Should President Trump fear Joe Biden? One theory is yes, because he’s a regular guy and a centrist, and thus more likely to pick off Trump voters in the middle. The other is no, because Biden’s a has-been who can’t make it out of the Democratic primary, where Bernie Sanders has the activist energy.
While they don’t want you to see them shivering, some of Trump’s top lieutenants are already planning for how the president and the party he commands will try to stop Biden in the general election.
For now, his closest allies want you to know they’re not giving Biden a second, third, or even fourth thought.
“Lol lol lol,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) — a Trump confidant who chairs the House Freedom Caucus — replied via text after VICE News asked if the president and GOP leaders are more afraid of Biden than Bernie Sanders. “Joe Biden will not expand the voting base for Democrats, and while he polls the highest in a head-to-head matchup with President Trump, Bernie Sanders offers the energy that should be most worrisome.”
Trump himself is also trying to dismiss Biden as a “sleepy” has-been, and his water boys on Capitol Hill are following suit.
“Biden’s current polling represents both his floor and his ceiling,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) texted to VICE News. “After multiple presidential runs, I don’t think people are waiting to learn new things about him.”
The threat of Biden
That reasoning from Trump and his clique has other Republicans scratching their heads as they brush aside the talking points and argue there’s no question Biden remains the biggest threat to Trump in the Democrats’ 2020 field.
“You can’t play the socialist card against Biden”
“No, he’s better off facing Sanders, because you can’t play the socialist card against Biden,” former Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) told VICE News. “Biden can cut into those voters that didn’t vote for Hillary that would otherwise vote for Biden, which is older, white, working-class voters.”
Costello is just over 40, but he’s still a moderate Republican from what feels like a bygone era. So while he’s no Trump cheerleader, he’s also not voting for Biden. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to portray Biden as an empty piñata, the way his former GOP colleagues are trying to.
“You cannot call into question the man’s character. You just can’t,” Costello said. “I think ultimately a lot of these swingy voters are going to be looking at character — and I’m not interested in weighing in on what people think of Donald Trump’s personality or character. But you’re not going to say that Joe Biden is a bad person or that he doesn’t think about the normal, hardworking American.”
Costello isn’t the only one disregarding the conservative talking points the right is trying to pin to Biden’s lapel. To many Republicans who have exited the daily partisan warfare of contemporary Washington, there’s no question Biden and his folksy, if antiquated, Scranton ways should scare Trump more than all the progressive Democrats vying for the White House.
“The Democrats are falling over themselves to get left of each other. I know it’s a primary, but this is crazy stuff. Biden, if he doesn’t fall into the same trap, is Trump’s biggest threat in the Rust Belt,” former Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) texted VICE News just before boarding a flight. “If Trump can’t carry those states again, he’ll lose. But right now, with everything the Democrats are talking about, Trump will win.”
But even after the historic November shellacking, Rust Belt Republicans — at least the ones consuming a steady diet of Fox News and other conservative talking heads — disagree. Like Trump, they argue the Democratic belt is the one that’s rusted, whether that’s Biden or Sanders (or one of the other 19 Democrats vying for the White House).
“I really don’t think it matters, because these raging liberals are really angering people,” former Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) told VICE News.
With the nation’s first reality-TV president at the helm, Marino thinks of Biden as “old material” — and not in the vein of a classic novel or fine wine.
“I don’t mean old in age, because Trump is relatively the same age. But he’s old material,” Marino said.
Many in the GOP establishment are watching from the sidelines and waiting — even hoping — that Biden implodes in front of the nation’s eyes.
“Biden’s going to have his hands full, because he’s going to continue to move left to try to get through that primary, and that puts him more out of touch with the people here in Pennsylvania,” former Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) told VICE News over the phone.
While Barletta lost his Pennsylvania Senate bid in 2018 by more than 13 percentage points by borrowing from Trump’s playbook, he still predicts that Trump would be able to blow Biden out of the water in a head to head general election matchup.
That’s because Barletta says if Biden is the eventual Democratic nominee, the GOP will revert to the 2016 tactics that put Trump in the White House: re-litigating the Obama years, and connecting them firmly to Uncle Joe Biden.
“You can’t separate them – they’re tied at the hip, and they were proud to say it during that time,” Barletta said. “Obama had eight years and Biden had eight years.”
That purported strategy has other Republicans scratching their heads though.
“That doesn’t work – nobody goes backward in an election,” former Pennsylvania Rep. Costello said. “Nobody’s going to look back on Biden during the Obama years, for better or for worse, it’s just not how it works. They’re going to look back over the past four years.”
Even as a formally retired moderate Republican, Costello argues 2020 isn’t going to be a cake walk for Democrats, especially because — love or hate them — Trump has delivered on many of his promises to conservatives, like the sweeping GOP tax overhaul and even placing anti-abortion justices on the Supreme Court (along with stacking the nation’s lower courts with some of the farthest of far right judges in the nation).
“If you look at accomplishments, this administration has put points on the board in a number of different areas,” Costello said. “There will be some Republican voters that look at that and say ‘I didn’t like that tweet’ and ‘I don’t like that he said that’ and ‘He shouldn’t have said that about that person but at least he’s getting the policy side of it right.’”
Costello says Trump won’t be judged by those crucial independent voters on his first four years in office as much as he’ll be judged by his vision for the next four years. And while Trump and Biden are both old dogs, the former vice president’s allies say at least one of these old dogs has been able to learn new tricks.
“That’s one of the reasons why people love Joe Biden — is because he doesn’t pretend to be perfect,” Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) told VICE News on a phone call from her district that encompasses the entire, if small, state Biden represented just shy of four decades in the Senate. “He doesn’t pretend that he knows everything, and he doesn’t lie about things. He speaks his truth. He grows. He evolves.”
Cover: Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction and Maintenance conference on April 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)