Does Taking The High Road Make Political Sense?
What's more important, appearances or action?
As everyone is most likely aware, yesterday former President Donald Trump appeared in a Federal Cout in Miama to be arraigned on 37 felony counts based on his alleged handling of Classified Documents after leaving office. In a speech given Tuesday evening at his golf club in Bedminster New Jersey, calling the charges an outrageous political attack. This framing of these investigations into Trump as fundamentally political has been repeatedly advanced by both Trump’s closest allies and supporters and the majority of candidates competing with Trump for the Republican Presidential nomination.
Given Trump’s status as the current Republican Presidential frontrunner, and this being his second indictment this year, one might expect the Democratic Party to use this to their advantage. However, for the moment, Politico’s reporting suggests that President Biden (as the defacto head of the party) has ordered that they don’t leverage the Prosecution in any way:
President Joe Biden and his top aides have taken a vow of silence on the federal indictment of his predecessor, Donald Trump — and have explicitly ordered the national Democratic Party and his reelection campaign to do the same.
That directive was issued in recent days after Trump was hit with federal charges for his handling of classified documents after he left the White House, according to three people familiar with the instructions. But that decision has some Democrats and allies worried that Biden could miss a chance to underscore the seriousness of the national moment as well as deliver a political blow to his top White House rival.
Biden declared at the start of his presidency that he would not discuss Department of Justice investigations, particularly those about the former president, and he remained tightlipped when Trump was arraigned Tuesday in a Florida courthouse.
But Biden to this point has been explicit: The entities that the White House controls, which includes the reelection campaign and the Democratic National Committee, are not to publicly discuss any of the criminal investigations into Trump. Those closest to the president are deeply wary of any perception that Biden is trying to influence the investigations.https://www.politico.com/news/2023/06/13/biden-dnc-trump-indictment-00101821
Choosing to take the high road in this case and avoid the appearance of impropriety fits in with Biden’s “old school” approach to politics. Generally speaking, Presidents have traditionally avoided commenting on such cases. And, in part, Biden’s 2020 campaign was based on this type of return to normality and Senate-style performed civility.
The question is does this make sense from a political perspective–especially in this political climate?
I think it’s fair to say that if the situation was reversed, there is little chance that President Trump or most Republicans on that national stage would return the favor. To that point, most of them have conveniently forgotten how Trump’s first impeachment was centered around the then-President’s implicit attempt to launch a political investigation into Biden* (his chief political rival). Likewise, most of those Republican supporters at the time thought this was perfectly acceptable, non-impeachable behavior. Given all of that, it’s hard to imagine them–and in particular Trump–not exploiting any hint of connection to crime (we’re even seeing this now with, to date, unsubstantiated claims about President Biden accepting foreign bribes). Further, I think it’s fair to say that a significant amount, if not a majority, of Republicans see this as a political prosecution (I expect some of them will advance that argument in the comments to this post).
I think it’s safe to say Biden’s not going to win over the majority of Republicans with this hands-off approach. Nor do I expect it’s going to win him any friends among Republican lawmakers (at least not in public).
Likewise, choosing not to directly go after Trump risks not giving “red meat” to his base. And that could be problematic considering that polling suggests that they are somewhat lukewarm on his reelection bid. There’s an argument to be made that Biden’s election was as much a repudiation of Trump as it was in support of Biden. Given that, so long as Trump is the frontrunner, it would make sense to keep the focus on him and his alleged misdeeds.
I can see an argument that, to the degree that this is a political decision (versus a decision that grows out of a moral conviction about how government should operate in public), the high road appeals to traditionalist independents and anti-Trump Republicans who voted for Biden in 2020. And there is evidence to suggest that both were important in the president’s victory (independents, in particular, broke for Biden by 14%, a rate far higher than the 4% Trump beat Clinton by in 2016).
It’s also worth noting that just because Biden has prevented the National Party from going after Trump for the moment, it doesn’t mean there won’t be attacks. Also from the Politico article:
Some left-leaning groups outside Biden’s control have already commissioned ads about Trump’s legal woes, which Democratic officials believe helps do the dirty work for them. And first lady Jill Biden did venture a public comment, bemoaning the Republicans standing by Trump in the face of the indictment….Some left-leaning groups outside Biden’s control have already commissioned ads about Trump’s legal woes, which Democratic officials believe helps do the dirty work for them. And first lady Jill Biden did venture a public comment, bemoaning the Republicans standing by Trump in the face of the indictment.https://www.politico.com/news/2023/06/13/biden-dnc-trump-indictment-00101821
So for the moment, we shouldn’t expect Trump’s legal issues to be a focus of Democratic leader’s talking point. The question is, for how long, with an election approaching, can they maintain that approach and who among them will ultimately break rank on this first?
* – In addition to the political investigation at the core of the original Impeachment, let us not forget that one of the most enduring phrases to come out of the 2016 campaign was “Lock Her Up” which suggested the need for a political investigation into Trump’s chief political rival Hillary Clinton. In fact, there is a good chance that Trump’s eventual win was secured by… checks notes… a last-minute unprecedented announcement of the FBI reopening an investigation into Clinton. At the time, Candidate Trump made a significant deal out of that announcement.