Biden and the Media Narrative

Are the press out to get the President? Or abetting a coverup?

President Joe Biden talks to reporters as he departs an event with attendees from the U.S. Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting, Friday, January 20, 2023, in the East Room of the White House.
Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith

There are two competing narratives about mainstream press coverage of President Biden’s disastrous debate performance and its aftermath. The first is exemplified by Rebecca Solnit‘s Guardian column, “Why is the pundit class so desperate to push Biden out of the race?

I am not usually one to offer diagnoses of people I’ve never met, but it does seem like the pundit class of the American media is suffering from severe memory loss. Because they’re doing exactly what they did in the 2016 presidential race – providing wildly asymmetrical and inflammatory coverage of the one candidate running against Donald J Trump.

They have become a stampeding herd producing an avalanche of stories suggesting Biden is unfit, will lose and should go away, at a point in the campaign in which replacing him would likely be somewhere between extremely difficult and utterly catastrophic. They do this while ignoring something every scholar and critic of journalism knows well and every journalist should. As Nikole Hannah-Jones put it: “As media we consistently proclaim that we are just reporting the news when in fact we are driving it. What we cover, how we cover it, determines often what Americans think is important and how they perceive these issues yet we keep pretending it’s not so.” They are not reporting that he is a loser; they are making him one.

[…]

Although the Biden administration seems to have run extremely well for three and a half years, with a strong cabinet, few scandals and little turnover, a thriving economy and some major legislative accomplishments, the narrative the punditocracy has created suggest we should ignore this record and decide on the basis of the 90-minute debate and reference to newly surfaced swarms of anonymous sources that Biden is incompetent. Quite a lot of them have been running magical-realism fantasy-football scenarios in which it is fun and easy to swap in your favorite substitute candidate. The reality is that it is hard and quite likely to be a terrible mess. Nevertheless, this pretense is supposed to mean that telling a presidential candidate in mid-campaign to get lost is fine.

The main argument against Biden is not that he can’t govern – that would be hard to make given that he seems to have done so for the past years – but that he can’t win the election. But candidates do not win elections by themselves. Elections are won, to state the obvious, by how the electorate turns out and votes. The electorate votes based on how they understand the situation and evaluate the candidates. That is, of course, in large part shaped by the media, as Hannah-Jones points out, and the media is right now campaigning hard for a Democratic party loss. The other term for that is a Republican victory. Few things have terrified and horrified me the way this does.

The other is exemplified by Olivia Nuzzi‘s New York essay “The Conspiracy of Silence to Protect Joe Biden,” which I referenced in my Friday post “Is Joe Biden Fit to Serve?” Her colleague, Jane Mayer, amplifies it on the platform formerly known as Twiter and adds:

There are 2 conversations in Washington right now. The public one is that Biden’s ok. The private one is the same people telling reporters it’s a disaster. Biden fans are blaming reporters but the press is just letting the public in on what’s really being said.

It’s possible, of course, that these aren’t competing narratives at all. Maybe longtime Democrats Nuzzi and Mayer are in on the plot to convince the public that, despite all evidence, Biden is not up to the job of being President and we must therefore re-elect Donald Trump. Or, at the very least, trying to bring the evergreen dream of a brokered convention true because it’s good for business. (To be sure, speculation about blitz primaries and the like are good fun.)

Solnit is certainly right that questions about Biden’s age were there in 2020. And, given that he was aiming to become the oldest-at-inauguration President in American history, that was hardly unreasonable.

There was always talk that Biden’s role would be to right the ship after the disaster of the Trump presidency and then gracefully step aside for Kamala Harris or an open primary. But that was just never going to happen: nobody who has achieved the lifetime ambition of attaining that office has ever given up a chance for re-election unless it was absolutely clear they would fail.

Despite his claims to the contrary, his performance in the debate was not a one-off. His public appearances routinely show a man who has lost several steps.

Solnit is also right to point out that Biden has been a pretty effective President, especially given the lockstep opposition of Republicans and the challenges of getting then-Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema on board. But it’s also rather clear that his staff and family are stage-managing him in a way we haven’t seen in a very long time. We simply have to take their word for it that, behind the scenes, Biden is sharp as a tack. And we’re now getting a whole lot of reports—anonymously sourced ones, as is almost always the case—telling us that things are not good.

Where I’m most aligned with Solnit and others in her camp is that the incessant focus on Biden’s frailties takes the focus off his opponent. While Trump is decidedly more energetic than Biden in public appearances, he’s rather obviously also suffering cognitive decline. And, whereas Biden’s manifests in losing his train of thought, Trump’s manifests in fascist and racist rants. These are, to say the least, not equivalent.

But that works both ways. If Trump’s re-election threatens American democracy or, at the very least, the civil liberties of groups not favored by the MAGA base, then extraordinary measures are required to safeguard against that threat. If that requires sacrificing the political ambitions of a past-his-prime octogenarian, so be it.

It’s also worth noting that it’s not just “the media” who are on the “push Biden out of the race” bandwagon. A goodly number of members of the Democratic Establishment are publicly calling for him to leave. It’s fair to assume that many, many more privately wish he would do so.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, Media, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bobert says:

    I can fully appreciate the notion that the media is “driving” the news, much to the delight of Trump.
    Unfortunately Bannon is accurate that fear is a powerful motivator. but what I sense is that “the media” is continually fueling those fears.
    What I don’t understand is why “the media” appears to be ignoring the significance of the SCOTUS decisions on immunity and Chevron.To my mind those are significantly more fearsome.

    BTW, I’ve given up on my previous handle and email. Persistent moderation holds, and often those never are seen after several hours, suggesting they either never made it to moderation, or were lost after approval.

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  2. @Bobert:

    What I don’t understand is why “the media” appears to be ignoring the significance of the SCOTUS decisions on immunity and Chevron.

    Because to put it bluntly, “the president is old!” is a lot easier to write about than parsing a SCOTUS case. Also, the whole “should he stay or should he go” bit fits perfectly into the horserace-shaped void in the hearts of many in the media.

    I have long maintained that the key bias in our media is to an-easy-to-tell story, and the more dramatic, the better.

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  3. Jen says:

    Or, option C: an industry in decline is encouraged to produce “content” that drives clicks, leading to stories that, while ostensibly are just “reporting,” carry a breathless and overwrought tone.

    I have long maintained that the key bias in our media is to an-easy-to-tell story, and the more dramatic, the better.

    This, exactly. And with! as! much! drama! as possible.

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  4. Chip Daniels says:

    There is a very real herd mentality in most media outlets where they read only each other, talk only to each other and compete with each other to scoop the same stories framed with the same perspective.

    I remember in 2020 when Biden was just assumed to be too old and most of the headline stories were about Warren or Harris then there was that viral video of the lady in the elevator excitedly greeting Biden, then he won South Carolina and took the lead.

    None of the “savvy” media insiders saw this coming. There is very much an Inside The Beltway mindset that fails to grasp what the base voters in both parties are really like or want, but instead focus on palace intrigue and gossip because that’s easier.

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  5. Kathy says:

    Biden might be unfit to be president, but he’s less unfit than Wannabehitler. Among other things, because Biden does not want to be hitler.

    Come. Wannabehitler said he’d be a dictator. He said just for one day, which is exactly like someone getting a little bit pregnant.

    I’m also more confident that if Biden declines to the point he can’t carry on the work, his cabinet won’t be shaking in their soiled diapers wishing someone would do something, then valiantly confront whoever tries to resolve the mess so nothing happens.

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  6. gVOR10 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I have long maintained that the key bias in our media is to an-easy-to-tell story, and the more dramatic, the better.

    That. It’s not that they’re evil, it’s that they’re lazy. (OK, some of them are evil.)

    Or in Chicago School terms, they’re trying to produce column inches, and thereby clicks, as cheaply as they can. And as you say, “Biden is old” generates a lot more clicks than parsing the effect of Chevron.

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  7. Barry says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “I have long maintained that the key bias in our media is to an-easy-to-tell story, and the more dramatic, the better.”

    IMHO, Trump has disproved that. He provides endless McNuggets for the press: sexual crimes, threatening to kill enemies (incl. his former subordinates), declaring that he’ll be a dictator, senile, demented rants, and children who scored *billions* through government service.

    The press’ reaction has been to minimize and to ignore it.

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  8. Eusebio says:

    Media outlets and pundits who have called for Biden to step aside will not want to have turned out to be wrong four months from now–they have a professional interest in Biden not being reelected, even though some of them may personally hope the next president is a Democrat.

    It’d be helpful to have a disclaimer at the top of each piece or beginning of each media discussion noting that said person/organization has called for Joe Biden to step down as a candidate in the 2024 election.

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  9. Jack says:

    “And, whereas Biden’s manifests in losing his train of thought, Trump’s manifests in fascist and racist rants.”

    Setting aside this tiresome, intellectually light nonsense, and noting that it’s a long running meme that runs counter to the notion of recent cognitive decline, the issue at hand is Biden.

    And Americans can’t unsee what they saw, no matter the spin.

    Further, the simplest explanation is that there is a long running coverup of what even a casual observer has noticed: Joe Biden is a shell of the man he was when he served as VP. A shell. And now that WH insiders and media have been caught with their pants down they must scramble and do their CYA. They committed fraud, and its not an insignificant fraud.

    This isn’t rocket science.

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  10. stevecanyon says:

    I think the press is continuing to make facile, lazy comparisons here. “Lost a step or several steps” does not equal incompetent or unfit. Over at LGM they are trying to assert that Biden has Parkinson’s. Its possible I guess. But that alone does not make him unfit or gaga. Michael J Fox has had Parkinson’s for over 30 years yet until very recently he has continued to work and appears mentally all there. Too many people who didn’t finish medical school weighing in without sufficient knowledge. Yes it’s worrisome and I wish Biden was younger. But.

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  11. Scott F. says:

    @Barry: @Steven L. Taylor:
    Actually, I think Trump coverage reinforces rather than disproves Steven’s framing of media bias to the easy and dramatic.

    Trump’s depravity isn’t dramatic anymore. As James is constantly stating “it’s baked in.” It was interesting for a while, but the buzz is gone and the media needs stronger stuff to get to their high. So, the Trial of the Former President gets wall to wall, but the unhinged rants at his rallies don’t bear a mention.

    In addition, Trump’s depravity doesn’t fit into the horse race narratives that are the easiest for the media to report. Republicans don’t care that Trump is unfit for the office, so there’s no impact on the horse race. (As opposed to the way Democrats have responded to the debate.)

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  12. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Jack:

    and noting that it’s a long running meme that runs counter to the notion of recent cognitive decline

    The word you are looking for is “truism”–a notion that is obviously true, yet which is so well accepted repeating it doesn’t bring any clarity or new ideas. “Trump’s mental decline is manifesting in racist and fascist rants” is a truism not a meme.

    As to it “running counter to the notion of recent cognitive decline” you are partly correct, accidentally. It’s true that the mental decline we are watching Trump go through doesn’t create racist and fascistic tendencies, it reveals them. Dementia can often lower or erase inhibitions. The seemingly-sweet coworker who secretly was verbally abusive at home wont’ be so secret about it once the dementia starts; the buffoon who barely-not-really kept a lid on his racism in the past will let it fly. Generally these outbursts are in line with the person pre-decline. A well adjusted person will still have those angry outbursts (none of us are saints, all of us have anger) but they will be infrequent. But a person who was a monster before decline just becomes completely unbearable.

    Hence, why you see in Biden’s decline no angry outbursts or rants about hurting his enemies. That’s never who he was. With Trump the decline starts to remove those last remaining guardrails and we see that’s all he ever was.

    And Americans can’t unsee what they saw, no matter the spin.

    Thank you for so elegantly explaining the polling oddity Steven posted about yesterday. Why are polls swinging in Biden’s direction despite the debate trainwreck? Voters have seen a decade of Trump and they just can’t unsee it.

    Sad!

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  13. JKB says:

    And, whereas Biden’s manifests in losing his train of thought, Trump’s manifests in fascist and racist rants.

    I’m sorry your news sources did this to you. I don’t see that about Trump at all. The fascist methods, using Party controlled government agencies to direct private entities, are in use by Biden. But I know, “he has rallies” is the standard, not the Zwangswirtschaft (compulsory economy) of 1930s Germany, a lesser of which was also known as the “New Deal” in 1930s US.

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  14. @Scott F.: I agree.

    I would note that my frame explains why the mainstream media gave Trump all that free publicity in 2016 by covering everything he said.

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  15. Bobert says:

    @Barry:
    IMO, They ignore these Trump “things” because (most of ) voters that have actually been paying attention are bored with the Trump BS, it’s not so dramatic anymore, in other words….. not so juicy.

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  16. Jen says:

    @JKB:

    I don’t see that about Trump at all.

    Of course you don’t.

    The fascist tendencies are, of course, being fueled by Trump. That you do not see it does not negate this.

    @Jack:

    Your “fraud” nonsense smacks of projection. Trump continues to lie, about everything, and you dare bring up fraud? (Current whopper is that he “doesn’t know anything” about Project 2025, but is still trying to distance himself from its contents…). LOL.

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  17. CSK says:

    @Jen:

    Trump just proclaimed that Biden is dropping out of the race.

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  18. Jen says:

    @CSK: LOL of course he did, he is desperate to start up with the birther nonsense again, his supporters are already starting with this.

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  19. CSK says:

    @Jen:

    Oh, FFS. Harris was born in the USA. She’s over 35. Period.

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  20. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    That’s not how misinformation works.

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  21. Scott F. says:

    @Jen: Racist and misogynistic arguments against his opponents are a much more natural fit for Trump than the ageist ones. As @Neil Hudelson notes above, that what Trump reveals himself to be when he lets his showman’s facade slip.

    And as JKB demonstrates, his sycophants don’t see it as a bad thing, if they see it at all.

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  22. Gustopher says:

    This all reminds me of the Dean Scream, where the media decided to take a moment that looked bad, ascribe an entirely different meaning to it, and pound that narrative into the heads of everyone through sheer repetition.

    A hoarse Howard Dean, yelling to the crowd to try to get them excited despite a disappointing Iowa Caucus, picked up on a too close microphone was turned into a raving madman.

    In 2004, it was led by Fox, intent on destroying the candidacy of the anti-war Democrat. And then everyone started reporting on the reporting, and then Dean’s polling in New Hampshire collapsed.

    I don’t know who is leading the charge this time. And this time the moment being amplified this way is actually a little concerning. But I’m seeing a lot of America falling for a narrative set by the media — a media that is (for whatever reason) choosing not to do the same with Trump’s utterly insane, authoritarian-to-fascist comments.

    It just pisses me off.

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  23. DK says:

    @Jack:

    They committed fraud, and its not an insignificant fraud.

    But you support a patholgical lying convicted felon who unleashes daily senile, demented ALL CAPS rants on Truth Social; who committed rape; and who incited of a terror attack on Congress based on fraudulent sore loser election lies.

    Thus, your critique of others alleged fraud will always be dismissed as the irrelevant ravings of a phony hypocrite, rightly so.

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  24. wr says:

    @Jack: “This isn’t rocket science.”

    Right! Because rocket science demands facts. And what you have is a string of conjectures: “We’ve all seen the debate and know that Biden is suffering from his age at this moment, so clearly that means he’s also been suffering in exactly this way for the last five years so clearly everyone who’s ever said anything different is part of a conspiracy.”

    If this is the way your mind works, I hope your job doesn’t require operating any heavy machinery.

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  25. DK says:

    @JKB:

    I don’t see that about Trump at all.

    Because brainwashed MAGA loons are just as nutty as Trump. This was the deranged pedo Trump on Truth Social yesterday morning:

    PETER BAKER AND SUSAN GLASSER, THE FAKE OBAMA LOVING ‘JOURNALISTS’ WHO HAVE NO TALENT AND REFUSE TO WRITE THE TRUTH, ARE FAILING BADLY, ALONG WITH THE NEW YORK TIMES. THIS LOVELY ‘COUPLE’ IS A ONE SIDED, CONFUSED, AND HIGHLY CONFLICTED MESS. BAKER WRITES SO INACCURATELY ABOUT ME THAT HE HAS LOST ALL CREDIBILITY, ALONG WITH THE FAILING NEW YORK TIMES, WHICH AT SOME POINT WILL BE PUT TO REST IN THE GRAVEYARD OF BAD AND INACCURATE JOURNALISM. THEY HAVE CALLED ME WRONG FROM DAY ONE, EVEN HAVING TO APOLOGIZE TO THEIR READERS FOR THEIR FAKE REPORTING IN 2016. IT IS GOING TO HAPPEN AGAIN, BUT BIGGER AND BETTER THAN EVER BEFORE!”

    More evidence Convicted Felon Trump is unhinged, senile, and unfit to bus tables at a local diner – let alone be president. Of course our lazy, clickbait media should be calling for this demented dingbat to step down in favor of Nikki Haley.

    The press should also be in a frenzy about our corrupt Supreme Court giving this mentally ill dictator-wannabe Trump carte blanche to criming and thuggery, were he to win in November.

    It is a failure they are instead only dogpiling Joe Biden.

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  26. Bill Jempty says:

    @wr:

    Because rocket science demands facts.

    I always thought rocket science demanded some form of propellant, gasoline, a lit match…….

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  27. Gustopher says:

    @DK:

    More evidence Convicted Felon Trump is unhinged, senile, and unfit to bus tables at a local diner – let alone be president. Of course our lazy, clickbait media should be calling for this demented dingbat to step down in favor of Nikki Haley.

    Biden supporters generally don’t send death threats. And it’s almost unheard of for them to go to an office with a gun and try to resolve things.

    Just a random factoid that might explain why they focus more on the Democrat.

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  28. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: 😀 😀 😀 😀

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  29. Kazzy says:

    “The private one is the same people telling reporters it’s a disaster.”

    How private can it be if they’re telling reporters…?

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  30. CSK says:

    @Kazzy:

    With a guarantee of anonymity?

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  31. CSK says:

    @Kazzy:

    With a guarantee of anonymity?

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  32. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    Wouldn’t that be “off the record,” or “anonymously,” rather than privately?

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  33. Franklin says:

    @JKB: With all due respect, regulated capitalism is a far cry from a compulsory economy.

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  34. Ken_L says:

    It’s also worth noting that it’s not just “the media” who are on the “push Biden out of the race” bandwagon. A goodly number of members of the Democratic Establishment are publicly calling for him to leave. It’s fair to assume that many, many more privately wish he would do so.

    Democrats are publicly calling for Biden to withdraw because the media has decided Joe Must Go. I’d bet none of them would have said a word if journalists had agreed Biden had a bad debate, needed to do better in September, and moved on. It was the mass hysteria that exploded in the internet within minutes of the debate starting that spooked them, and now they’re irrational with panic. Or like Jared Golden and Seth Moulton, they’ve long nursed a grudge against the Democratic Party establishment and are happily taking an “I told you so” lap. After all there’s not a lot of difference between being in the minority and the majority when you’re a maverick who doesn’t get on well with your colleagues.

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  35. Barry says:

    @Scott F.: “Trump’s depravity isn’t dramatic anymore. As James is constantly stating “it’s baked in.” It was interesting for a while, but the buzz is gone and the media needs stronger stuff to get to their high. So, the Trial of the Former President gets wall to wall, but the unhinged rants at his rallies don’t bear a mention.”

    I disagree. ‘Backed in’ only applies to Republicans.

    Trump continues to produce newsworthy stories daily, and the press has covered.

    Rants on sharks and boats become ‘digressions’.

    Threats to kill his opponents and former subordinates become ‘muscular’ statements.

    An open plan to establish a dictatorship becomes ‘testing the limits of presidential power’.

    Forcing a 12-year girl to s*ck his cock becomes a nothingburger.

    SCOTUS pardoning Trump for trying to overthrow the government (and setting him up as a dictator) was not even a passing blip.

    Meanwhile, this ‘baked in’ rule has never applied to Dems. From the media’s 14 year crusade against the Clintons to Birtherism to the endless slagging on Biden for delivering excellent result, the press is like a pack of coked-up piranhas.

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  36. Barry says:

    “A goodly number of members of the Democratic Establishment are publicly calling for him to leave. It’s fair to assume that many, many more privately wish he would do so.”

    The media *claims* all of theses anonymous sources. It’s easy to just make them up. Also, there are aways a zillion people willing to privately say anything.

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  37. Jen says:

    @Barry: The media don’t make things like that up. HOWEVER, it’s really, really important to keep in mind the number of self-interested parties running around. To whit, one has:

    – Kamala’s supporters
    – Dems who think Biden is too conservative and want to nudge him out
    – Vendors who think they’ll have a better shot at landing a bigger contract
    – Any number of wannabe king makers
    – Those who want to position whatever party wing they are a part of as being more in the know than they really are

    Etc., etc., etc.

    The media doesn’t have to lie about this stuff because politics brings out the self interested LOOK AT MEEEE types really quickly.

    James Carville, for example, wrote one of the stupidest and most ridiculous opeds I’ve ever seen in politics for the NYT yesterday. It is a totally unworkable suggestion that ignores pretty much every aspect of the massive work of setting up a campaign, FROM SOMEONE WHO KNOWS DAMN WELL what it takes. Which leads me to ask, what’s in it for him? If someone who knows better proposes something stupid, it’s either to puff himself up (probable), or to somehow make money off the chaos (likely).

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