If you think it’s still too early for presidential primaries, then Donald Trump and Joe Biden have some bad news for you. The two have begun aiming at each other as though the general election had already begun, trading barbs and generally ignoring the other 347 (estimated) Democrats vying for the nomination. The AP’s Steve Peoples and Zeke Miller understand why Biden wants to get personal, but are less clear on Trump’s motives:
Democrats won’t pick their nominee for another year, but President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are acting like the 2020 presidential contest is already a two-man race.
Almost completely ignoring his 23 Democratic competitors , Biden has been laser-focused on Trump — particularly his embrace of racist rhetoric . But it has been Trump’s recent focus on Biden that has surprised both his allies and critics, who believe the Republican president may be unintentionally elevating someone whose candidacy is barely a month old.
Trump’s advisers have privately encouraged him to lay off Biden. He has done the opposite, lobbing more public insults at the former vice president than any other Democrat over the month.
It’s possible that Trump has aimed at Biden for non-strategic purposes … or put more simply, just because he wants to take potshots at Biden. Biden makes a pretty good target, and his criticisms of Trump probably count more because of his status as Barack Obama’s former VP. Much of what Trump does is instinctual, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.
However, this could very well be a strategic decision by Trump and his team as well. Traditionally, incumbent presidents try to stay above the fray, making primary challengers in both parties look more like ankle-biters than serious people. Staying above the fray isn’t exactly Trump’s style, of course, nor is it how he won the nomination and then the presidency in 2016.
Singling out Biden in particular could be Trump’s attempt to shape the battlefield to his advantage in 2020 in a very specific manner. As I write in my column at The Week, that’s a gamble that will either pay off big — or bury Trump:
Biden’s candidacy does present unusual circumstances that could give Trump some advantages for going on the attack. First off, Biden’s campaign is also employing a curious campaign strategy. Both the Washington Post and CNN noted in the past week that Biden isn’t exactly embracing a rigorous appearance schedule. Biden didn’t bother to schedule any events over the holiday weekend, and the Post noted that this has become a familiar refrain from Team Biden since his launch a month earlier. CNN also informed readers that even when Biden does hold events, he rarely takes questions from the crowd as other Democrats have done.
The strategy, progressive strategist Rebecca Katz told CNN, is to have voters “see him less and remember him more.” It’s better for Biden to keep the focus on his past with Obama rather than on the present, Katz concludes. Trump’s provocations could force Biden to abandon that strategy and spend more time in the public eye — although it also provides Biden a good platform for making himself the eminence grise of the 2020 hopefuls and enhancing his credibility as Trump’s chief opponent.
However, that context still benefits Trump in another way. This is because Biden represents the status quo ante that Trump campaigned against so effectively in 2016. He is literally the reset option for Democrats and other voters unnerved by Trump’s chaos-agent campaign, a comfort food menu choice in the Democratic primary that would endorse the old order over Trump’s swamp-draining paradigm. Making Biden his central foe plays into that narrative again for Trump, even before Democrats choose Barack Obama’s former vice president as the nominee.
If Trump sees Biden as his most effective potential opponent, then the time to attack is now — he could effectively pre-define the general election race regardless of what strategy Democrats try to use to challenge his incumbency — as long as he’s convinced that voters don’t want a return to a safe status quo ante.
Not only does Biden represent the status quo ante, he’s really the only Democrat in the primary who does. Practically every other Democrat in the race has either served in their current positions for too short a time to ascend to leadership, or have spent their lifetime on the fringes — Bernie Sanders in particular. If Trump wants to shape the 2020 battleground as the establishment versus the swamp-drainer, Biden’s the only real option.
Trump had better hope, though, that three-plus years of his chaotic impact doesn’t produce a nostalgic yearning in the electorate. Absent that, this might well be a smart strategy, and a good time to put it into play.