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Despite Trump's goading, Biden steers clear of 'law and order' debate

·Chief National Correspondent
·8 min read
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The 2020 presidential election is the story of the tortoise and the hare.

President Trump is a frenetic and unpredictable presence, like the rabbit in one of the most famous of Aesop’s Fables. He is always full of sound and fury, yet what it signifies is often not clear. He has switched messages frequently in recent months, only to see his standing in the polls consistently slip.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, is slow and steady, like the tortoise. He gets criticized for doing too little campaigning, and he’s not responding to every comment or controversy pushed by Trump and his campaign.

Trump’s campaign has spent much of July telling those who watch TV ads that “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” The president and Fox News hosts have both talked a lot about the ongoing protests in Portland, Ore., which have become more confrontational over the past month in response to the arrival of federal law enforcement agents sent there by Trump.

Joe Biden and protesters on July 26, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)
Joe Biden; protesters in Portland, Ore., on Sunday. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Trump wants the campaign to be about law and order, but Biden has not taken the bait. His campaign is running ads about Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the presumptive Democratic nominee has spent the last month deliberately rolling out a week-by-week economic policy agenda. He’ll do a final event on the topic Tuesday in Delaware, where he’s expected to highlight his racial justice agenda.

Trump’s turn to law and order began in early June, but he retreated from it after it became clear that his use of federal officers to clear protesters from Lafayette Square in Washington so he could walk across to St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photo op had backfired. He spent the latter half of June talking about monuments and the Confederate flag.

By early July, however, Trump was back to law and order. The Biden campaign believes it’s another sign of futility from Trump and his campaign, signaling that they can’t find a message that works. “[Trump’s] campaign is busy cycling through one debunked attack on Vice President Biden after another, and flailing as none of them stick,” said Biden spokesman Mike Gwin.

Democratic political consultants who spoke to Yahoo News agreed.

“I don’t think anyone believes things will get even more out of control with Biden than they already are with Trump,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns.

Trump is “trying to say, ‘You think I am Captain Chaos? Biden will bring more chaos in your life than me,’” Trippi said. “And you know [Trump] has set that damn bar pretty high. Joe doesn’t have chaos in him.”

Biden has issued one public statement in response to Trump’s decision to send federal agents to Portland, which happened after Trump signed an executive order on June 26 that expanded the powers of federal officers to protect monuments and federal property. The first reports of federal officers in Portland came on June 27.

Demonstrators are seen taking shelter behind a shield amid a cloud of tear gas during a protest against racial inequality and police violence in Portland, Oregon, U.S., July 27, 2020. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)
Demonstrators take shelter behind a shield amid a cloud of tear gas in Portland, Ore., on Monday. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

Protesters have claimed that federal officers without identification have seized demonstrators off the streets and placed them in unmarked cars. One protester was hit in the head on July 11 by what appears to have been a munition fired by a federal officer, and suffered a skull fracture and other serious injuries.

There have been nightly confrontations in Portland for two months now, with protesters over the past week throwing commercial-grade fireworks at law enforcement and shining powerful lasers at their eyes that the government claims have caused injuries.

On July 21, Biden issued a 154-word statement that said Trump was “determined to sow chaos and division, to make matters worse instead of better.”

Biden gave a nod to the need for order, saying that when President Barack Obama was in office, the federal government “protected federal property across the country” but did so “without resorting to these egregious tactics.”

But that’s the extent of Biden’s comments on the matter.

There’s polling to back up Biden’s strategic avoidance of the conflict in Portland. Surveys show that COVID-19 is by far the most important issue to most Americans, with the economy and race relations also of concern.

On COVID-19, the president’s polling numbers are terrible: Since early April, Americans have grown increasingly disenchanted with Trump’s handling of the pandemic, which Gwin, the Biden spokesman, labeled a “historic mishandling.” The polling average tabulated by FiveThirtyEight shows Trump with 59 percent disapproval on this issue, and only 37 percent approval.

Even among Republicans, Trump’s numbers are down, from 86 percent approval in early April to 78 percent now. Among independents, Trump has gone from 46 percent approval in late March to 33 percent now.

And on law and order, there’s significant polling showing that Biden leads Trump on this issue as well. A Yahoo News/YouGov survey found that 51 percent of respondents said the country would become less safe if Trump won reelection, compared to 39 percent who said the same for Biden. In two other recent polls, Biden is more trusted than Trump to lead on crime and safety by 9 and 10 points, respectively, with another survey giving Biden a smaller lead of 3 points.

Protestors clash with Federal Protections Officers outside the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on July 26, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. (Chris Tuite/imageSPACE (Imagespace via ZUMA Wire)
Protesters clash with federal officers outside the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Sunday in Portland, Ore. (Chris Tuite/imageSpace via Zuma Wire)

“If I were Biden, I would point out that the country needs a president who can do something about the pandemic and the economy, not wage war against protesters in an attempt to change the subject,” said one Democratic operative who is a veteran of the last three presidential campaigns.

And that’s basically what Biden has done. In his July 21 statement, he concluded that “we need a president who will bring us together instead of tear us apart, calm instead of inflame, and enforce the law faithfully rather than put his political interests first.”

Trump’s campaign has claimed that Biden supports “defunding the police.” Biden, however, has repeatedly rejected the slogan and has said he wants to increase federal funding for the COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) program by $300 million.

Yahoo News asked two top Trump campaign officials for evidence that their attacks on Biden on issues of law and order were having an impact, but did not receive a response. Trump spokesman Tim Murtaugh did tell Yahoo News that “Biden has embraced the ‘Defund the police’ movement and clearly declared that he would redirect police funding elsewhere.”

The Trump campaign has seized on Biden’s comments in a July 8 interview with progressive activist Ady Barkan, where on two separate occasions Barkan asked Biden if he would “redirect” funding for police to other types of community services, and both times Biden said he would, while adding this is “not the same as getting rid of or defunding all the police.” Many activists who use the slogan “Defund the police” actually mean they want to reduce some funding for police and channel that toward social services, mental health counseling and affordable housing.

Biden’s official position, however, is that he does not support redirecting any federal police funding, but he does support addition funding for community-based services. It appears Biden misspoke in the interview with Barkan, but the Biden campaign has not publicly issued any kind of correction. The Trump campaign has continued to make the claim that Biden supports defunding the police, despite numerous fact checks by the Associated Press and the Washington Post which have said the Trump campaign is misstating and distorting Biden’s position.

Joe Biden and Jill Biden pay their respects to US Representative from Georgia John Lewis following a memorial service in the Rotunda of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, July 27 2020. (Shawn Thew/EPA/AFP via Getty Images)
Joe and Jill Biden pay their respects to Rep. John Lewis in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington on Monday. (Shawn Thew/EPA/AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Biden has been rolling out a series of policy proposals that take aim at the one issue where Trump has shown some residual strength: the economy.

For the past month, Biden has released plans for rebuilding American manufacturing, for fighting climate change and restoring American infrastructure, and for providing aid to working families and professional caregivers, ending with a racial equity plan this week.

Biden has even won praise for his manufacturing plans from former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who credited Biden for running on ideas that Trump campaigned on in 2016 but has failed to deliver. Bannon said Trump’s campaign had been “caught flat-footed.”

Monday brought the latest signs that Trump knows he must make up ground on the coronavirus if he hopes to win another four years in office. The president wore a mask in public for the second time and talked during a trip to North Carolina about his hopes for a vaccine to be released by the end of the year.

The government is pushing hard to produce a vaccine in record time, but even if one is approved by year’s end, it would likely still be available only in limited amounts and would face questions about its effectiveness and side effects.

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