President Donald Trump has publicly expressed confidence that he could easily best Joe Biden in a 2020 battle. But behind closed doors, the president has fixated on Biden, while top aides have tried to assure their boss that the former vice president is doomed.
In recent weeks, Trump has peppered aides on more than one occasion for updates on how Biden is faring in early Democratic primary polls — a sign of how seriously Trump takes the potential candidacy. Indeed, Biden has topped several recent battleground state polls, as well as a national survey released Monday, marking him as an early Democratic presidential front-runner.
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Those close to the president have also calmed Trump, though, by insisting that even if Biden would be a strong general election candidate, there’s a considerable chance he won’t make it to the party’s nominating convention next July. Despite the early polling, they’ve argued the increasingly left-leaning Democratic primary electorate won’t settle on a 76-year-old white man already facing renewed scrutiny over his prior record on issues like criminal justice and race.
“The Democratic base is looking for someone newer, fresher,” said a close friend of the president.
During a recent meeting involving Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and senior officials from the White House Office of Political Affairs, a discussion ensued about whether the president should be nervous about Biden entering the 2020 fray, a White House official told POLITICO. Several people in the room told Trump he shouldn’t be “overly nervous” as long as Biden is “pulled to the left” in the primary, according to the official.
Trump advisers, noting the way Biden recently backpedaled after publicly calling Vice President Mike Pence a “decent guy,” told the president the incident was a perfect example of the verbal tightrope Biden will have to walk if he declares his candidacy. When fellow Democrats and the party’s progressive base accused Biden of legitimizing “America’s most anti-LGBT elected leader,” as former New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon wrote in a viral tweet, Biden quickly said he was “making a point in a foreign policy context … but there is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights.”
“We thought that was so indicative of the fact that this guy is going to be so beholden to the left, if he can’t even make a simple statement about his successor without kowtowing a minute later,” the White House official said.
Some of Trump’s advisers have even compared Biden to Jeb Bush, an establishment favorite who entered the 2016 GOP primary with widespread name recognition, a professional operation and a massive war chest, only to admit defeat before his home state primary.
“Presidential campaign history is littered with the bodies of candidates who were supposed to be front-runners but flamed out before they were ever able to take off,” said a person close to the Trump campaign.
While Biden’s advisers admit this dynamic presents challenges, they believe that pragmatism can prevail over left-wing passion, just as it did when Democrats nominated Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry rather than anti-Iraq war firebrand Howard Dean in 2004. They also point to recent polls showing “electability” as the top trait Democratic voters are currently looking for in a potential nominee — above all, they want someone who can beat Trump.
Biden on Tuesday he said he will reveal his decision in “a few weeks.”
“In prior elections, voters from both parties consistently prioritized shared values over electability when selecting a nominee,” said Patrick Murray, polling director at Monmouth University, which released the national survey that showed Biden leading the Democratic pack with 28 percent support. “It looks like Democrats may be willing to flip that equation in 2020 because of their desire to defeat Trump.”
The Biden fixation goes beyond Trump. It was on display last weekend when deep-pocketed GOP donors gathered at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Beach Club for the Republican National Committee’s annual spring retreat.
As they awaited remarks from the president during a private dinner Friday night, one table of Republican insiders launched into an extensive discussion about the 2020 primary. According to a person involved in the conversation, attendees were debating which Democrat has the best shot at regaining the Rust Belt states that carried Trump in 2016.
“Pretty much everyone thought Joe Biden would be the toughest … to beat,” said the person involved.
Despite admitting as much in private, Trump has exuded nothing but confidence in his public statements about Biden. In tweets and fundraising speeches, he has tested two derisive nicknames for the longtime Delaware senator — “Crazy Joe Biden” and “the dummy” — who once said he would “beat the hell out of” the president in a schoolyard fight.
“He ran two or three times, he never got above 1 percent,” Trump said of Biden in a recent Fox News interview. “And then, Obama came along and took him off the trash heap, and he became vice president. He’s weak. So we’ll see what happens with him.”
Pence has also harped on Biden in recent weeks, echoing what Trump’s political advisers have told him — that his predecessor will battle a generational gap with his younger opponents if he enters the race. And, he’s stressed the intense pressure Biden will face in certain Democratic circles to endear himself to the party’s progressive base.
“I like our chances in 2020,” Pence said in an interview with Fox News on Thursday, claiming that the way Biden “caved in to liberal activists after making a kind comment for me is evidence of the pressure that all candidates are going to face” to move to the left.
Biden himself has yet to address questions of how he will appeal to more culturally liberal voters if he jumps into the race, which would unleash a spate of pointed questions over his previous voting record on crime, marriage equality, abortion, mass incarceration and more.
He has told confidants in recent conversations, however, that he doesn’t see another Democrat on the current roster who can “do what has to be done to win,” according to The New York Times.