Wary of making the race all about Donald Trump (as Hillary Clinton was criticized for doing in 2016), the 2020 Democratic presidential primary contenders have gone to the other extreme — rarely mentioning the president and engaged in a bidding war among themselves for the affections of the progressive base. As a result, they have made it harder for voters to determine who will be the most effective at rattling Trump and exposing his betrayal of the working-class and rural voters who supported him.
How would a nice guy like Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) stand up to Trump? Could a congenial candidate from the heartland (e.g. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota or South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg) chastise Trump for ignoring the economic interests of these voters (e.g. tariffs hurt farmers, Obamacare repeal threatened their health care, climate change denial is leaving them defenseless against extreme weather)? Could a Beto O’Rourke (who won’t even do TV town halls) pass the gravitas test? It’s hard to tell, because these candidates aren’t spending time demonstrating how they would go after Trump.
Joe Biden isn’t going to fall into that trap. Already leading in the stature department thanks to eight years as President Barack Obama’s vice president, he seems itching to remind voters that he is the son of Scranton, Pa., the Obama running mate who shredded Paul Ryan in the 2012 VP debate and the heart-on-his sleeve patriot. (“The core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America, America, is at stake. ... Folks, America’s an idea, an idea that’s stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant. It gives hope to the most desperate people on Earth; it guarantees that everyone is treated with dignity and gives hate no safe harbor. It instills in every person in this country the belief that no matter where you start in life, there’s nothing you can’t achieve if you work at it.”)
Voters who watch Biden’s announcement could picture Biden turning to Trump and scolding him that there aren’t “very fine people” on the neo-Nazi side or going after him for lying about a super-duper health-care plan and falsely promising that plants in Ohio wouldn’t close and that a trade war would be easy to win. The mix of disdain and disgust that Biden evidences when talking about Trump not only channels what Democratic voters are feeling but also serves as a coming-attractions reel for the general election.
One can imagine Biden needling Trump before the primaries even begin. “He complimented Kim Jong Un, and even reportedly told a U.S. envoy to agree to pay a $2 million bill from North Korea for “medical care” of American Otto Warmbier?! How weak, how pathetic is that?” or “Trump ripped little kids at the border from the arms of their mothers. How dare he!”
By putting Trump on defense, showing Democratic primary voters just how scrappy he is, using his foreign-policy credentials and displaying the empathy and decency that he is well-known for, Biden might provoke Trump and thereby make himself the de facto Democratic pugilist against Trump. If by some miracle Trump restrains himself, Biden will nevertheless show that he can land body blows and make it that much harder for Republicans to defend the president.
Biden certainly must lay out his own policy priorities and satisfy voters that he has a 21st-century agenda around which he can build an electoral majority. However, if no one is going to compete with him for the toughest anti-Trump combatant, why shouldn’t Biden start scoring points against an unpopular president?