Joe Biden "hiding" in his basement.

Plus, Tangle's one year anniversary.
Isaac Saul Aug 5, 2020
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can try it for free, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email.

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Today’s read: 11 minutes.

Joe Biden’s “basement strategy,” Tangle’s one year anniversary, a reader survey (please take it!) and an important story about grocery prices.

Last summer, Joe Biden was on the campaign trail for the Democratic party nomination. This summer, he’s been in the press a lot less. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Reader feedback.

Adam from Atlanta, Georgia wrote in about this sentence I wrote yesterday: “But I wholly and unabashedly oppose the government regulating or criminalizing any form of speech. Speech is not violence.”

“I'm slightly confused by the framing of these statements,” Adam wrote. “I doubt you are claiming that the government should only regulate or criminalize kinetically violent acts. But, then, what exactly are you trying to say by placing these sentences one after the other?”

This is a good call out of sloppy writing on my part. I am not suggesting the government should do nothing about certain speech like threats of violence. Moreso, I’m contending that the way the government regulates speech now is how it should be regulated — and that it shouldn’t change. What I don’t want to see is the government adding to what kinds of speech (or news, as it pertained to the question) it regulates.


Update.

Yesterday’s quick hit #3 said “President Trump and his campaign are registering far more new voters in key states than Democrats, according to Axios.” After the story was published, several pollsters and voting experts pushed back on the Axios piece. In one particularly compelling breakdown, Tom Bonier, a political data analyst, said “Republicans are not out registering Dems in any of the states listed here. The analysis is flawed.”

Key to Bonier’s counterargument is that there are a ton of “unaffiliated” voters registering now, who are overwhelmingly young and liberal and will vote against Trump. He also pointed out that the timing of when Axios started tracking the data was misleading. When counting those voters, Bonier contends Democrats are doing far better in key swing states than Republicans, even if they aren’t scoring new registrants purely on party identification. You can read his Twitter thread about it here.


Quick hits

  1. Republicans and Democrats are both making concessions to get another coronavirus relief package passed. Republicans offered an additional $400 a week in unemployment benefits through December 15th ($600/week benefits just expired). Democrats lowered their ask for the Postal Service from $25 billion to $10 billion. But there are still several outstanding issues, and it seems unlikely an agreement will be reached this week.
  2. Kansas Republicans picked Rep. Roger Marshall over controversial candidate Kris Kobach in a GOP primary yesterday. The Republican establishment wanted Marshall over Kobach, who had been an ally of President Trump’s, particularly on voter fraud. But Trump didn’t endorse either candidate. In Missouri, Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush scored a shocking victory over Rep. Lacy Clay, ending his 20-year career in Missouri’s 1st congressional district. She’ll be the first black woman to represent Missouri in D.C. ever. Voters in Missouri also passed an expansion of Medicaid.
  3. New York City’s Health Commissioner resigned yesterday. Oxiris Barbot said she was leaving over her “deep disappointment” in how Mayor Bill de Blasio handled the pandemic. De Blasio has been under fire for letting public hospitals handle the contact tracing system in New York instead of the health department and facing increased scrutiny for the death toll in New York City. “I leave my post today with deep disappointment that during the most critical public health crisis in our lifetime, that the Health Department’s incomparable disease control expertise was not used to the degree it could have been,” Barbot said.
  4. House Republicans have a new campaign plan, Axios reports: the three R’s. “Renew the American Dream (individuals): School choice, workforce training, 5G, expanding broadband in rural communities. Restore Our Way of Life (communities): Defeating the virus, reopening safely and responsibly. Rebuild the Greatest Economy Ever (nationwide): Deregulation, fixing roads and bridges, China-critical messaging.” House Republicans are hoping the White House will adopt their strategy heading into 2020.
  5. A massive explosion rocked Beirut, Lebanon yesterday. At least 100 people were killed and more than 4,000 were injured in the explosion. Footage of the blast went viral on social media after a fireworks factory was ablaze and onlookers began filming. Then, out of nowhere, a second blast erupted, causing a massive mushroom cloud, flipping over cars and damaging distant buildings. A local official says every business in Beirut was impacted. Nobody knows exactly what caused the blast yet, but officials say thousands of tons of unsecured explosive material stored in a nearby warehouse could have been the source. An investigation is pending.
  6. BONUS: Alan Lichtman predicts a Joe Biden victory in 2020. Lichtman is famous for his election predictions, as he’s yet to miss since he started making them in 1984 — even predicting Trump in 2016. Instead of polls, Lichtman uses “13 keys” to winning —and decides who will be selected based on whoever scores more than six of those keys. Biden scored seven to Trump’s six in a New York Times video where Lichtman explains his methodology.

What D.C. is talking about.

Joe Biden and his campaign strategy. Over the last few months, Biden has been repeatedly described as “hiding,” “missing,” “nowhere to be found,” executing a “bunker strategy” and “staying in his basement.” The Trump campaign has said they want four presidential debates (instead of the three Biden’s team has agreed to) and insist Biden continues to dip the press, public and Trump by staying home.

At first, liberals resisted this description of Biden. They pointed to his virtual town halls and his Skype interviews when he called into television stations. But now there seems to be less debate about it: Biden is absent from the campaign trail. He’s holding very few virtual rallies, days or weeks will go by without seeing him on television and he has only answered questions from the press twice this summer. In late June, for the first time in three months, Biden held a press conference. Trump and his supporters responded by accusing Biden of “using teleprompters” to respond to the questions from reporters (fact check: false).

In the meantime, President Trump has been doing a press blitz. He recently sat down for full-length interviews with Fox News’s Chris Wallace and Axios’s Jonathan Swan. He’s holding frequent press briefings on the coronavirus again, calling into Fox News regularly, and he takes questions at the White House nearly every other day. The difference is stark, and it has sparked a wide array of opinions about which strategy is working — and what should happen in the upcoming debates.


What the left is saying.

Much of the left is warming up to Biden’s passive campaigning. The left views Trump as a daily embarrassment, and as long as the polls keep going the way they are, there is no reason for Biden to do anything but sit back and allow Trump to hurt himself. Joe Lockhart, who worked as former President Bill Clinton’s press secretary, argued that Trump has essentially handed the election to Biden — but that Biden could still blow it. In a list of six things Biden needs to do to win, Lockhart said “Whatever you do, don't debate Trump.”

“Trump has now made more than 20,000 misleading or false statements according to the Washington Post,” he wrote. “It's a fool's errand to enter the ring with someone who can't follow the rules or the truth. Biden will undoubtedly take heat from Republicans and the media for skipping the debates. But it's worth the risk as trying to debate someone incapable of telling the truth is an impossible contest to win.”

In The New York Times, Elizabeth Drew argued for scrapping the debates altogether. The debates never made sense as a test for presidential leadership, Drew wrote, and “one could argue that they reward precisely the opposite of what we want in a president.” Alex Shephard made a similar case, saying we should “cancel the presidential debates forever.”

“This moment has forced us to reimagine much of our politics, and it’s perhaps the right time to consider whether these annual televised events have the same salience they had in the heyday of Jim Lehrer,” Shepherd wrote. “The truth is that the debates have long since stopped serving the needs of voters and instead only exist to benefit television networks and cable news, in particular.”

In The Washington Post, Naftali Bendavid had a different perspective. After Biden took 30 minutes of questions in Delaware last week, Bendavid came away impressed. He said Biden “can speak cogently about the purpose behind his candidacy and the goals of a Biden presidency” even if he’s not as eloquent as Obama. Plenty of liberals have taken a similar stance, arguing Biden must get in front of the spotlight to fight back against Trump. Biden himself has said he’ll “beat Trump like a drum” if they have a debate.


What the right is saying.

Biden’s strategy will backfire — but he’s wise to keep hiding. Michael Goodwin wrote in The New York Post that Biden’s “astonishing turnabout” is a product of the low profile he’s keeping. Now liberals are dreaming of a world where Biden can wait until after the election to face any kind of scrutiny. Goodwin argued that the debates matter because they “establish a baseline test of competence and readiness.”

“The most fanciful part of the hidin’ Biden fantasies is the newest — that he can skip the debates and still get elected,” Goodwin wrote. “I don’t see how that works.” Goodwin says the campaign fears “Biden will be unmasked as mentally unfit to be president” and his “deficiencies are not a secret to those who know him.”

The Wall Street Journal board asked incredulously this morning: “Will Joe Biden duck the debates?” Of all the years to argue for no debates, this one is the worst, the board said.

“The pandemic has put the usual political rallies on hold, so fewer voters will see the candidates in the flesh,” the board wrote. “The conventions will be largely online. Press aides will shape the news coverage by picking friendly interviewers. Mr. Biden ‘hasn’t done any Sunday shows since Covid,’ Fox News’s Chris Wallace recently said, adding that ‘we will ask every week.’ The debates will be a rare chance for a third party to push Mr. Biden on his plans for tax increases and a Green New Deal.”

In The Boston Herald, Peter Lucas said Biden has no reason to debate Trump: “He is ahead in the polls; he is raising substantial campaign funds and he is protected by a dishonest media.”

“It is bad enough that he can barely put two coherent sentences together without losing his train of thought and meandering into space with a thousand-yard stare,” Lucas said. “He even flubs it when he is reading, or trying to read, words on a teleprompter, as he did again the other day.”

On the whole, the right thinks Biden is wise to avoid Trump or the press (where he would assuredly have blunders that make him look mentally unfit) but will ultimately have to face the scrutiny — otherwise he’ll blow the lead he has.


My take.

Presidential debates may be dramatic, overwrought, pointless cable television bonanzas that do little to advance a candidate’s arguments. There’s also a good case that they’re the opposite of everything this newsletter stands for: they lack nuance, they’re about dunking on your opponent, and they boil down to an existential battle to see who can create the best soundbite to make waves on the 24-hour news cycles.

But the show must go on.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board makes the best argument: Americans have not had, and won’t get, much chance to see the candidates this year. The debates would provide some of that visibility, even if they will do little to teach us about the candidates’ actual plans for the country. But the debates can also be revealing.

In 2016, the debates weren’t just great television, they also revealed two polar opposites as candidates. This year, with no audiences attending, many television spectators commented on how much more substantial the Democratic debates were between Biden and Sanders — and how informative they ended up being. One could hold out hope these debates follow that pattern (though it seems unlikely). Even if they don’t, though, who can honestly say they aren’t at least a little curious to watch Biden and Trump spar on stage?

I think Biden’s current strategy, while cowardly, is quite smart. Trump owned the media in 2016 and continuously defined himself with free press hits. He’s lost that ability this time around, though, and Biden recognizes it. Trump has mishandled the coronavirus, he shocks the country with statements ranging from bizarre to absurd on a daily basis, the economy is struggling, and voters don’t trust Trump on race relations. Biden knows all this and he’s acting accordingly: let Trump’s shortcomings be the story.

Of course, the president will have the upper hand in the debates. He attacks, he’s good for one-liners, he knows how to rattle his opponent and he’s willing to say anything to make a point. Lockhart is right about all of that. But I don’t think the advantage is as wide as people (on either side) imagine. Trump, like Biden, is also prone to terrible blunders. Just yesterday he couldn’t pronounce “Yosemite” Park. Trump is prone to go too far, too, and one could easily imagine him making an off-color comment about Biden’s late son or Tara Reade’s allegations of sexual assault, either of which would backfire spectacularly on Trump in the press.

The debates should and will happen — the idea that they won’t seems like a canard, a ginned up fantasy on both sides. Biden’s team has already agreed to three, which is standard for a presidential race. As for the “basement” strategy, I’m obviously not a fan — I’d much prefer seeing Biden doing sit-down interviews and virtual town halls on a daily basis. But it’s tough to argue it isn’t smart politics: he’s an aging gaffe machine in the internet era who is dominating the polls with limited press. Plus, the country already knows him. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, should be the Biden campaign strategy. At least for now.


Blindspot report.

As part of a partnership with Ground News, an app and website that uses data to rate the political lean of stories and news outlets, I’ll be featuring parts of Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you what stories folks on the left and right miss each week because of their biased news diets.

Last week, the left missed a story about an advertisement for author J.K. Rowling being removed from an Edinburgh train station because it was “too political.”

Last week, the right missed a story about TPUSA, the college campus conservative group, deleting a tweet that mocked face coverings after its founder died of COVID-19.

If you want more from Ground News, you can check them out here.


One year.

Instead of a reader question today, I wanted to acknowledge (and express appreciation to our readers for) Tangle’s one year anniversary!

A year ago today, I sent the very first edition of the Tangle newsletter. 147 friends and family were on my mailing list. I wrote about the mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California and the arguments over gun control. Then I answered a question about the differences between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren from a reader named Nick in Philadelphia, PA.

Today, just shy of 7,000 people have signed up for Tangle. More than 1,000 are paying subscribers and every newsletter has an open rate above 50%, which is basically unheard of in the newsletter industry. Journalists in almost every national newsroom read Tangle, as do readers in more than 25 countries outside the United States.

Looking back on the last year of stories and news is mind-boggling. Shortly after that first newsletter, in mid-August of 2019, ten weeks of protests in Hong Kong went from being peaceful to violent — and the world began tuning into their fight for democracy. A debate raged over Medicare for All as Democrats fought for attention in the primary. Andrew Yang exploded onto the political scene with a Universal Basic Income promise. Everyone freaked out about vaping. Another allegation of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh was published.

Then, in early September, nearly a year ago, the Ukrainian military aid whistleblower story began dominating the headlines. Someone inside the intelligence community was accusing the president of a grave crime in foreign policy. By the end of the month, Congress had opened an official impeachment inquiry against Trump. Adam Schiff became a household name. The White House announced it was pulling out of Syria.

Like an avalanche, the news kept coming into the winter: John Bolton turned on Trump, everyone turned on Elizabeth Warren, foreign policy experts testified against Trump, an ISIS leader killed himself during a raid, the U.S. changed its policy in Israel, the Democratic debates began in earnest, Warren fell out of contention, people thought Bernie was going to win the primary, the Trump-Giuliani Ukraine scheme was detailed, Trump got impeached, the U.S. embassy in Iraq was attacked, and then it was 2020.

Ah, 2020. The year started with the killing of Iran’s military general Qassem Soleimani.  Republicans and Democrats sparred in the impeachment trial in the Senate. John Bolton dropped another bomb — this one on the trial with details of his book. The Democratic primary in Iowa imploded, and we all thought Bernie took control. John Kelly broke his silence in extraordinary fashion, then Obama got involved, too. On February 27th, I sent out a newsletter with this headline: “Coronavirus: Is it time to worry?” We all had little idea what was coming.

Joe Biden catapulted into the lead after a win in South Carolina. Super Tuesday came and went, and Biden’s grip on the nomination became obvious. An attendee of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) contracted COVID-19 and said they interacted with members of Congress. We all began to freak out. Trump tried pulling troops out of Afghanistan, addressed the nation on the virus spreading across the world, then shut the country down in mid-March.

You likely remember the rest, as it’s certainly fresh in my mind: coronavirus lockdowns, a spiraling economy, George Floyd’s death, civil unrest, Biden’s sexual assault allegations, Biden versus Trump and — now — an upcoming election and a debate over how to get back to school and save the economy. There are about 25 stories I don’t even have room to mention here that would have defined any other one-year span, but not this one. This one was brimming and overflowing with major news.

Through it all, Tangle has been in your inbox: Monday through Thursday, right around 12 p.m. EST, over and over and over, summarizing the best arguments from across the political spectrum about the news of the day. And then giving my take. And then sharing your take on my take. It’s been a pleasure interacting with all of you and it’s been a tremendously successful first year. I look forward to many more.

To that end, the team is building a new website and working on reforming the newsletter for the better every day. As always, I want Tangle to be a place where readers have a voice and can offer their feedback — please consider taking a 2-minute survey below and thanks for helping me improve Tangle.

Take the survey!


A story that matters.

Rising grocery prices are stretching the unemployed even more than usual. The cost of groceries has been going up at the fastest pace in decades since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. Longstanding supply chains are upended, factory closures are limiting some supply, and sickened workers are throwing plants into chaos. The result is that affordable staples for low-income families like beef and eggs are more expensive than they have been in a long time. Beef prices have gone up 20.2% and eggs cost 10.4% more since February.


Numbers.

  • 9%. The percentage of voters who identified with the Republican Party in 2018 who now identify with the Democratic Party.
  • 9%. The percentage of voters who identified with the Democratic Party in 2018 who now identify with the Republican Party.
  • 12%. The percentage of white non-college voters who were Democrats in 2018 that are now Republicans.
  • 6%. The percentage of white non-college voters who were Republicans in 2018 that are now Democrats.
  • 8%. The percentage of white college voters who were Republicans in 2018 that are now Democrats.
  • 86%. The percentage of Americans who see a great deal or a fair amount of political bias in news coverage.
  • 84%. The percentage of Americans who say the media bears a great deal or a moderate amount of blame for political division in the country.

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Have a nice day.

Critically ill COVID-19 patients in a Houston, Texas, hospital are recovering under the treatment of a new drug. The drug is called RLF-100, or aviptadil, and it’s under early trials but showing promising results for patients who get seriously ill. Other treatments have been successful in early-stage COVID-19 patients, but this is one of the first to show real promise for patients who are on ventilators or already fighting to survive. "No other antiviral agent has demonstrated rapid recovery from viral infection and demonstrated laboratory inhibition of viral replication,” said Prof. Jonathan Javitt, CEO and Chairman of NeuroRx, which develops the drug. "We are conducting placebo-controlled trials to see whether the observations made in the case-control and open-label studies will be confirmed for less ill patients with COVID-19-related respiratory failure. Our independent Data Monitoring Committee will be conducting an interim analysis of these data later this month."

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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