic,” Trump has a 16-point edge (56 percent to 40 percent).

That’s something to keep an eye on: It suggests the background noise that Trumpworld (and some pundits) have drummed up on Biden’s age could be seeping into voters’ minds. But taken with those other findings, it isn’t that worrying: “Energetic” by itself isn’t necessarily a positive, given that an abysmal 25 percent say Trump is “even-tempered,” and Biden is seen by vastly more people as empathetic and honest.

Indeed, if Trump is seen as energetic, it’s likely that far more voters than not believe this to be the case in an almost uniformly destructive way.

In the context of the big crises facing the country, it’s plainly obvious that these temperamental contrasts are terrible for Trump. The new Pew poll finds Biden favored over Trump to handle coronavirus by 11 points (52 percent to 41 percent); favored to effectively handle race relations by 13 points (48 percent to 35 percent); and favored to bring the country together by 14 points (45 percent to 31 percent).

It’s highly likely those numbers are connected, at least in part, to perceptions of temperamental contrasts on these issues. We’ve seen Biden try to strike a balance between calling for civil peace and recognizing protesters’ grievances, while Trump engages in full-blown racial incitement, something that large percentages of educated white voters see as worrisome and destabilizing.

We’ve seen Biden wearing a mask and speaking about the emotional challenges of social distancing while Trump parades around maskless, even as his campaign has rally attendees sign liability waivers.

And we’ve seen Biden vowing to defer to experts, while Trump prods them to endorse drinking bleach.

So why does Fox News think this contrast will play well for Trump?

You don’t have to look far for the answer to this. It came at the Tuesday briefing, from White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. Under questioning about whether Trump had read briefing papers reporting on intelligence concerns about Russia allegedly paying bounties to Taliban-linked militias, McEnany actually said this:

The very act of saying something so preposterous suggests high confidence that it will be widely believed by Trump supporters. If large swaths of the Trump-supporting Fox News audience are prepared to believe this, of all things, then there’s pretty much no chance that they’ll see the monumental flaws in Trump’s temperament that much of the rest of the country sees.

So it can be taken as a given, or even a certainty, that in those precincts, the temperamental contrast with Biden is simply guaranteed to play in Trump’s favor.

Black women are the Democrats’ most reliable voting bloc. Here’s how seven prominent black female activists and media figures say Joe Biden can win them over. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more:

Greg Sargent: The latest excuses for Trump’s ‘white power’ tweet reveal his weakness

Greg Sargent: Trump allies are sounding the alarm. But their warnings won’t help him.