Republicans struggle to find line of attack that sticks to Biden

President Joe Biden has approval ratings higher than his immediate predecessor ever had. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
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Alex Roarty and Adam Wollner McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers are struggling to define him. The conservative base is more agitated about “cancel culture.” And even former President Donald Trump is turning his attention elsewhere.

Right now, nobody inside the GOP knows quite what to do with President Joe Biden.

In the nearly 100 days since Biden took office, Republicans have not yet mounted a sustained, vigorous opposition to the new White House, slowed by a president who has avoided being villainized thanks — at least in part — to a low-key style that stands in stark contrast with his immediate predecessor.

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It was a problem that plagued the GOP during the last presidential election, and party leaders say they’re still grappling with it as Biden marches onward with an aggressive agenda in the months ahead.

“He’s very difficult to pin down one negative thing on him,” said Robert Blizzard, a Republican pollster. “That is an ongoing challenge for Republicans.”

The struggle has many GOP operatives already predicting the party will begin to shift their lines of attack to other prominent Democrats who are more polarizing, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, ahead of the 2022 midterm elections — though many of them remain confident that Biden’s approval will eventually erode as his presidency wears on.

As they’ve struggled to consistently label Biden, influential Republicans have often directed their attention to other matters.

Trump sought to attach derogatory nicknames to some of his opponents during his presidential campaigns, but has avoided directing much of his ire at Biden alone since leaving office.

For instance, Trump has mentioned Biden in less than 20% of the written statements he’s issued since the inauguration, according to a review of emails sent from his political action committee and personal office. Since Friday, Trump has issued six statements about a GOP-led election recount in Arizona, while mentioning the Biden administration in just one statement.

When Republicans have focused on Biden, the attempts have failed to gain traction. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz attempted to attach a “boring but radical” moniker to the president last month, a tacit admission that Biden’s style does little to enrage the conservative base.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, went a step further, linking to an article describing Biden’s relatively low-key approach in communicating with the public and using it to question whether the president was even in charge of his own administration.

Biden’s unassuming public presence and understated demeanor create a challenge for Republicans, top party operatives acknowledged, in a political system that of late has put bombastic personalities at the center of attention.

“He’s bland,” said Steven Law, CEO of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC with close ties to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. “Perhaps he’s strategically bland, or just is. There’s not a lot that sticks out about him.”

Biden promised during last year’s campaign to be less of a headline-grabbing presence in the White House than Trump had been.

It’s an approach paying off so far in the early days of his presidency. Sarah Longwell, a former GOP operative and founder of the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project, said her studies of voters who supported Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020 show they are “the most optimistic group in the history of focus groups I’ve done.”

She said that has been due to the perceived chaos of the Trump administration coming to a close and a sense that the coronavirus pandemic situation is finally improving.

“Now there’s a sense of relief,” Longwell said. “Imagine there’s a car alarm that’s been going off for a long time and suddenly it’s quiet.”

Even the conservative base, staunch in its dislike of Biden, hasn’t organized in opposition to him the way the so-called “Tea Party” did at the start of former President Barack Obama’s administration in 2009. Trump elicited a similar grassroots backlash from liberals after taking office, known as the “resistance,” that fueled opposition to his legislative agenda and Republican candidates broadly.

No such movement has yet to take shape against Biden.

One Republican operative, who declined to comment on the record, pointed to a continued fixation on false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, or a conservative media more focused on generating outrage about the removal of several Dr. Seuss books from circulation. Most of all, however, the party is more focused on its internal fights than mounting a united front against the Democrats.

David McIntosh, president of the conservative group Club for Growth, said while many of the cultural debates that have galvanized conservatives recently haven’t been directly focused on Biden, that could change if he continues to pursue progressive policies.

“Whether it becomes personal to him is harder to say,” McIntosh said. “The elements of what people are angry about is Biden choosing to side with a far-left agenda.”

Even as Biden has proven to be an elusive target for the GOP, his approval rating through the first three months of his presidency is still relatively modest by historical standards. FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average shows 54% of Americans approve of his job performance, while 41% disapprove.

That puts Biden ahead of where Trump was at this point in his tenure. But he lags behind every other president dating back to Harry Truman in terms of net approval rating, according to a University of Virginia Center for Politics analysis. Still, Republicans acknowledge earning approval from a majority of Americans is an accomplishment in a hyper-partisan environment.

GOP operatives are also beginning to question whether they will need to put Biden the center of their messaging to be successful heading into next year’s midterm elections.

Instead, they may shift focus back to Democrats in Congress who typically stir up more negative reactions within the GOP base and some moderate voters. Republicans have frequently used Democratic leaders such as Schumer and Pelosi and outspoken progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as campaign villains in the past, with mixed success.

But Republicans argue that line of attack could be effective in an environment where Democrats are in full control of Washington, and the GOP only needs to pick up a handful of seats to win majorities in the House and Senate next year.

“The better line of attack is that no matter what you think of Joe Biden, the Democratic agenda is being set by Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats’ far-left wing,” Law said. “And the worst you can say about Biden is he’s 100% on board with that.”

Law also warned his party about criticizing Biden, as some Republicans have, in personal terms, saying attacks over his mental acuity risk offending moderate voters otherwise skeptical of the president.

Some Republicans are also betting Biden’s popularity will naturally dip over time as he exits the honeymoon phase of his presidency and the pandemic fades as a concern. Voters will likely soon turn their attention to other aspects of Biden’s agenda, such as taxes and immigration, where Republicans see more of an opening to criticize the president.

“Some people may find him somewhat likable, but at the end of the day I think his policies will end up defining him,” said Tony Fabrizio, who was the lead pollster for Trump’s 2020 campaign.

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