The Flaw in Trying to Paint Biden as Another Hillary Clinton

Joe Biden speaks at the kickoff rally of his 2020 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Pa., May 18, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The 2020 Democratic front-runner doesn’t carry the same baggage.

Is Joe Biden Hillary Clinton — or George W. Bush?

The first, most obvious and literal answer is, he’s neither. He’s Joe Biden, one of the most known and familiar personalities in American politics.

Matt Continetti, editor of the Washington Free Beacon, recently asked: “Is Biden the new Hillary?”

“Trump plans to wage the same sort of campaign against Biden that he did against Hillary Clinton in 2016,” Continetti wrote for National Review. “Back then, Trump defined Hillary as the candidate of entrenched interests who used a long career in politics for familial gain. He highlighted Clinton’s support for the 1994 crime bill and for NAFTA and TPP, driving wedges between the former secretary of state and important Democratic constituencies. And he went after Hillary’s foreign-policy credentials, painting her as an interventionist who had weakened America’s standing in the world.”

Continetti is surely correct that this is Team Trump’s game plan. Both D.C. scuttlebutt and public reporting suggest that they see Biden as the biggest threat to Trump’s reelection prospects. That’s certainly borne out in the polls, which show Biden leading Trump by 8 points (according to the RealClearPolitics average). Biden’s lead in some crucial states is even more worrisome for Trump.

A recent Quinnipiac poll had him ahead by double digits — 53 percent to 42 percent — in Pennsylvania. Biden has a 10.5 percentage-point lead in Michigan, 8 points in Wisconsin (though polling there is sparse), and 4 points in Ohio, and is tied in Florida, according to the RealClearPolitics average.

Trump won the Electoral College by taking a handful of states out of the traditional Democratic column with razor-thin margins. It’s insanely early, but the scary part for Trump is that Biden is not only wildly beating the other Democrats in the field, he’s also outperforming Clinton at a comparable time in 2015.

And this points to a possible flaw in the effort to turn Biden into another Hillary. Clinton ran as an experienced Washington hand, Continetti notes. But “after 16 months of Trump attacks, 77,000 voters in three states denied her the presidency,” he adds. “The same could happen again to a nominee easily caricatured as the epitome of Beltway cluelessness. What looks like Joe Biden’s greatest strength — electability born of experience — may also be a debilitating weakness.”

Maybe. But while Trump’s attacks on Clinton were surely effective at times, Trump was aided enormously by the fact that Americans, particularly Republican and Republican-friendly ones, were skeptical or outright hostile to her already, thanks to decades of experience with, and criticism of, her. Trump didn’t define Clinton as much as she did.

Moreover, implicit to her campaign was the promise of both a third Obama term and a restoration of the Clinton dynasty. Trump did not need to work all that hard to convince voters exhausted or frustrated by the Obama years or disdainful of Clinton Inc. to vote against her.

Biden occupies a different space, psychologically and politically. There’s a lot of conventional wisdom in Washington that the early front-runner always loses. And that’s true except when it isn’t. In 2003, former Vermont governor Howard Dean dominated the polls. Then he lost Iowa, screamed, and eventually skulked away.

But in 1999, George W. Bush dominated the polls and, except for a brief scare from Senator John McCain in the New Hampshire primary, essentially cruised to victory.

A key part of Bush’s early success, not just in polls but in fundraising, stemmed from the fact that he was promising a Bush restoration. Indeed, some of his early approval ratings were a direct result of nostalgia for his father, with whom he shared a name.

Also, he was offering a referendum on the incumbent president and the scandals and partisanship that defined the end of his administration. He vowed to restore “honor and dignity to the Oval Office” and to be a “uniter not a divider.”

The very different context notwithstanding, this is pretty much Biden’s campaign message. The ideological, activist, and Twitter-obsessed base of the Democratic party may not like Biden’s pitch. But it sure looks like rank-and-file Democrats do, particularly African-American women who may see in Biden something of an Obama restoration.

Of course, Biden can blow it, as he did the two previous times he ran for president. But counting on the past repeating itself is a good strategy only when you pick the right example from the past.

© 2019 Tribune Content Agency LLC

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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