Biden’s campaign did try to shape perceptions of his performance, inviting about two dozen reporters to an hour-long briefing yesterday afternoon. In the third-floor boardroom of an art museum down the street from where the evening’s action took place, some reporters asked for insight into Biden’s thought process. Some asked for colorful tidbits about how he’d prepared, and what the campaign’s overall objective was for the debate. (“Keep Joe Biden, Joe Biden” was one answer offered.) That’s when officials said he wouldn’t be in the spin room. When I asked why Biden thought he didn’t have to come—not submitting himself to the same intensity of examination as the other candidates—the officials pushed back, saying he’d been doing more than the campaign was being given credit for.
Biden’s team didn’t think he had to be there, said one official, who like others there spoke only on the condition of anonymity. Other candidates aren’t as well known as Biden, the official said. They’re looking for attention; he already gets it.
Reporters’ prodding about candidate access can come off as whining. But there was a practical consequence to Biden’s truancy last night: Where other candidates had the chance to explain themselves in more detail, the press, and thus the voters, were left with unanswered questions about what Biden was trying to say.
A few hours later, in the spin room, three campaign officials who were not Biden tried to answer these questions. Did he mind what Harris had said: that his comments about working with segregationists in the Senate had been hurtful, and that his views on busing to integrate public schools seemed out of touch? Why was he still defending his opposition to busing decades ago? How is it that he now supports providing health care to undocumented immigrants under the Affordable Care Act, when Barack Obama had specifically not included that measure in his plan 10 years ago?
Read: Kamala Harris seizes the moment. Again.
Several of Biden’s answers seemed to be creating confusion, I said to the Biden-campaign operatives—confusion that some voters might have, too. Why not have him come out and explain his positions himself?
“He just spent two hours talking to the American people,” said Anita Dunn, the longtime Democratic communications adviser who’s helping the campaign. She was standing with Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield and the senior adviser Symone Sanders, while a few feet away several of the lesser-known candidates did their own interviews. “He is, as a candidate, committed to making sure that we have a level of transparency on this campaign that not every other campaign has matched,” Dunn said.
In the absence of Biden talking, his aides filled the void on Twitter, too. A tweet by a top Biden aide seemed to be a direct rebuke of Harris: “To attack him because he worked to convince Repubs (yes, some with horrible views) to vote for the Voting Rights Act is outrageous and is exactly what Trump wants,” wrote the senior adviser Cristóbal Alex. (When a journalist tweeted that the Biden “campaign” had said that, Symone Sanders responded, “no we did not.”) Another tweet, from Kamau Marshall, Biden’s director of strategic communications: “Dear Black people: Don’t be black when it’s convenient. Be black 365/24-7. Period. Sincerely, a black man.” (What did he mean by that? I asked him over email, but did not receive a response. By Friday afternoon, he’d quietly deleted the tweet.)