In 2016, Donald Trump and his campaign staff found themselves up against a Democratic nominee who was running under a cloud of corruption allegations, family liabilities, a longtime “establishment” image, health and wellness questions, personal baggage related to sexual-misconduct claims, and politicized inquiries on Capitol Hill.
In 2020, they want to do it all over again. But this time, Team Trump faces a presumptive Democratic nominee who appears, at least thus far, significantly less vulnerable to those attacks that worked so well on Hillary Clinton. In poll after poll—both public and internal campaign variety—former Vice President Joe Biden has maintained leads over President Trump, including in several key battleground states.
The advantage has persisted as Biden’s prospects seemed doomed, as Trump’s standing momentarily brightened, as the attacks have grown more vicious, and as both men were taken off the trail because of the coronavirus pandemic. The steadiness has gotten to the point that Biden’s own confidants are now increasingly confident that Trump simply won’t be able to re-use the playbook that got him the White House four years ago.
“Joe Biden’s not Hillary Clinton, thank God,” one senior Biden adviser said about any attempt from Team Trump to paint him as a Hillary clone.
It’s also prompted some Trump lieutenants, and even the president himself, to start practically longing for the good ol’ days of having Clinton as their foe. As recently as last month, Trump privately joked how great it would be if Biden ultimately didn’t secure the nomination this summer and Clinton would have to step in, so that he could beat her harder than he did last time around, according to two sources close to the president.
“It would be nice, for sure, if we were running against a replica of Hillary,” a senior Trump administration official said. “But only Hillary Clinton is Hillary Clinton.”
It’s not as if the president and his team haven’t been trying to meld the last two Democratic candidates together. In interviews with half a dozen Trump aides in the administration and his re-election effort, each said that there was a concerted campaign to “make Biden the new Hillary,” in the words of one campaign official, whether it be by accusing him of engaging in shady foreign dealings, charging him with a embracing a culture of “corruption,” or portraying him as an immigrant-loving elitist.
“Joe Biden just told his wealthy liberal donors that Trump supporters are a bunch of racist xenophobes,” the president’s campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted last month. “Biden is picking up right where Hillary left off!”
Beyond portraying him as a Clinton clone, the president’s top political advisers have also gone after Biden on new fronts, first and foremost his positions and record on China. However, with the past few months having been dominated by the coronavirus and a collapsing American economy, the punches have proven harder to land, and some Republicans are worried that they may never will.
Part of Biden’s advantage, they concede, is that he has never been perceived as a boogeyman in conservative circles like Clinton was for decades prior to Trump’s arrival on the national scene.
“While Biden has universal name-ID, unlike Hillary Clinton he hasn’t spent the last two decades as the principal boogeyman among conservatives, and beyond that, he’s generally been pretty undefined politically, other than the fact that he was Barack Obama’s VP,” said a Republican close to the Trump campaign. “For now, Americans are focused on the virus. I think that by the summer, people will start paying more attention to the race between Biden and Trump—and you’ll be seeing his open wounds get picked at more and more.”
But for some Democrats, the simplest explanation as to why Biden is proving more immune (at least for now) to the Trump campaign playbook is chromosomal.
“Donald Trump's attack on Hillary in 2016 ranged from calling her nasty, crooked, and unlikable,” said Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton's 2008 campaign manager and longtime confidant. “His tactics ranged from parading women who had accused her husband of various sexual assaults; to leading chants of ‘Lock Her Up’; to stalking her at a debate. None of these tactics will work on Biden because.... wait for it....HE’S A MAN! Trump is going to have to dig deeper in his sleazy bag of tricks to attack his opponent this time around.”
Clearly frustrated by the durable nature of Biden’s campaign to date, Trumpworld has, in recent days, accelerated the attacks in visceral ways. Trump, his team, and his two eldest sons have taunted Biden with unfounded charges that he’s mentally deteriorating, a pedophile, and “China’s puppet.” Congressional Republicans have pushed subpoenas seeking to investigate a firm that did work for a Ukrainian company where Biden’s son Hunter sat on the board. And the broader Trump political apparatus has pushed accusations, unsupported by any available evidence, that Biden was involved in an elaborate effort to spy on Trump’s former adviser Michael Flynn.
Through it all, Biden’s inner circle has remained adamant in adhering to the plan they believe worked best in the Democratic primary: only engaging minimally when Trump and his allies attack.
“This is his pattern,” the former vice president stated in a forum with Yahoo News, already appearing exasperated at the mere mention of things like “Obamagate” before repeating the word “diversion” five times in rapid succession. “Don’t speak to whatever the issues before us are. My God! ‘Obamagate.’”
Nearly five minutes into the topic, Biden appeared to grow more frustrated with his opponent’s political approach, spitballing about the pettiness and general absurdity of Trump’s latest crusades.
“What he’s trying to do is get something going on the internet,” Biden said, answering a follow-up question about the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., sharing an online meme about a baseless insinuation that the former vice president has engaged in pedophilia. “It’s sick! It’s sick! It’s sick!... I don’t want to get down in the mud with these guys.”
Though Biden’s hesitance to mud-fight has worked so far, for some veterans of past campaigns, the strategy carries risk. Four years ago, Clinton took pains not to dirty herself trying to defend ongoing attacks about her use of a private email server at the State Department, or the death of a United States ambassador who was killed by an Islamic militant group while working in Benghazi, Libya. During one general election debate, where Trump hovered within striking distance, she famously didn’t engage.
“I think Hillary regrets a lot of that,” a former top adviser to Clinton said, speaking broadly about her hesitance to take Trump head-on over a variety of issues. “People can pretend all day that this whole not responding thing is the high road and the way to go, but it’s not.”
“Democrats need to understand that this is a real fight,” the former adviser went on. “And stop pretending that we can normalize this by offering some other type of positive politics that’s going to get us through it. It’s not. You have to hit this guy, you have to hit him harder.”
Still, Biden and his top allies believe there are stronger benefits to simply downplaying any outlandish remarks and turning the attention back to Trump’s record in the White House. Indeed, some Biden campaign officials delight at the prospect of Team Trump dusting off their 2016 playbook, saying that unlike 2016, when Clinton’s team struggled to anticipate the unorthodox and bombastic approach, they have an edge knowing what to expect this time around.
“He’s been at it all year long,” Mike Donilon, the Biden campaign’s chief strategist, said on a recent briefing call with reporters about the president’s attempts to trash the former VP. "I understand that the president and his allies will undertake every effort to go after the vice president and try and change the subject, but first of all, I would say, this isn’t new.”
The thinking among some in Bidenworld is that, unlike Clinton, who only competed against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in 2016, Biden had to slug it out against a series of formidable challengers during a hard-fought primary. Trump’s attacks, including on his son Hunter Biden’s involvement with the Ukrainian company Burisma, didn’t stick then and won’t work now.
“He came after him in the primary. He made a real effort to try to stop him there,” Donilon said. “One of the things that’s been underestimated about the vice president from the beginning is how strong an image he has with the American people. He has held up incredibly well. I think he’s been attacked if not more than anybody else, pretty much in the same league. And he’s held up very well through all of it.”
There also is the matter of the political landscape at hand. The coronavirus pandemic has put the campaign on the backburner and prompted a nationwide debate about Trump’s capacity to handle a national crisis. For Biden, it’s been an opportunity. He released a plan for tackling coronavirus in mid-April, and has emphasized a coordinated strategy—from policy prescriptions to messaging and social media roll-outs—centered around the need to believe and elevate scientists, who Trump publicly downplays. In doing that, the campaign sees Biden’s handling of the pandemic as one of the strongest lines of defense against Trump, and a surefire way to rebuff the idea that he is a Clinton reincarnation.
“It’s going to fall on deaf ears,” said the senior Biden adviser. “It worked very well on Hillary because a lot of people didn’t like Hillary. It was primarily because of her unpopularity.”
—with reporting by Sam Stein