The theory of lanes in a presidential primary is somewhat overwrought. The idea that more liberal candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are competing for a defined, more liberal universe of voters, while former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) are competing for moderate voters doesn’t always break down so neatly. And the fact that we have about 20 serious Democratic candidates now renders the traditional lane calculus even less applicable.
But with his campaign launch Thursday, Biden seems to be plopping himself down in a lane that other 2020 Democrats have somewhat neglected: The this-is-all-about-Trump lane.
From start to finish, Biden’s announcement video is about Trump and preventing his presidency from being prolonged beyond 2020. Biden starts by noting that Charlottesville, was both home to the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, and to the deadly white supremacist rally in 2017. Trump drew criticism after the rally for saying there were good people “on both sides.”
“At that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetime,” Biden says, adding: “We are in a battle for the soul of this nation.”
He proceeds with a stern and ominous warning: “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.”
Four years of Trump? Biden says that’s an “aberrant moment in time.” Eight years? A forever altering of our nation’s moral fabric.
That may seem an uncharitable summary of Biden’s launch message, but it’s what he says — literally. His launch video also makes almost no mention of policy or what issues he’s running on. It’s all highflying rhetoric about who we are as a country.
It’s a striking departure from his foes for the 2020 Democratic nomination — and from how Democrats ran in the 2018 midterm elections. Even as Trump was broadly unpopular, their campaign messaging really wasn’t about Trump, at least in the general election.
But Biden has plenty of reason to run as the antidote to Trump. The first is that he’s got a paper trail — a long one — from having served in national office for the majority of his adult life. He was elected to the Senate at 29 years old, and he’s 76 today. The Economist puts it well when it says Biden “provides a fossil record of how the Democrats have changed.” On busing, on abortion, on his physical interactions with women, on Anita Hill and on criminal justice, Biden has baggage in a Democratic primary that has moved further to the left, both politically and culturally, than any in recent memory. Biden will surely compare and contrast his ideas with his opponents — he recently claimed the “most progressive record of anyone running” — but emphasizing opposition to Trump could be a way to compensate for any voter-perceived shortcomings in Biden’s past.
The second is that Biden has the heft to make it work. Whatever else you think of Biden, he is a former vice president and perhaps the most engaging speaker in the 2020 field. While other candidates could try to bite at Trump’s ankles, Biden will have no trouble driving a message, given his CV and his current position atop the polls. His earnest speaking style can sometimes seem contrived — I’m dead serious here, folks — but it’s difficult to imagine he’ll be too over-the-top for Democratic primary voters who badly want to be rid of the Trump presidency.
And the third is that he’s setting a tone that others aren’t. Only in the last few days have top 2020 Democratic candidates come out in favor of impeachment. And they seem reluctant to make their campaigns and our national political debate all about Trump.
Witness what Sanders said at his CNN town hall this week: “If for the next year, year-and-a-half, going right into the heart of the election, all that the Congress is talking about is impeaching Trump and ‘Trump, Trump, Trump’ and ‘Mueller, Mueller, Mueller,’ and we’re not talking about health care, we’re not talking about raising the minimum wage to a living wage, we’re not talking about combating climate change, we’re not talking about sexism and racism and homophobia, and all of the issues that concern ordinary Americans, what I worry about is that works to Trump’s advantage.”
But Trump is going to dominate the 2020 race in one form or another. Biden’s approach seems to be to lean into that battle early in the Democratic primary in a way his opponents aren’t. We’ll see if Democratic voters reward him for that.