Opinion | Where’s Joe? What Biden Could Learn From Reagan About Running in a Crisis

Carter diagnosed the problem, but had no solution. Reagan had to draw a fine line between criticizing the president and not politicizing a national crisis. By composing an elaborate campaign that portrayed its positive qualities as the embodiment of the hope the nation was looking for, he was able to convince voters that he had the solution.

Gather around the President in a time of crisis

The hostage crisis began in 1979 when a group of Iranian students took over the US embassy in Tehran and confiscated 52 American citizens. The act was their retaliation for the United States, which allowed Iran’s deposed Shah to enter the United States and receive cancer treatment while they wanted him to face trial for abuse of his secret police in Iran. The hostages were held for 444 days and finally released on Ronald Reagan’s inauguration day, resulting in split-screen newsreels showing both events. (Recently released archive proofs suggests that a republican political activist helped bring the battered Shah to the United States, and also worked to delay the release of the hostages to deny Carter the electoral advantage that would help them resolve the problem. However, there is no evidence that Reagan or any of his close advisors participated in or knew about these efforts.)

In the early months of the crisis, the public gathered around Carter. A January poll found that Carter Reagan led with 59 to 36 percent and was ahead of all groups – city voters, suburban voters, country and small town voters, men and women, conservatives, moderates and liberals. A pro-Reagan letter writer was annoyed: “If Carter can keep the embassy hostages alive until the November 1980 elections, he can win the nomination and election by default. … Carter’s inept and fatal mistake caused the Iran crisis, but he is the only party that subsequently reveled politically. “The crisis pushed Senator Ted Kennedy, who ran against Carter in the preliminary round, the way Biden is squeezed out today. Reagan made a (short-lived) vow not to criticize Carter.

But over the months, the public became more hostile to Carter. Even before a rescue operation ended in disaster in April and eight American military personnel were killed, Americans began to say that the president had failed. All Republican presidential candidates again criticized Carter, and Kennedy again caused problems in the area code. Reagan and his advisors seized the opening but did not directly criticize the rescue efforts. Instead, Reagan called the failed mission “a symptom of a major crisis we are facing. America’s credibility, leadership, and strength are not only challenged by our friends, but increasingly challenged by our opponents. … With this historical background we are entering one of the most dangerous decades of Western civilization. “By summer, Carter’s approval ratings had dropped and Reagan could focus less on the Iranian crisis than on the economy and growing concerns about inflation – a less dangerous political reason for freely criticizing the President.

Reagan’s campaign was not perfect, as the decision not to criticize the president shows. But overall, Reagan performed a fine dance of criticism of Carter without politicizing the subject until events reduced the urgent need to focus on it.

Biden should wait his time

Although the historical circumstances and the specific details are different, there are some important lessons for Biden from these events:

Waiting. This is a dangerous moment for Joe Biden. His team suggests that he provide shadow reviews to criticize Trump’s efforts. But these briefings could backfire spectacularly: they could look petty and political and become the target of criticism if Biden’s plans attract attention and debate. Even worse, they could actually create confusion by being the specter of competing centers of power and information. If the response to the first briefing is an indication, they are usually ignored. Reagan’s vows not to criticize Carter did not last long, and he had started criticizing the incumbent before the failed rescue efforts in April. But he did not want to be the main critic of the President’s efforts, and he even emphasized areas in which he supported the President – for example, even after the failed rescue efforts, he said he had supported them, but thought it was too late. Biden must also let the president lead. If Trump is the ineffective and irresponsible cartoon his opponents think he is, events will show this soon enough.

Avoid becoming the target of criticism. Another reason to wait is not to distract criticism from the president. In a memo by Reagan’s pollster Richard Wirthlin shortly before Reagan’s debate with Carter, this problem was noted: “If the governor [Reagan] If Jimmy Carter’s record is the main topic of the debate and campaign on Tuesday, we will successfully complete the debate and win the general election. However, if Carter makes Ronald Reagan the subject of the debate and campaign, we’ll both lose. “Advisor Ed Meese told Wirthlin what he had heard about the Carter campaign’s own strategy:” You said that if Jimmy Carter is the problem, we will lose, but if RR becomes a problem, we will win. ” Trump create the record that will be evaluated by voters in November; Biden does not have to step in now and make himself the goal that others have to criticize.

Connect the dots. Build the narrative while waiting for the moment of politics. Try to do what Reagan did when he linked the failed response to the hostage crisis to a general weakening of America. Americans are no longer affected by the same fears as in 1980, but they are afraid of the country’s social and political polarization, which is a result of increasing economic inequality and ethnic and racial divisions. These divisions are ignited by this president. Every aspect of his response, from the decision years ago to end the pandemic unit to the explicit decision to act in the middle of the pandemic against xenophobia, reminds voters of who Trump is and what he stands for. After a few months, the country could desperately search for a figure that promises experience, competence and unity. Biden must be ready with the story of how the virus and its response are symptoms of Trump’s broader policies, and must be ready to deliver his alternative vision for the nation.

Draw a contrast to the incumbent, who is rooted in the challenger’s personality and resonates with the broader vision. Reagan was able to project determination, the main thing the Americans were looking for. For example, when asked how he would deal with the crisis, Reagan said: “The time is long past when we should have set a specific date for her release.” (His main opponent, George H. W. Bush, did not project a determination, but said: “I supported the President [Carter] because I was unable to find a quick fix for the situation. “) The voters reacted to these dissolution advertisements as a welcome contrast to the ineffective White House and saw in them the promise of hope for better results. Joe Biden’s great strength is the feeling of everyone interacting with him that he’s basically decent. Even disgruntled former helpers can do nothing worse than complain that he doesn’t like fundraisers. The challenge for the campaign is to tell a story about his decency that is in line with the promise to improve the lives of Americans. The bet that many Trump supporters have made is that an indecent person can still make good guidelines. Biden must be willing to prove this equation wrong.

All of these considerations suggest that Joe Biden should only do things at the moment that can actually help the crisis response. Biden is unable to rely on the Defense Production Act or build capacity for medical fluctuations. But there are things a well-connected and trustworthy politician can do from the center of self-isolation, e.g. For example, speak to communities and sections of the population who distrust Trump and offer people with good ideas what to do next. Biden doesn’t have to hide, but he doesn’t have to be Trump’s main critic. The time will come later.

How he deals with these issues – whether he brings creativity and experience to play a positive role for himself in this unprecedented situation – will be the first big test for Joseph Biden’s presidency, which decides whether there is a Biden presidency .

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