The 2020 general election is more than a year away, but you would never know it by how President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are behaving. This week, the incumbent Republican president and Democratic hopeful Biden had a virtual faceoff in Iowa, providing voters with a preview of what a Trump-Biden matchup may look like.
President Trump wasted no time taking shots at Biden. Trump's strategy seems to be to discredit him right out of the gate. Even before leaving Washington, Trump called the former vice president "weak mentally" and a "dummy." While stumping in the Hawkeye State, Trump painted Biden as a loser and as part of an administration that eroded America’s stature on the global stage by being apologists.
The president asserts that he would love to run against Biden, because he would be easy to beat. However, it is clear from the president's behavior that he is running scared.
Name calling by Trump amounts to an endorsement for his subject. We have seen it time and again. "Crooked Hillary," "Low Energy Jeb" and "Little Marco" are some of the better-known nicknames Trump has given his political adversaries. When Trump lobs insults, his opponents earn bragging rights, because Trump is paying attention to them. When Trump calls Biden "Sleepy Joe" or a "dummy," the Biden camp can make the case that Trump feels threatened and is lashing out. I think there is probably some legitimacy to that hypothesis.
Biden needs to be careful that he does not inadvertently alienate Americans who voted for Trump and whose support he will need to win the Electoral College.
Biden’s strategy, in part, is similar to Hillary Clinton’s 2015 strategy. He is hoping to use his front-runner status in the primary to stay above the fray and conduct himself as the presumptive Democratic nominee.
At first blush, this is a solid strategy. He holds a significant lead in the polls in a crowded field of more than 20 candidates, many of whom are competing to capture the attention of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Instead of sparring with other Democrats, Biden is taking aim squarely at Trump. Frankly, that is better than having a family food fight within the party that could weaken the eventual nominee.
I listened to some of Biden’s remarks from Iowa. I agreed with many of his statements on protecting a free press and ensuring we have an economy that works for every American. Biden also spent a significant amount of time arguing that President Trump is incompetent and morally bankrupt. Painting Trump as a threat to the future of our republic gives me some pause. It may be a strong message for Biden in the primary, but it could create some challenges for him in a head-to-head match when he must compete with Trump for critical voters.
Here are my two cents for both the Biden and Trump camps to consider.
First, I would caution Biden not to repeat the mistakes of the past by assuming his nomination is a foregone conclusion. That didn’t work out so well for Hillary. Biden needs to make sure he takes nothing for granted, fights for every primary vote and presents a cogent policy agenda that is much more than just anti-Trump. Biden needs to be careful that he does not inadvertently alienate Americans who voted for Trump and whose support he will need to win the Electoral College.
Trump, for his part, would be served well by ignoring Biden (and every other Democratic contender), because his attention gives them more credibility.
One thing is clear. The 2020 race is going to be a wild ride.