As he stood at his debate podium Tuesday night, Joe Biden probably felt that President Trump was simply overwhelming. When he shouts over you with a torrent of lies and fearmongering, how do you fight back? Where do you even begin? It was in many ways a microcosm of the entire campaign.

So when it was over, Biden turned to something familiar and ordinary: going out on the hustings to tell people that the Republicans only care about the rich. And since it’s Biden, he did it with a train trip.

Does it capture the scope of Trump’s villainy? Of course not. And the truth is that we in the D.C. media elite find that argument a little boring, since we’ve heard it so many times before. But any pollster will tell you that when Democrats offer an economic populist message, it always works. Sometimes it’s enough to actually bring them to victory and sometimes not, but it’s always effective.

Here’s part of the argument Biden is making:

Biden recounted how his mom used to always say to him, “Joey, nobody’s better than you, but everyone is your equal.”
“Donald Trump may think there ought to be a different set of rules for him and his rich buddies: rules that let him get out of his taxes, get out of his responsibilities and get out of the consequences for every one of his mistakes,” Biden said. “I don’t. I think it’s about time we start rewarding work in this country, not wealth. I think it’s time working families get a break and the super wealthy and big corporations pay their fair share. They’re still going to be doing just fine.”
The Democratic nominee framed the race as a choice between Park Avenue and Scranton, Pa., where he grew up. “Look, I’ve dealt with guys like Trump my whole life,” Biden told the crowd. “Guys who look down on you because they’ve got a lot of money. Guys who think they’re better than you. Guys who might let you park their car at the country club – but would never let you in. Guys who inherited everything they ever got in life – then squandered it.”

This is an appeal both practical and emotional. Trump, Biden argues, will not only take particular policy actions that reward the super-rich at the expense of the rest of us, but also display a contempt for ordinary people.

As it happens, Trump manages to maintain a good bit of credibility among voters on the economy, despite the fact that he deserves almost none of it; in most polls it’s the only issue on which voters say they trust him more than Biden.

That’s not because the Republican tax cuts were popular (they weren’t) or because Americans have a deep hunger for corporate deregulation (they don’t). Trump inherited a growing economy from Barack Obama, momentum that stayed relatively constant through the first three years of his presidency, even if on many measures he did worse in those three years than Obama did in his last three years in office.

But the unfortunate truth is that most people couldn’t tell you what job growth is like now compared to 2015, or what growth in the gross domestic product was last quarter, or what the president actually does to make the economy good or bad. They just know that under Trump things were good for a while, and he’s a business guy, so he probably knows what he’s doing, right?

That broad cloud of ignorance surrounds Biden, too; undecided voters interviewed by journalists often say that they wish he’d say more about what he wants to do. The truth is that Biden has so many detailed economic plans that on his website they’re spread across a half-dozen documents, including “Jobs and Economic Recovery Plan for Working Families,” “21st Century Caregiving and Education Workforce,” “Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future” and “Ensure the Future is ‘Made in All of America’ by All of America’s Workers.”

But we know almost no one is going to read all that, which is why you have to boil it down. And Trump makes it so easy.

Seriously: We’re talking about a president whose one legislative achievement was a tax cut for the rich and corporations, and who is an epic tax cheat who not only pays $750 a year in federal income taxes, but says that if you don’t avoid paying your fair share, then you’re a sucker. Asked to explain his tax avoidance in his debate with Biden, Trump said, “Like every other private person, unless they’re stupid, they go through the laws, and that’s what it is.”

Meanwhile, 1.5 million Americans filed for unemployment last week. The total number of people claiming unemployment benefits is 26.5 million. And the Republican Party’s worry is that if we extend those benefits, then Americans will sit around eating bonbons instead of getting off their lazy butts and getting a job.

I sometimes wonder whether Republicans ever stop and marvel at how they manage to pull off their scam, in which a party devoted to no goal higher than relieving the wealthy of the unjust burden of taxation is able to actually win elections.

His devotion to that long-standing project is hardly the most abhorrent thing about Trump; it may not even make the top 20. But if shouting it from the rooftops is what persuades a few more wavering voters to vote for Biden, that may be enough.

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