ANALYSIS — “Biden in the basement” has become a favorite line for Republicans trying to reelect President Donald Trump. But Senate Republicans have been talking about Democrats and basements since before the coronavirus reached our shores, and the subterranean slogan is fueling GOP optimism for retaining the White House and the Senate majority.
The thrust of Trump’s argument against Joe Biden is best summarized at the beginning of a recent campaign ad.
“Deep in the heart of Delaware, Joe Biden sits in his basement. Alone. Hiding. Diminished,” the narrator says.
Speakers at the recent Republican National Convention struck the same chord.
“This is no time for sleeping in the basement,” Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones said on the first night.
“There is no question that this awesome job of restoring safety at this time cannot be done effectively from your basement,” added former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani on the fourth night.
More recently, the president taunted Biden on Twitter as the former vice president prepared for his event in Pittsburgh on Monday.
“Joe Biden is coming out of the basement earlier than his hoped for ten days because his people told him he has no choice, his poll numbers are PLUNGING! Going to Pittsburgh, where I have helped industry to a record last year, & then back to his basement for an extended period,” Trump tweeted.
Setting aside the fact that a majority of the Biden footage used in the Trump ad was from when the former vice president was outside his basement, the primary reason why Biden has not been more active on the campaign trail is because of Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus causing extended safety protocols that limit travel and gatherings. Besides that, the line of attack is both meant to minimize the former vice president’s relevance and power and to challenge his mental capacity.
I don’t know why, but I continue to be surprised by the number of GOP strategists and elected officials who sincerely believe that Biden has completely lost his marbles. It’s not just a half-hearted attack line cultivated by focus groups, it’s a deeply held belief.
Along those lines, Republicans are increasingly certain that Biden will self-destruct and have a legitimate James Stockdale “Who am I? Why am I here?” moment in the next 60 days. That was the famous opening line uttered by Ross Perot’s running mate at the beginning of the 1992 vice presidential debate. The Navy vice admiral was poking fun at his own obscurity on the national stage, but the subsequent moment when he failed to turn on his hearing aid contributed to the perception that he was a doddering old man. GOP strategists and elected officials are convinced Biden will publicly and unwittingly unveil a mental health issue.
But Republicans seem to be underestimating a longtime politician’s ability to hold himself together for 45 minutes and overestimating the ability of their candidate to talk for 45 minutes without making a mistake that would question his ability to lead the country for four more years.
The growing challenge for Republicans in relying on a debate debacle is that a majority of Americans will have already made up their minds about who they want to be president before the first debate on Sept. 29, and tens of millions of people will have already cast their ballot by the third and final debate on Oct. 22.
Along with a COVID-19 vaccine and Biden joining rioters to set fire to a liquor store, a mental mistake by Biden is on the shortlist of events Republicans are banking on to change the trajectory of a race.
‘Silenced by Schumer’ strategy
Senate Republicans need Trump to improve his standing in order to secure their majority for another two years, but they’ve had a basement and debate strategy of their own.
Nearly a year ago, state Sen. Jeff Jackson described his conversations with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer when he was being courted to challenge GOP Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina.
According to the National Review, Jackson’s grand plan included 100 town halls in 100 days, but Schumer had other ideas: “‘Wrong answer,’ Schumer said when confronted with Jackson’s grassroots strategy, according to the account of their conversation Jackson gave at UNC Charlotte. ‘We want you to spend the next 16 months in a windowless basement raising money and then we’re going to spend 80 percent of it on negative ads about Tillis.’”
GOP strategists seized upon that remark last fall and haven’t let go.
“While Senator Thom Tillis met with North Carolina small businesses across the state this week to discuss the need for further COVID-19 relief, Cal Cunningham continued to hide inside his windowless basement in order to dodge scrutiny for his extreme liberal ideas,” read an Aug. 28 release from the GOP senator aimed at the Democratic nominee.
Last week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent face masks with “Silenced By Schumer” on them to Cunningham, Mark Kelly in Arizona, Sara Gideon in Maine, Steve Bullock in Montana, Jon Ossoff in Georgia, Theresa Greenfield in Iowa and John Hickenlooper in Colorado.
Some Republicans have had to get creative to stay on message. “Arizona may not have basements, but Mark Kelly is absolutely running Chuck Schumer’s ‘windowless basement’ strategy of avoiding voters and buying the election,” said a July 22 release from Arizona Sen. Martha McSally’s campaign.
Somewhat similar to the Biden attack, the “windowless basement” comment is a way to diminish Democratic candidates, paint them as puppets of a liberal party establishment and cast doubt about their ability to lead.
Debate challenges abound
It’s also a way to shame the challengers and draw them out into the public, specifically by challenging them to debate. Even though challenging your opponent to debates is practically an admission that you’re not satisfied with the status quo in the race, GOP senators are doing just that.
Susan Collins challenged Gideon to 16 debates. McSally challenged Kelly to seven debates. Joni Ernst challenged Greenfield to six debates. Cory Gardner challenged Hickenlooper to five debates. Tillis challenged Cunningham to five debates. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell challenged Amy McGrath to a Lincoln-Douglas style debate. And remember Trump challenged Biden to a fourth debate, one more than the agreed-upon three.
The basement messaging isn’t as explicit in the House, but Republicans are confident in their ability to exploit the voting records of first-term Democratic incumbents who ran as outsiders in 2018. More specifically, GOP strategists will use Democrats’ campaign rhetoric from last cycle and contrast it with alleged unfulfilled promises during their first two years in office, no matter whether the incumbents are in a basement or not.
The tactics are similar — to draw Democrats out in public instead of letting them hide behind their previous outsider résumés.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with what Republicans are trying to do, but the strategy is dependent on factors outside their control. Democrats have to cooperate, and they have to make a mistake that can be exploited. It also assumes voters think there’s something wrong with acting as though the pandemic is still raging, instead of staging maskless events as though it were a thing of the past. And it’s all happening with time running out.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an election analyst for CQ Roll Call.