Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden smiles while entering a vehicle after addressing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) construction and maintenance conference in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Biden Banks on Trump to Help Win White House in 2020

(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden is betting that Donald Trump will help him win the Democratic presidential nomination and the White House.

The former vice president’s campaign announcement Thursday was a full-on and focused attack on Trump, contrasting with the roll-outs of his rivals who mentioned the president in glancing references, if at all.

Biden’s strategy – which his campaign said will include an emphasis on rebuilding the middle class and unifying the country – comes after more than two years of party post-mortems concluded that Hillary Clinton’s almost single-minded emphasis on Trump’s shortcomings contributed to her loss in 2016.

Biden Banks on Trump to Help Win White House in 2020
Biden Banks on Trump to Help Win White House in 2020

The Biden team may be calculating that the clearest path to the nomination would be to persuade Democratic voters that even if he won’t embrace progressive issues like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, he can deliver the one thing the party’s base agrees on and most wants: knocking Trump out of office.

“If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are. And I cannot stand by and watch that happen,” Biden said in his announcement video, posted early Thursday.

Other Candidates

His closest rival, Bernie Sanders, frequently criticizes Trump but emphasizes his progressive policy proposals. Almost all the other candidates in the field of 20 Democrats also drew attention to their personalities or policy prescriptions as they began their campaigns; Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke didn’t mention the president at all.

Biden’s early approach is at odds with his own comments about the way he would run his campaign, even though he is still likely to rely heavily on stops at union halls and ice cream parlors in fading industrial cities and towns.

But for the man who’s long called himself “Middle Class Joe,” the economic message will wait until next week, when he holds his first rally at a Pittsburgh union hall before touring the four early-primary states. (His first private appearance was Thursday evening at a high-dollar fundraiser in Philadelphia, belying his man-of-the-people persona.)

Aides have sketched out three pillars of Biden’s campaign -- a battle for the soul of the nation, rebuilding the middle class and bridging America’s divides -- and two are squarely focused on responding to Trump.

Charlottesville

The first word of the former vice president’s announcement was “Charlottesville,” a reference to the town in Virginia where white supremacists held a violent march in 2017 that Trump refused to condemn, a moment that even close White House aides considered a nadir of his presidency. Biden’s team had considered a speech there early in his campaign, even as some locals grumbled that he’d be dredging up old wounds and making their town into a prop.

Biden Banks on Trump to Help Win White House in 2020

The echoes of Clinton’s rhetoric about the threats posed by a Trump presidency are clear, and Biden’s strategy is all the more surprising as he and his allies made no secret of their belief that the 2016 Democratic nominee lost because she failed to convey an economic argument to voters. Implicit in their criticism was the sense that Biden, who plays up his folksiness, would be a better bread-and-butter messenger.

‘Middle Class’

"What happened was that this was the first campaign that I can recall where my party did not talk about what it always stood for, and that was how to maintain a burgeoning middle class," Biden said during an appearance at the University of Pennsylvania in early 2017. "You didn’t hear a single solitary sentence in the last campaign about that guy working on the assembly line making $60,000 bucks a year and a wife making $32,000 as a hostess in a restaurant."

Brian Fallon, who served as Clinton’s national press secretary, said after the 2018 midterm elections that her campaign erred in its willingness to engage Trump’s “outrageous” rhetoric and behavior, which ended up framing the debate on his turf and drowned out her positive message.

“We underestimated how much turnout he was able to generate in white rural areas by having extended fights on the issues he wanted,” Fallon said. “It took away from what we wanted to affirmatively talk about and it created some drop-off in the communities we needed to turn out.”

A post-election autopsy by the Democratic firm Democracy Corps found that Clinton made crucial error in failing to focus her closing argument on kitchen-table issues and instead choosing “to run ads disqualifying Trump on temperament, his capacity to handle the nuclear codes, and his vulgar treatment of women.”

In 2018, national Democratic candidates took a different approach — they mostly ignored Trump’s rhetoric and last-minute provocations and instead hammered his party on issues like reducing health-care subsidies and cutting taxes for corporations. They picked up 40 House seats and captured the majority.

After that election, the Democratic super-PAC Priorities USA conducted a study in the swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and found that while many voters have concerns about Trump’s temperament, it doesn’t necessarily translate to votes against him. The group found that Democrats won more votes when they portrayed Trump’s tax cuts as a threat to the financial viability of Social Security and Medicare.

“Don’t take the bait. It’s a lesson we succeeded in practicing ourselves this time around,” Fallon said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.