What a Biden-Trump Presidential Race Might Look Like
In the inquiry into who would be the strongest Democratic Presidential nominee in 2020, Donald Trump is what might be called a hostile witness. “Joe Biden is a dummy,” the President said last week, on his way to Iowa, where Biden, who spent more than three decades in the Senate and eight years as Barack Obama’s Vice-President and one of his closest advisers, was campaigning. Trump added, “I call him One Per Cent Joe,” although Biden is now averaging thirty-two per cent in recent polls, putting him in the lead in a crowded primary field. Last week, a Quinnipiac University poll indicated that Biden would defeat the President in a nationwide head-to-head contest by fifty-three per cent to forty—“landslide proportions,” a Quinnipiac representative noted.
Polls mean only so much at this point, of course; last week, the Democratic National Committee announced that twenty candidates had qualified for the first debates, to be held on June 26th and 27th, in Miami. Biden will appear on the second night, along with Senator Bernie Sanders, who offers an ideological alternative to Biden’s moderation; Mayor Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Indiana, who offers a differing perspective and temperament; and Senator Kamala Harris, who, among other things, is a reminder that the Democratic choice need not be a white man. Biden is not, by any reckoning, the inevitable nominee. But, in the light of the preview that voters in Iowa got last week, it’s worth imagining what a race between Biden and Trump might look like, if it comes to that.
Even the similarities between the two men are revealing. They are almost the same age, so, naturally, Trump, who is seventy-three, derides Biden, who is seventy-six, for being old. (“He’s even slower than he used to be.”) But they have used their years very differently. Biden was elected to the Senate at the age of twenty-nine, and has spent his career in public service. He said in Iowa, “I had the dubious distinction of being listed as the poorest man in Congress”—actually, the Senate—a contrast to Trump’s far more dubious claims about exactly how many billions of dollars he has. Money is a poor proxy for public-spiritedness, just as age is an imperfect one for passion. In Iowa, Trump asked a crowd whether his slogan should be “Make America Great Again” or “Keep America Great”—he worried that the acronym for the latter, KAG, didn’t have the right ring. Biden said that the word that summed up America for him was “possibilities.”
Both men have a reputation for being undisciplined speakers, in ways that expose their characters—a meandering exuberance on Biden’s part, casual cruelty on Trump’s. Biden might be called a bore, but never a bully, although, in Iowa, he demonstrated that he can effectively portray Trump as a crank. He lampooned Trump’s assertions that seasonal cold weather disproved climate-change science. (Biden has long advocated actions to address climate change, and has integrated into his pitch elements of the Green New Deal pushed by his younger colleagues.) At an event in Davenport, where he was introduced by a firefighter, Biden mocked Trump’s statement that the California wildfires last year could have been prevented with a little tidying of the forest floor. Twenty minutes later, near Des Moines, Trump repeated the claim, in a defensive tone, saying that he had been praised for his insight by someone from a “forest nation.”
Biden clearly has Trump’s attention. Indeed, he seems to rattle him the most when he connects to the kinds of voters who Trump believes owe him their loyalty, such as white men and women in uniform or in blue-collar jobs. If they vote for Biden, they could swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which Trump won only narrowly in 2016. Last month, after the International Association of Fire Fighters endorsed Biden, Trump tweeted angrily, “I’ve done more for Firefighters than this dues sucking union will ever do, and I get paid ZERO!” It wasn’t clear what he had done for the firefighters, or why they should pay him anything. Are they supposed to book rooms in the Trump International Hotel?
Other candidates could win over those voters, too—and energize a whole range of constituencies. Biden, during his long career, has been associated with policies and behaviors that will likely pose problems for him in the primaries: the 1994 crime bill, the 2005 bankruptcy bill (a point of contention with Elizabeth Warren), excessive hugging, and his handling, in 1991, as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, at which Anita Hill testified that Thomas had harassed her. Earlier this month, after reiterating his support for the Hyde Amendment, which bars most federal funding of abortion, he abandoned it, citing the proliferation of restrictive state laws. (His position on abortion has been pro-choice but nuanced, and the same is true of a majority of general-election voters.) Trump, meanwhile, has boasted of groping women and says he is determined to help overturn Roe v. Wade. Last Thursday, in an interview with NBC, Hill was asked if she saw any “moral equivalency” between Biden and Trump. “Absolutely not,” she said. Could she vote for Biden, if he were the nominee? “Of course I could.”
Trump will almost certainly be his party’s nominee; his only challenger so far is Bill Weld, the moderate former governor of Massachusetts. The President will formally kick off his reëlection campaign on Tuesday, at a rally in Orlando. As part of the launch, he gave George Stephanopoulos an interview in the Oval Office. He said that, if a foreign government came to him with dirt on an opponent, he’d be happy to take a look at it—wouldn’t anybody? No matter who the Democratic nominee is, the sordidness of Trump’s tactics, like the crudeness of his invective, is a given. Trump, Biden warned, has removed “the guardrails” from American politics.
Trump, for his part, is pushing the view that Biden is played out in every sense—and was never really a player. “Obama took him off the trash heap,” Trump said last week. That particular slur might get at the heart of their rivalry. For some voters, a Biden Presidency would be a vindication of the Obama era; for others, a sign that some of its promise, particularly regarding a generational and cultural transformation in politics, has not been realized. But for Trump, who has devoted himself to erasing Obama’s legacy, it would be a sour repudiation. Joe Biden is not the only Democrat who can enrage Trump. But enrage him he does. ♦