Skip to content
Past Interference
Go to my account

Past Interference

Should Democrats make Trump’s conviction central to their campaign?

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris take the stage at a campaign rally at Girard College on May 29, 2024, in Philadelphia. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

When I was younger, the standard excuse partisans would make after losing a national election was, “We had a messaging problem.”

Perish the thought that voters simply preferred the other party’s policies. Ideology, like scripture, is inerrant, after all; if the heathen voters refused to accept the Good News into their hearts, it can only be that our side did a poor job of preaching.

“We had a messaging problem” is a convenient way for partisans to avoid facing the fact that elements of their agenda are unpopular. It also provides moral license to behave more ruthlessly toward one’s opponents in the next election, as ideologues forever yearn to do. “Messaging problem” is typically code for “we need to be less scrupulous than the other guys are.”

This was typical partisan cope in my youth, as I said, but less so in my middle age. Because one party has become a messianic personality cult, the old excuse of a “messaging problem” now too closely resembles blasphemy to serve as post-defeat spin. The new cope for Republicans is that losing a national election can be due only to rampant—yet somehow still unprovable—fraud. 

Democrats haven’t yet reached that stage of civic degeneracy, fortunately, so they’re still stuck with “we had a messaging problem” to explain away their failures. We’re going to hear it a lot this winter if Joe Biden goes down in flames.

The president doesn’t have a messaging problem, fundamentally. It’s true that Americans’ views of the economy are grossly distorted in some ways and that better retail politics from the White House might have set them right. But ultimately there’s no way to “message” historic inflation. Or being 81 years old and in decline. Or spending three and a half years not caring about an endless parade of migrants at the southern border, only to snap to attention five months out from Election Day.

Until last Thursday, “we had a messaging problem on the economy” was set to be the silver-bullet explanation for Biden’s defeat among normie liberals. Now, thanks to a Manhattan jury, there’s another bullet in the chamber: “We had a messaging problem on Donald Trump’s conviction” is locked and loaded and ready to be fired in November.

“Democrats Push Biden to Make Trump’s Felonies a Top 2024 Issue,” read a New York Times headline this past weekend. The president’s party wants him to ignore lily-livered “norms” obsessives like me and turn Trump’s rap sheet into a key talking point in his campaign going forward. It would be political malpractice for any other candidate not to mention the fact that his opponent was just convicted of 34 felonies in the middle of a campaign, would it not? Well, then it’d be malpractice for Biden not to do so either.

Besides, Democrats say, the caterwauling from Trump and his minions about “election interference” will continue no matter what the president does or doesn’t do. He might as well lean into it by making “convicted felon” a neon-bright focus of his stump speech.

Last week I made a civic case against “weaponizing” the fact of Trump’s conviction on the trail, fearing that it’ll lead more Americans to believe that the justice system has been taking orders from the president. That’s a bad precedent to set when we’re on the cusp of electing a guy who very much wants the justice system to take orders from the president.

But let’s set the civic case aside, since Democrats seem determined to ignore it. What are the strategic arguments for and against going all-in on using Trump’s conviction against him?

That question is largely academic. “For the first time in American history, a former president that is a convicted felon is now seeking the office of the presidency,” Biden said on Monday at a fundraiser in Connecticut. Clearly, he’s not going to avoid the subject. Neither is his campaign.

And here’s one reason why they shouldn’t: Trump himself isn’t going to avoid it.

A battle of words to shape public opinion about the verdict in Manhattan will play out in the coming weeks and months. Many Americans will be impressionable on the subject, having not paid close attention to the charges or the trial. If Republicans get to fight that battle unopposed, they’ll win.

And as nutty as Trump is, one shouldn’t underestimate his persuasive power. He managed to convince a majority of his own party and a disturbingly large share of independents that Biden’s 2020 victory wasn’t legitimate. Imagine what he might get them to believe about his criminal conviction without the president or his party offering a counterargument.

Remember too that this election is likely to be decided by “disengaged voters” who strongly favor Trump over Biden. By definition, disengaged voters need to be led by the nose in order to reach a desired political conclusion. There might be nothing the president can say at this point to win their support, but reminding them frequently that their preferred candidate is now a convicted felon could be enough to get them to stay home. That’s potentially the difference between victory and defeat.

Another thing: If we don’t want Biden talking about the conviction then … what do we want him talking about?

I wrote a whole column last week about how desperate Democrats have been to turn Trump into “the main character” of this election and how dismally they’ve failed so far. The president is below 40 percent approval on every major policy issue except the war in Ukraine, where he stands at 40.7 percent. Numerous polls have him getting creamed by Trump on the economy and inflation, as you’d expect. If voters treat their choice as a proxy for whether they preferred the national mood circa 2019 or the national mood right now, it’s game over for Democrats.

But if they treat their choice as one between an actual criminal and some other guy, it’s anyone’s ball game.

They’ve been primed to do so by how morally, ethically, and legally compromised Trump has been throughout his political (and business) career. His challenge in getting voters to view his conviction as a matter of “deep state” lawfare is that he’s a sleazeball, everyone knows it, and thus it feels like “rough justice” that the law finally caught up to him. Many Americans already suspect that he can’t be trusted again with the presidency; reminding them often that he now has a criminal record will confirm all of their priors about how corrupt he is in the starkest possible way.

Relatedly, the more time Biden spends baiting his opponent by talking about the verdict in New York, the more likely it is that Trump will work himself into a frenzy on the subject on the trail. He’s apt to work himself into a frenzy regardless, admittedly, but whatever Democrats can do to keep him talking about his criminal troubles instead of, say, inflation is to their great advantage. Trump surely understands that he should want to make this election a referendum on Biden rather than himself, but understanding something and having the basic self-discipline to follow through on it are two different things.

If nothing else, seeing the president attack Trump aggressively over his conviction will be a morale booster for liberals who desperately need one. They’re saddled with a nominee whom no one much likes, who plainly isn’t fit for another term, and who’s poised to somehow lose a national popularity contest to Donald Trump after January 6. His party is frantic for some sort of rallying cry to get the left motivated to turn out. Now, perhaps, they have one. We cannot let America be governed by a criminal.

Any Democrat will tell you that the stakes of this election are extraordinarily high given Trump’s autocratic pretensions, far more so than the typical quadrennial “most important election ever” argle-bargle. And so it’s ultimately this simple: If the threat of a second Trump term is as dire as they believe then not only should Biden go for the throat to try to win, he has a moral obligation to do so.

If you’re going to lose to a coup-plotter and fumble away what’s left of the constitutional order, at least leave it all on the field.

When Biden talks about the conviction on the trail, he should at least do what he did at Monday’s fundraiser and frame his critique of Trump as a defense of American justice. “It’s reckless, it’s dangerous, it’s irresponsible for anyone to say this was rigged just because they don’t like the verdict,” he told the crowd. James Carville made a similar point to the Times about how Democrats should address the subject: “The jury, the jury, the jury—for God’s sakes, hide under the dress of the jury. And you don’t need to say much more than that.”

Normally voters ask themselves, “Am I better off than I was four years ago?” when deciding whether to reelect a president. If Democrats can persuade them to ask themselves, “Do I trust Donald Trump more than I trust the jury system?” instead, they have a puncher’s chance.

But there are risks.

The strategic argument against “weaponizing” Trump’s conviction is simple. If Republicans end up winning the battle for public opinion over the verdict, Biden’s recurring mentions of it on the trail will land somewhere between “pathetic” and “incriminating.”

Trump wants (needs, really) Americans to believe that the charges in New York weren’t merely questionable but part of an illicit Democratic scheme coordinated with the White House to try to turn voters against him before Election Day. That’s not true, as even one of his former lawyers admits. But the more eager Biden is to highlight the conviction, the more plausible the claim will seem.

Note that voters are already of two minds about the verdict. Fifty percent of respondents to early polling believe that Trump was guilty but 47 percent suspect the charges were politically motivated (just 38 percent don’t). If, with Biden’s inadvertent help, the suspicious faction grows into a majority, all sorts of bad consequences will potentially flow. Trump might gain sympathy from voters, neutralizing the stigma of the conviction. Doubts might deepen about the other three criminal cases against him. Biden’s pretensions as a sentinel defending the rule of law from Republicans will evaporate.

And those disengaged voters I mentioned earlier? Instead of being demoralized by the conviction, the spectacle of the president leaning into “lawfare” against Trump might give them the jolt of outrage they need to turn out for their hero this fall. “Am I better off than I was four years ago?” might not get them off the couch, but “should we let Democrats get away with this brazen election interference?” could.

What if, instead of chattering about Trump’s conviction, Biden and his party simply … ignored it?

“Then Republicans would win the messaging war,” you might say. Would they, though? As I said, everyone knows Trump is a sleazeball; it’s priced into his political stock. And everyone will hear about the verdict, whether or not the president talks about it. It’s the biggest election news of the year and is likely to remain that way barring a health crisis for either candidate. Rest assured, America’s left-leaning political media will go hog wild this summer and fall reminding the electorate that an actual felon is on the presidential ballot.

I’m not sure Biden hammering the point in campaign appearances adds more to the calculus for voters in deciding whether this was a case of “weaponized justice” than it detracts. And insofar as there are policy issues that the president wants Americans to focus on, like his very, very, very belated new asylum policy, the chatter about Trump’s conviction is a distraction. It tees up Trump to say that Democrats are obsessed with the verdict only because they have no worthy accomplishments to run on. Is that message a net gainer or loser for the president among undecideds?

Biden should also consider the possibility that the verdict won’t hold up.

Alvin Bragg’s predecessor as Manhattan district attorney, Cy Vance, believes Trump has “strong” grounds for appeal. I won’t presume to guess how soon a New York appellate court might rule in the matter, but if the conviction were reversed before the election it would be a political disaster for Biden, compounded by the degree of enthusiasm he showed for Trump’s conviction on the trail. The only thing worse than “weaponizing” a questionable prosecution of one’s opponent by a friendly DA during a presidential election is having that prosecution tossed after the fact.

So maybe Biden should keep his fingerprints off it. Even if the verdict isn’t overturned until after the election, he should give some thought to how Americans will react if Democrats end up prevailing in November by turning voters against a “convicted felon” who wasn’t actually a convicted felon. “I should have trusted Donald Trump more than I trusted the jury system” is the worst possible lesson we could want the public to take from this election.

The problem for Democratic partisans in weighing all of this is that, under the circumstances, any restraint toward Trump feels like madness. This is a “Flight 93 election” for defenders of the liberal order and there’s no place for restraint on a plane that’s been hijacked. Case in point: There are liberals semi-seriously arguing that Trump should be thrown in jail when he’s sentenced in July even though he’s pushing 80, this is his first offense, and the crimes he was convicted of are nonviolent and typically don’t result in time behind bars in New York

Taking him off the trail for months in the home stretch of a presidential election he’s winning will turbo-charge perceptions of “election interference” and “weaponized justice.” I sympathize with Democrats who don’t want to let him off easy for the sake of appeasing bad-faith Trump cultists, but not everyone who’s troubled by the Bragg prosecution is in the cult. This process could move undecided votes Trump’s way. And if it does, and he wins, it’ll be cold comfort that he spent September and October sitting in the plushest cell in the Metropolitan Correctional Center. 

Being a cynic, I find myself wondering if Democrats are pestering Biden to talk more about Trump’s conviction not so much because they expect it to work but because they’re preparing to blame him when it doesn’t.

“Talk more about X” is a command that’s impossible to comply with, after all. No matter how vigorously you “message” something, you can always be blamed later for not having been vigorous enough. “Victory was within our grasp! If only that scrupulous wimp Biden had been more aggressive about Trump’s conviction.”

I think the debate over how much to talk about the Trump verdict is largely a product of liberals staring into the abyss and worrying that nothing is going to prevent them from losing to the most grossly unfit president in American history. They’re trying to process that reality and asking themselves, “Could it be that Americans still don’t realize who Trump is? Have we not yet effectively made the case against him, maybe?”

It can’t be that the country wants him. There must be a communication gap somewhere which, once bridged, will assure his defeat. We have a messaging problem.

I know that feeling. My own astonishment and horror at Trump’s enduring viability has inspired something like 500 columns and will inspire 100 more before Election Day. “Do readers not see what a catastrophe he’d be in a second term? If I tell them another 500 times, maybe it’ll sink in.”

It’s a form of denial. The same denial is behind Democrats demanding more attacks on Trump from their nominee over the Manhattan verdict and, inevitably, faulting him for having done too little when he comes up short in November. If only Joe Biden had called Trump a “convicted felon” 800 more times, it would have sunk in.

Hardly anyone who votes for Trump this fall will harbor illusions about his sleaziness, and insofar as anyone does, the bunker of denial they’ve built for themselves is so thick that an atomic bomb blast couldn’t penetrate it. Some Americans proudly relish his sleaziness, others relish it quietly as a guilty pleasure, and others are willing to put up with it as a price worth paying in exchange for him somehow bringing grocery prices down. They’ll all know that he’s a convicted felon by November, though, whether or not Biden personally informs them. And for all but a few of them, it won’t matter.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.