Trump’s Dubious Decision to Elevate Biden as His Chief Foe

President Trump is going to formally begin his reelection campaign on June 18 with a rally in Orlando, Florida, but first he is going to Iowa for what is supposed to be official business. Here’s the latest from Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni of the New York Times:

Mr. Trump’s visit to an ethanol plant in Council Bluffs is an official White House event. But campaign aides see it, as well as a later appearance at a Republican dinner, as an opportunity to both troll Mr. [Joe] Biden and invigorate a candidate who needs an identifiable opponent to keep his interest and who has been alternately engrossed in and detached from his re-election effort.

There’s a lot of information in this piece that was clearly provided by someone very close to the president who is not impressed with the way Trump is approaching his campaign. Most of it will not be very surprising, like the fact that he’s uninterested in the budget now that it’s not his own money on the line, and that he’s told his aides to deny that the internal polling shows him losing in many key states.

What may be of unique value in the piece is the revelation that Trump is locked in on Biden as the person he wants to highlight and attack. For starters, anyone Trump chooses to talk and tweet about is likely to benefit from it for a variety of reasons. For one, in such a crowded field, any free publicity is welcome. For another, Trump is so unpopular with the Democratic electorate that it’s a badge of honor to be on the receiving end of his ire. If Trump were honing in on one of the candidates who is struggling to break one percent in the polls, he could single-handedly boost them into a higher tier. In Biden’s case, he doesn’t need the extra attention, but he will be glad to receive Trump’s barbs as a kind of inoculation against attacks from his left.

That doesn’t mean that Trump can’t create some problems for the former vice president. By nicknaming Biden “feeble,” Trump hopes to highlight his age, and Biden’s age is one of his clearest vulnerabilities. He also hopes to stir up trouble on the left and chip away at Biden’s support in the black community, and he might have some success with this:

He has tried workshopping versions of those critiques as Twitter attacks, referring to Mr. Biden as “sleepy” and “swampman,” and blaming him for the 1994 crime bill that critics say increased mass incarceration. West Wing aides have been discussing another criminal justice reform event as a vehicle to underscore Mr. Biden’s support of the crime bill.

Pouring gasoline on any internal controversies in the Democratic family is part of any Republican candidate’s job,  but there’s good reason to question Trump’s decision to make Biden his primary foe at this point in the campaign. If he believes he can prevent Biden from winning the nomination this way, he’s probably miscalculating. If he actually wants to run against Biden, I would find that suspect as well.

After being briefed on a devastating 17-state poll conducted by his campaign pollster, Tony Fabrizio, Mr. Trump told aides to deny that his internal polling showed him trailing Mr. Biden in many of the states he needs to win, even though he is also trailing in public polls from key states like Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania. And when top-line details of the polling leaked, including numbers showing the president lagging in a cluster of critical Rust Belt states, Mr. Trump instructed aides to say publicly that other data showed him doing well.

Quinnipiac poll released on June 5th showed Biden beating Trump in Texas by a 48 percent to 44 percent margin. Trump was leading in the Lone Star State against all the other Democrats tested, albeit by uncomfortably narrow margins within the margin of error. It appears that the internal polling also showed Biden swamping the president in the battleground states and threatening some of his own turf.

To me, that would argue against elevating Biden into his most visible foe. The Texas poll showed him doing best against Kamala Harris. Why not shine his attention on her?

I suspect part of the reasoning here is that Trump assumes he has more power than he actually possesses to influence the Democratic electorate. If he can make Biden look vulnerable, then the voters may turn away from him as the most “electable” candidate. If, on the other hand, he lets the voters look at polling numbers out of Texas that show Biden winning without providing a forceful rebuttal, Biden’s electable bona fides will become entrenched.

That makes sense, but Trump is going to have a hard time being an effective messenger. He seems to have had some success in damaging Elizabeth Warren’s perceived electability over the genetic testing issue, but that was earlier in the cycle. Warren is not as well-known as Biden and, as such, is easier to define, and it was more of a self-inflicted error than some brilliant strategy on the president’s part. Yet, there are still a lot of Democratic voters out there who love Warren but are willing to openly express their doubts that she can weather the attacks that will come in a general election. Trump hopes he can create the same questions about Biden by questioning his health and energy level.

I don’t question the strategy of softening Biden up a bit and creating problems for him with the Democratic base, but if Trump wants to avoid a showdown with him, he ought to be focused on people who could become alternatives. He should choose a couple of Democrats he thinks he’d have an easier time beating, and he should spend a couple of weeks going after them to see if they get a boost in the polls. What he’s doing now is making it more likely that he’ll face a guy who is polling ahead of him in Texas.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com