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Can Biden Beat Trump?

This is the seventh of a periodic series on the primaries and caucuses. The other pieces can be found here.

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Campaign 2020: A Trump Rally. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

For the Democrats to lose in 2020 to President Donald Trump, they would have to be brain dead, and much evidence suggests that they are.

For this brief shining moment, Joe Biden is on his roll, winning primary states by large margins (even where he had no offices on the ground) and flooded with endorsements from Democratic stalwarts (hoping to become the vice-presidential candidate?) who have finally seen the light of Joe’s electoral brilliance.

The Biden camp has even had the hope that Senator Bernie Sanders would quit the race prior to Sunday night’s debate and spare the Democratic crown prince the indignity of a two-hour primetime face-off (not the best place to hide your candidate if you’re a Biden handler).

Now I am sure Joe’s aides will plead viral concerns to cancel what little chance Sanders might have to pull even with the former vice-president. Biden can rest assured that the fix against Sanders remains in, and that he will emerge from the Democratic primaries as the party’s nominee. But does he have a chance of winning the election in the fall?

***

Were Biden running in a normal year, I don’t think he would get anywhere against an incumbent president during a period of low unemployment and economic growth.

In a general election over many months, Biden would be shown for what he is—a party hack (well past his sell-by date) who in a career of stunning, compromised mediocrity has carried the bag for credit card companies, the trashers of Anita Hill, big oil, Strom Thurmond, the right-to-life crowd, profitable prisons, and the Iraq war (to list just a few of his paymasters).

Six months before the election, and Biden is already being handled as damaged electoral goods.

His staff knows not to schedule events in the afternoons (when he is probably, to use Dave Barry’s phrase about Reagan, “napping toward glory”). When they do release Joe to the public, it is with a prayer that he doesn’t drop too many f-bombs on those at his rallies. But that was pre-pandemic.

With the arrival of the coronavirus (yet more foreign interference in the innocent lives of the American electorate), two things have happened, both of which favor Biden.

One is that, on behalf of committee’s for public safely, Joe’s handlers can hide him in studio blue rooms and spin fairy tales about the scrappy lad from Scranton who became President Barack Obama’s point man on the great issues.

Second, with the virus extending its reach in the U.S., Donald Trump may have met his Waterloo. More and more he is looking like another pathetic figure on trial, pushing a walker into a courtroom of public opinion.

Before long, I suspect, Trump will become the presidential boy in the bubble, stashed away in some mountainside retreat, enshrouded in plastic with breathing and feed tubes, maintaining his tenuous connection to reality through Twitter and a few aides brave enough to meet the press.

George W. Bush on 9/11, hidden away at his underground bunker in Omaha, will look like Washington crossing the Delaware compared to Trump under siege, finally facing an opponent that his lawyers cannot buy off with hush money or that Senator Mitch McConnell cannot silence with congressional sleights of hand.

***

So what happens in a presidential race that features two incompetent men in their seventies, both of whom show signs of intellectual impairment and physical failings at a time when the country needs political and moral leadership?

Let’s start with the general election hopes of the Republicans, who have been whistling past many Trump graveyards—the president’s obstructions of justice, influence peddling around his hotels, Weinstein-ish treatment of women, and obsequious compromises with Saudi and Russian strongmen, among others.

As long as Trump could fill up his MAGA rallies with the party faithful and send money down the Republican food chain to Senate and House candidates, the president was safe from censure, as witnessed by his post-impeachment high fives to that White House gathering of his footmen.

I suspect that even in decline, the president’s hold on the Republican Party is sufficient to fend off a “dump Trump” movement at the national convention, but the prospect of losing the majority in the Senate is what could finally touch off a revolt in the ranks.

Nor will his media guys love it when Trump’s “what we call the flu…” quotes come back in thirty-second Biden ads. (Cut to Trump at the CDC saying: “I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president…” Cut to passengers being carried off cruise ships. “I’m Joe Biden, and I approve this message…”)

The coronavirus comes with two strains: the worldwide economic crisis, and the illness that comes with unwashed hands. Of the two, as a risk to Trump in the general election, economic decline outweighs pandemic pneumonia.

Never stand between an electorate and its investment portfolios, and on this point Stock-Jobber-in-Chief Trump, who has made the Dow Jones the pulse of his administration, is vulnerable.

For the Democrats’ election map a recession is manna from heaven.

Even before the stock market shocks and more medical incompetence (how did that National Guard unit do against those viral particles in New Rochelle?), the Democrats were ahead in such swing states as Maine and Arizona, and could well be competitive in Colorado and North Carolina, which, if they fell to the Democrats in the Senate (even with Doug Jones losing in Alabama), would put an end (the Senate would be 50-50) to Mitch McConnell’s reign of terror.

In 2008, the Great Recession doomed the electoral chances of John McCain, who was running on a ticket of Republican Continuum. If Trump is running against the same economic headwinds in 2020, there’s little that all the hotelier’s men can do to save him, unless of course the opposition is Joe Biden.

***

The Trump campaign’s only hope is that Biden turns out to be the gift candidate who keeps on giving.

The point about the Biden candidacy is that he shares many of the same vulnerabilities with Trump.

If you’re a Trump spin master worried about some aspects of your candidate, here’s a checklist to brighten your day:

—Feeling vulnerable about your man’s past treatment of women, especially as Harvey is being sent up the river for 23 years? Not to worry, as back-rub Joe will have little to say about compromising positions.

—Have children who are cashing in on your time in office? Again, no problem, as Hunter Biden is the antidote for any attacks on Jared’s sketchy Middle East overlords or Don Jr.’s hunting in foreign fields.

—Wish you had not decided to run on cuts for social security? We’ve got you covered with Joe’s soundbites on future reductions to entitlements.

—Think you’re vulnerable with a candidate who is obese and lives on cheeseburgers? Here’s the opposition candidate who is 77 and once had a brain aneurism.

—Hoping to capture some of the African-American vote? Cue up Joe’s Thurmond eulogy. (“The truth and genius and virtue of Strom Thurmond is what I choose and we all choose to remember today.”)

Sometimes I get the feeling that Joe Biden has walked off a backlot from Republican central casting.

No matter which way Trump turns, Biden has been there.

It’s what made Hillary such a weak candidate. In the 2016 election, she was time barred, as they say in court, from attacking Trump on his pussy-grabbing tape—for obvious family reasons. Nor could she go after him for economic sleaze, having served herself from the same troughs.

How can Biden attack Trump for being old and out of touch, when he’s even older and more out of touch? (Yesterday on a chat show, I listened to some talking heads make the point that Trump was “sharp,” at least when compared to Biden. I guess everything is relative.)

***

The advantage that Biden has over Trump in 2020 is that he is, comparatively speaking, the outsider, or at least not an incumbent at a moment when the country is in crisis.

In 2016, Trump won the election by less than 80,000 votes in three swing states—Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—all of which he carried.

Trump’s margin came from a larger than expected turnout among his dog-whistling base, and a lower than expected turnout for Clinton among working-class whites and African-Americans, who for various reasons had other things to do on election day.

For Trump, 2016 was a perfect storm, and the chances are remote—whatever Biden’s imperfections—that in 2020 the 5-6% bloc of undecided voters will all break again for the Republican candidate while other traditional Democratic voters stay home. (I suspect the Bernie Bros will not vote for Biden.)

Even if the bloc of undecided voters were to divide evenly between Republicans and Democrats, the Democratic candidate would win the general election.

Leaving aside for the moment that Biden is a dead man campaigning, I draw the electoral map as follows:

—The Democrats should win in Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Arizona, while Trump could well take Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.

—In a recession, states such as North Carolina and Florida are very much in play for the Democrats.

—Even without North Carolina, the Democrats would win.

The question then becomes: will Biden blow it for the Democrats?

***

In the general election Biden is vulnerable if he becomes the poster b for mental incapacity, and if the election media spots become one long highlight reel of Joe telling some gun guy he’s “full of shit.” Already it’s a nightly refrain on social media, and many of these oppo tapes come from the Left.

Before the Virus Recession, Trump planned to run against Hunter Biden and Sleepy Joe, as place holders for the brave old-world Democratic operatives alive and well in the swamp.

In Virus America, however, Hunter Biden isn’t even a sideshow; he’s a footnote in an academic journal article about U.S.-Ukrainianoy relations.

One avenue of attack open to Trump and his hate machine will be to insist that in a time of crisis (at war with a deadly virus) you don’t change the commander-in-chief, even if he would seem to spend more time under his tanning lights than in meetings with medical advisors.

In response, Biden’s handlers—claiming the virus as a public health risk—can wall the candidate off from the public and craft a series of VR videos which project Joe in the tradition of FDR, JFK, and LBJ, great liberal progressive statesmen.

It’s been done before. While suffering from incipient dementia in 1984, Ronald Reagan won reelection, and many other candidates have won the presidency by hiding their vulnerabilities during the campaign.

Since 1896, variations on William McKinley’s front porch campaign have been the norm; crowds of supporters are stage props.

As the first AI candidate (the projection of many imaginations), Biden will run from a virtual front porch.

Besides, in 2020 few will be voting for Biden or his ideas (call me when you find a few). They will just be casting a ballot against Trump or airing some other grievance. “None of the Above” would do well as the Democratic nominee. Otherwise, it’s possible to imagine an election with two losers.

***

As for wild cards in the coming months, I can imagine several. If anything, 2020 has proved a year difficult to forecast.

Few predicted, for example, that the party’s elders could revive Biden, given all the Do Not Resuscitate orders affixed to the body of his campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Nor did anyone see Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, and Michael Bloomberg folding their hands on demand (after they collectively had anted up about $1 billion) and assigning the pot to Joe Biden, who was left in the game with a pair of threes.

In this year of campaigning dangerously, I could well imagine, for example, the Democratic National Committee trying to pressure a confused Biden from the ticket.

For all I know, the DNC may believe that Joe has served their purpose, denying the nomination to Bernie Sanders and his anarcho-syndicalism, and now it’s time move on.

Maybe Michael Bloomberg and Hillary Clinton still have pretensions to the throne? Neither has ever really gone away, and their ambition knows no bounds.

I can also imagine either Biden or Trump having some kind of medical event that would force one or both from their tickets. At this point Biden looks hesitant and confused, while Trump is starting to glow in the dark.

Only in presidential politics is it a country for old men, and from what I gather there is something in the air.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails and, most recently, Appalachia Spring, about the coal counties of West Virginia and Kentucky. He lives in Switzerland.  

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