Unfortunately for him, that’s not the sole issue he has to deal with. So long as the rioting continues, and so long as it occurs almost exclusively in cities controlled by Democrats, Biden’s pronouncements won’t matter much. Many Americans just want the lawlessness to stop. If Biden’s statements don’t stop the agitators or give mayors and governors the political cover to crack down, further outbreaks will just increase the demand for someone to act. That someone will be President Trump.
No one doubts that Trump wants forceful action to suppress looting and rioting. Indeed, he has been offering federal help to states and cities since the violence arose. He’s openly hankering for a justification to send in the National Guard or Army to patrol city streets. Biden can argue all he wants that Trump’s statements inflame tensions. But many Americans, especially those who aren’t already in the Democratic camp, don’t see them that way.
This places Biden in a bind. If his words can’t hold back the tides, he must either act or cede the initiative to Trump. He might be tempted to do the latter, expecting that Trump’s bravado and lack of empathy will not end the rioting or even make the situation worse. But it’s never a good idea to let your fate rest in your enemy’s hands.
That’s why Biden has to do something more. His unique political talent has placed himself at the center of the Democratic Party, ideologically speaking. As a senator and vice president, this enabled him to broker deals to pass important legislation. As the party’s nominee, he should use his ability now to bring together Democratic mayors and governors to work out a common rhetorical and practical approach to end the violence.
Doing this would put an end to the idea that Biden is a weak man controlled by the party’s left. It would show that even without the presidency’s powers, he can lead forcefully and bring people together. His campaign is built on the idea that he can do this, whether the issue is mobilizing global action on climate change or healing America’s soul. Doing it now would be the ultimate display of true, moral strength that would far outshine the brute force Trump touts.
Prudence dictates that this be done privately before it is announced publicly. Biden should burn up the phone lines with the relevant players searching for a common ground. He should become the Zoom Lord, leading conference call after conference call to bring his party together. He knows that private spadework is how successful diplomatic initiatives are planted. He might already be doing that, and Democrats should hope he is.
He could even use such an effort to place the onus back on Trump. Imagine this: A hundred Democratic mayors and governors, wearing masks and practicing social distancing, gather at Biden’s home in Wilmington, Del., to announce a united plan to end the violence that includes a pledge to arrest and prosecute anyone caught rioting, looting or injuring others. The group then turns to Trump and asks for discrete, nonviolent aid from the federal government: intelligence-sharing from the FBI, use of federal prosecutors to charge and prosecute federal crimes, financial assistance to help strapped localities pay for the increased burden. The list can go on, but the political purpose is clear: Democrats take the lead on front lines, while Trump provides support that’s needed to get the job done. He would be foolish to refuse, and the credit for ending the nation’s pain goes to Biden.
I doubt Biden will do something this bold and potentially risky. He strikes me as a well-intentioned but ultimately cautious pol — a man who has only the courage of another man’s convictions. Such a man can successfully follow another’s lead, but cannot lead himself.
Presidential leadership consists of more than giving good speeches and displaying good intentions. If that were the case, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush would rank among our best presidents instead of our worst. Biden has a golden opportunity to show that he’s more worthy of the Oval Office than these men or Trump. Let’s see whether he’s up to the challenge.
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