How Trump’s Effort to Damage Biden Could Backfire Badly

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the White House, September 9, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
The president may have just given his Democratic rival a political lifeline at a critical moment in the 2020 campaign.

Is President Trump going to get Joe Biden elected?

Opinions vary widely on how to characterize Trump’s now-infamous conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. The president believes it was “perfect” and “beautiful.” In the middle are those who think it was bad and improper or perhaps impeachable but not necessarily worth the bother this close to a national election. And then there are those who believe we know all we need to know to warrant impeachment and removal right now.

But one thing virtually every sentient being agrees on, even if some won’t say so publicly, is that if Biden weren’t running for president — and outpolling Trump in general-election matchups — Trump would be a lot less interested in Biden’s alleged misdeeds.

And that raises the amusing possibility that Trump’s effort to damage Biden might, just might, end up being a blessing in disguise for the former vice president.

The Trump-impeachment firestorm ignited just as Biden was declining a bit in the polls and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was starting to surge. On September 21, Warren pulled (slightly) in front of Biden for the first time in the Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll of Iowa Democrats. A few days later, a Monmouth University poll put Warren two points ahead of Biden in New Hampshire.

Democratic activists were giddy that Biden’s “electability” argument appeared to be imploding.

There was also a lot of glee in Trump World about the Warren surge. The Trumpists are convinced Warren is much more beatable than Biden because she would allow the president to run against socialism, “Pocahontas,” and confiscatory taxes.

They might be right. It’s certainly true that Warren galvanizes Republicans — particularly wealthy GOP donors — far more than Biden does. But more beatable than Biden is not synonymous with easily beaten. Warren is a better campaigner than Biden and leads Trump in the RealClearPolitics average of polls by four points.

The Ukraine story is still unfolding, and there’s too much churn and uncertainty to gauge or predict its effects. Moreover, the speculation that Biden simply isn’t up to the challenge the way he once was is hardly baseless. That said, the all-out assault on Biden just might go down in history as one of the great examples of unintended consequences in American politics.

One of the defining dynamics of politics today is negative partisanship. As Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster wrote in 2017, “negative partisanship explains nearly everything in American politics today.” The idea is simple: Republicans vote less for Republicans than they do against Democrats, and vice versa. Hillary Clinton lost because more people in several key states voted against her than voted against Trump.

The dynamic doesn’t just explain presidential elections. Democrats (and various media personalities) outdo each other trying to goad Trump into attacking them, because they know that being attacked by Trump is a boon for donations, media attention, and ratings. Meanwhile, Trump’s base remains loyal in part because he is so good at identifying and attacking enemies.

In the last week, all of the Democratic candidates have rallied to Biden’s defense. Senator Kamala Harris of California, who briefly surged in the polls because of her attacks on Biden, now says, “Leave Joe Biden alone.” It would be nice to think they’re all motivated by a sense of honor and decency in response to what they believe to be unfair attacks. But logic dictates it’s more about negative partisanship. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the proverb goes.

Of course, things could get to the point where Democrats decide to toss Biden under the train the way they did Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, but if Biden doesn’t crack under the pressure (a real possibility), it’s hard to see how that happens as long as impeachment remains the defining issue of our politics. In 2016, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont caved to the pressures of negative partisanship and refused to make an issue of Hillary Clinton’s “emails.” Warren may well feel similar pressure.

Hence the possibility that an attempt to destroy Biden could one day be remembered as his lifeline.

© 2019 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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