The more the conversation surrounding Joe Biden’s candidacy is about him vis-à-vis President Donald Trump than him vis-à-vis, say, Anita Hill, the better for Joe Biden. A one-on-one fight with Trump emphasizes Biden’s top perceived strength in the primary—general electability—and sucks oxygen away from his primary contenders. Biden looks much better to the broader Democratic electorate when, for example, he’s goading Trump into saying more stupid things about Charlottesville than when he’s struggling to apologize for any number of past misdeeds.
In that respect, the first 24 hours of Biden’s campaign, while not without the typical sloppiness expected of the less-than-detail-oriented former vice president, haven’t been so bad. In addition to his $6.3 million fundraising haul, he successfully got into a pissing match with Trump over one of Trump’s worst, least defensible episodes.
In his launch video, Biden says that when Trump claimed there were “very fine people on both sides” of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally—one side being neo-Nazis, another being those protesting neo-Nazis—he “knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I’d ever seen in my lifetime.” When Trump was asked Friday morning about the Charlottesville comments, he once again offered a risible defense of his “both sides” comments.
“If you look at what I said, you will see that that question was answered perfectly,” Trump said. “I was talking about people who went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general, whether you like it or not.”
They felt very strongly about it, indeed, because they were white supremacists, comprised of various neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate, Ku Klux Klan, and alt-right factions. In other words, this fight is good for Biden.
Elsewhere, the president made his inaugural attempt at defining Biden, by calling him lazy, dumb, and out of touch with his party.
“This is beneath the office of the Presidency,” the Biden team wrote in a subsequent fundraising email. “Tweets like this are a reminder of why we cannot afford four more years of this President. Joe is running a different kind of campaign. But if President Trump is already on the attack on Day One, we need to be prepared for whatever comes next.”
This sort of approach, about how Trump’s main offense is his vulgarity and how it soils the dignity of the office, is not one that would work for most of the Democratic primary field. But it might be the only approach that can work for Biden. He’s not going to have the most innovative left-wing policy proposals, and any attempts to portray himself as the “future of the party” would be ridiculous for obvious reasons. He is not and cannot be a new commodity. His appeal, then, is to the significant chunk of potential Democratic primary voters who aren’t particularly ideological, and want a restoration of “normal,” pre-Trump politics. That means waging a campaign on norms, decency, and dignity, largely targeted towards older and moderate voters. Any day that Trump chooses to play his part on the other end of the contrast, directly in response to Biden, is a decent day for Biden.