Journalists should stop cleaning up after Biden

Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop in Wilmington, Del., on Sept. 14. Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS

All political candidates make mistakes. They have to retract hasty, ill-considered statements. They find that the position they took to win their primaries is inconvenient afterward, and try to explain it away. For a lucky few candidates, the embarrassment is mitigated by the assistance of journalists who accept the explanations or, even better, don’t ask for them in the first place.

Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, is in that enviable position. Whenever he makes a political mess, he is blessed with people, many of them not in his employ, who will clean it up for him.

In a March 15 debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders, Biden sounded favorable toward banning fracking, a stand that could cost him votes in crucial states such as Pennsylvania. When President Donald Trump raised the issue, Ellen Knickmeyer and Calvin Woodward of the Associated Press reported that Trump was distorting Biden’s views. They explained that Biden had “misstated his fracking policy” in that debate but “otherwise been consistent on his middle-of-the-road position.”

He has? During a debate in July 2019, Dana Bash of CNN asked him “to clarify, would there be any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration?” He responded: “No, we would — we would work it out. We would make sure it’s eliminated.” At a campaign stop two months later, he told an environmental activist: “I want you to look at my eyes. I guarantee you. I guarantee you. We’re going to end fossil fuel.” The activist, Rebecca Beaulieu, told me in an email that she took Biden’s answer to include all fracking.

It’s true that he has also sometimes poured cold water on the idea of a ban. Just days before talking to Beaulieu, he said a national ban could not pass Congress. Having won the nomination, he is more emphatic. This August, he said, “I am not banning fracking no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.” (He said that, not coincidentally, in Pittsburgh.)

Reviewing this record, Amber Phillips reported in the Washington Post that Trump has twisted Biden’s words, even while conceding that Biden has been “more straightforward” about opposing a ban since winning the Democratic nomination. The truth is that Biden has been inconsistent on this question, and Trump is within his rights to take political advantage of the fact.

Reporters have also stepped forward to defend Biden from the accusation that he wants to confiscate guns. Reid Epstein dinged the president’s son Eric Trump in the New York Times for making that claim at the Republican convention. Reporters have been especially exercised by claims that Biden is “coming for” Americans’ guns.

Biden himself has not always minded that phrase. In August 2019, Anderson Cooper raised the issue of confiscating assault weapons in a CNN interview of Biden. Cooper said that the U.S. had so many assault weapons that the ban on new ones that the U.S. maintained for a decade had not had much effect. He mentioned “gun owners out there who say, well, a Biden administration means they’re going to come for my guns” — and Biden interjected: “Bingo. You’re right if you have an assault weapon. The fact of the matter is they should be illegal, period.” After a follow-up, Biden conceded only that he didn’t think he could legally have law enforcement seize assault weapons from their owners by “walking into their home” and “going through their gun cabinet.”

The plan you’ll find on Biden’s campaign website doesn’t say anything about forcing the sale of existing assault weapons, although it would, among other things, make owners pay $200 to keep them. But if Biden was just flubbing his own position, it wasn’t the only time he has done so. In March, Biden had a testy and well publicized exchange with a gun-rights supporter, in the course of which he said, “We’ll take your AR-14s away.” He probably meant to refer to AR-15s.

This protective impulse toward Biden on the part of the press is sure to express itself in all kinds of ways as the campaign goes on. In early September, the candidate said he would raise the corporate tax rate “on Day 1” of his presidency. A few journalists noted that Biden would not have the power to make good on that promise, just as commentators note the many occasions when Trump engages in similar bluster. MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle pushed back on this criticism, saying Biden was just voicing “a sentiment” and that Trump often makes equally empty promises.

When people want to dismiss the importance of Trump’s inaccuracies, they sometimes say he should be taken seriously but not literally. But part of the press’s job is to report when candidates are departing from the literal truth. It should not be to protect a candidate from the voters, or from himself.

Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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(7) comments


But they won't stop the "cleanup" of Biden because they are on the same team. I once heard that over 90% of journalists were registered dems.


I once heard that over 90% of journalists were registered dems.

That’s pretty convincing.


...and true.


As Trump says, "It is what it is."


"Well, what's your definition of control?" Trump replied, adding: "I think it's under control."

"How? A thousand Americans are dying a day," Swan said.

"They are dying. That's true. And you -- it is what it is," Trump said emphatically. "But that doesn't mean we aren't doing everything we can. It's under control as much as you can control it."

Thanks for bringing up the callousness of Trump. And your made up statistics are not true.


BTW, once again your link gets a 404. I’m not going to do a search to find it because it’s basically the only story that MRC reports. Your using a rightwing source to tell me the media has a liberal bias. Do they have a liberal bias because they don’t report Trump’s over 20,000 lies as truth? But, you believe anything he says, don’t you? You’re a good follower of His Excellency.


The people who pay attention to what is going on, for a living, tend to be Democrats. What Biden is doing is called the pivot. It's so ordinary and usual it even has a name. The fact that he was pandering to the left wing, who lost, tells us something, but not about Biden and his party. Missteps are to be taken at face value: I'm giving up MY AR-14. The real plan of the party is something like a reinstatement of the Clinton era assault weapons "ban" (or a nationwide SAFE act, however you feel about that). And fracking it's possible to have conflicting positions on fracking: you can leave it up to the states, and on the state level want it banned or heavily regulated. It really does lead to a lot of problems, and not the long term one actually motivating some, that any extraction of fossil fuels contributes to climate change and thus should be opposed by any means available. Earthquakes, flammable drinking water...not good. And it's so expensive it isn't even competitive economically: which has changed since the primaries, what with the pandemic driving down demand for oil. And finally, a range of positions makes sense for a presidential candidate. These are the kinds of bills the candidate would be willing to sign off on, not necessarily the kind they would push. Not signing off on what the people, represented by the legislature, want should be reserved for the strongest held convictions, signalled by consistent positions. Presidents don't make laws. Or shouldn't. And until the system is broken (which it's being drive to rapidly by some) it will be impossible for any president (or legislator) to make a law that violates the constitution. Under an objective, non partisan, Supreme Court it wouldn't stand. What president's do is appoint people, preferably not hacks.

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