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Democrats Are Handling the Hunter Biden Story Wrong
From the president on down, the approach has got to change.
IT’S TIME TO GET NERVOUS about Hunter Biden.
It’s tempting to try to dismiss or ignore it all—the constant “Biden & Son” and “Biden Crime Family” emails, the intrusive attempted shaming over the seventh grandchild, the drug addiction, the unpaid taxes, the illegal gun, the investigation by a prosecutor who was named by Donald Trump, the plea deal that’s now on hold.
And why not just tune it out? House Republicans can allege wrongdoing by President Joe Biden, but what did he do? They can even try to impeach him, but why? They’ve been digging and threatening for years, with no proof or evidence to show for it. The case against the Biden who holds a public office does not exist.
That is still a fact, but I’ve changed my mind about how to handle the Hunter Biden problem. Denial, dismissal, paternal indulgence, and legalistic analyses aren’t going to cut it in an election like the one we’re facing in 2024. Democrats, the president, and anyone who cares about the survival of democracy should fear any factor that could tip the balance the wrong way, whether it’s third parties or a troubled family member in the crosshairs of the House GOP and the MAGA movement.
It’s unrealistic to think the president or his party can make the Hunter problem go away. There are too many ongoing public matters involving Hunter, from his pending plea deal to the multiple investigations House Republicans are pursuing. There are unpredictable and unimaginable episodes, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green brandishing nude photos of Hunter during a hearing last month. And MAGA Inc., the Trump-allied super PAC, is running a new ad on CNN, Fox News, and Newsmax that tries to tie Biden to his son’s business dealings and legal troubles. The opening: “How come your Justice Department goes after Trump endlessly, yet they cover for your family?”
But the Hunter problem is not like Joe Biden’s “age problem.” The president is 80, and that is that. With Hunter, there are ways to mitigate and counter the political damage he could cause.
One is to keep him offstage as much as possible. As veteran Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik says in his latest campaign memo, the White House staff must have “the authority to manage” the president’s son. Otherwise, “Hunter could become a serious campaign liability. It is inexplicable how Hunter has been allowed to parade around White House State dinners and fly so conspicuously on Air Force One.”
Democrats could also come up with a better, less lawyerly communications strategy on Hunter matters. For instance, last week House Oversight Committee members learned that twenty times in ten years, Hunter Biden put his father on speakerphone while he was with business associates or mentioned to them that his father was on the phone. The speakerphone conversations were about “general niceties,” Hunter Biden’s former partner, Devon Archer, told them: Geography, the weather. No specific business deal or dealings or “financial stuff.” The point was to reinforce “the brand,” Archer said, defining that as the Biden name and Hunter’s own Washington career and contacts.
Rep. Dan Goldman, a lawyer who was lead counsel in Trump’s first impeachment when Democrats controlled the House, characterized those speakerphone conversations as the “illusion of access”—a phrase that has spread and lingered. A writer for Fox News said Goldman “managed to spin out a positive headline” from a damaging interview.
But there were other directions Democrats could have gone. Goldman asked many questions about Hunter’s reaction to his brother Beau’s 2015 death at 46 from brain cancer (so distraught he relapsed into addiction), and how Joe called Hunter constantly to check in with him, not to talk business. (“He doesn’t have much expertise in the world of business,” Archer said of the president.)
Why not play up that angle?
Elana Schor wrote last week in Politico Nightly that the personal approach, leaning into Biden’s relationship with Hunter, would have worked better than trying to “contextualize” the twenty phone calls and dwell on access, illusory or not. She also wonders why Democrats did not go on offense after Archer’s testimony:
Republicans have so far found no direct link between Hunter Biden’s business deals and Joe Biden. Yet rather than leave the room with a potshot at Republicans for continuing to hunt for one, Democrats tried to contextualize what they heard.
While the GOP focused on the ex-business partner’s statement that Hunter Biden put his father on the phone during dinners about 20 times, Democrats countered that it was “casual conversation.”
Imagine if, instead, Democrats left the interview and reminded us of the affectionate voicemail that Joe Biden left his son during the younger man’s battle with addiction. The president’s gregarious, extroverted nature is a central part of his political identity, so why not talk about his closeness to Hunter in that context?
Biden’s role as “the good father” is embedded in the national psyche, reinforced by his public devotion to and defense of Hunter. Josh Barro, a Democrat who left the GOP in 2016, sees that devotion in a dark, depressing light. “To love Hunter Biden is to expose yourself to being used and abused,” he writes. He says Hunter has wreaked “emotional terrorism” on his family “as they have struggled to keep him alive and sober.”
The Biden family has made its choices out of love. But strictly from a political standpoint, the pattern is dangerous, especially at this Trump-warped juncture in U.S. history. A high-visibility Hunter, with a habitual presence at presidential and family events open to the media, will provoke recurring if unfounded questions about his father’s character. You need only look at how the House GOP undermined former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with its endless hearings on the deadly 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya.
Multiple investigations of the Benghazi tragedy found no serious wrongdoing or lapses, but that was politically irrelevant. As now-Speaker Kevin McCarthy bragged on Fox News in 2015, Clinton was considered “unbeatable” but his party’s Benghazi hearings had tanked her poll numbers and made her “untrustable.” That image, fueled as well by relentless and (as is clear now) wildly disproportionate attention to her private email server, dogged Clinton throughout her 2016 presidential campaign. Registered voters who stayed home probably cost her the election, FiveThirtyEight reported. Enter President Trump, who (as is also clear now) intended to keep the job after the last election, win or lose.
No one should discount the Hunter effect. The 2024 race is consequential and uncertain to a degree I’ve never seen in 35 years of White House campaign coverage. When you have a former president and likely Republican nominee who could be facing four felony indictments by the end of the month; a sitting president who is hard-pressed to win the respect or enthusiasm he deserves; a Green Party candidate already running; and the nominally centrist No Labels group purportedly trying to improve democracy by getting its own ticket on the ballot in as many states as it can, practicality must prevail over sentiment.
The Hunter problem is going to take an “emotional toll” on the Bidens no matter what, Sosnik writes. I think he’s right. It will hurt them when his troubles make news. It will hurt them to exclude him in order to avoid even more public notice. These are tough family decisions, yet Joe Biden has a higher duty right now, a duty to his country. One hopes an adult child, even a troubled one, will understand that and be secure enough in his father’s love to do what he must: fade from the spotlight as much as is possible, and let his father do what he must: win a do-or-die referendum on America’s future.