IOWA CITY, Iowa — Joe Biden is running for president with a strategy that failed Hillary Clinton in 2016: taking on Donald Trump as a morally unfit president who sympathizes with bigots and racists.
He has said that his campaign is a fight to reclaim “the soul of America,” just as Clinton told voters that the last election was “near existential,” a choice about “fidelity to our values.” He has invoked the deadly protests two years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump’s assertion that there were “very fine people” alongside the white supremacists and neo-Nazis, just as Clinton cast the Republican nominee as a fundamental threat to touchstones like “bigheartedness” and “tolerance.” And, just like the last Democrat to take on Trump, Biden has framed the early contours of the race as an unprecedented moment that transcends politics as usual.
“Folks, look, the fact of the matter is that our core values, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America America is literally at stake — and that’s not hyperbole,” Biden said here Wednesday at a craft brewery, winding up to a condemnation of Trump that he’s issued at every event since his campaign launch last week. “Limit it to four years, and this administration is going to go down in history as an aberrant moment in time. But eight years — eight years — you’ll see some fundamental changes in who we are as a country.”
Biden’s entry into the race, accentuated by a 3.5-minute video featuring words from the Constitution and disturbing images from the Charlottesville riots, recalled in almost exact terms Clinton’s general election argument against Trump and a “radical fringe” of white nationalism, famously characterizing those supporters as belonging to a “basket of deplorables.”
After her loss, Democrats across the party, including Biden, dwelled on a perception that she focused too much on Trump’s character and aligning him with the alt-right, at the expense of a sharper economic message that would have better fit the climate. Biden’s early stump speech hits on several themes. In between talking about the soul of the nation and unity, he spends considerable time on the “dignity of work” and how to rebuild the middle class.
The events in Charlottesville, of course, combined with the response from a president who has employed nationalists like Steve Bannon, rendered much of what Clinton said true. And Biden, a 76-year-old former vice president who is uniquely positioned to adopt a posture as the adult in a field of 21 candidates, is moving ahead confidently with an anti-Trump focus in a primary where voters are most concerned about nominating the person most qualified to defeat the president.
A CNN poll taken in the days after his announcement showed him padding what already was a frontrunner’s lead. He’s also earned extensive news coverage by calling out Trump, something many of his primary rivals have been reluctant to do, focusing instead on policy issues — such as climate change and universal health care — that energize the progressive left. Trump has taken the bait, showing his agitation on Twitter and reinforcing the Bidenworld notion that he is the candidate the White House fears most.
All of this is early evidence that the message could resonate for him in a way it didn’t for Clinton. Democrats have varying theories as to why, and some boil down to a simple judgment: It was the singer, not the song.
“I’m not interested in talking about Hillary Clinton,” said Teri Goodman, a Democratic activist and longtime Biden ally in Dubuque, Iowa, who cringed when asked about Biden’s similar theme after his event there Tuesday evening.
Goodman praised Biden for his emphasis on Trump’s behavior.
“I’ve had two people — and I think this is interesting — come up to me and say that for the first time since the election of the current president, they feel safe,” she said. “They didn’t realize how stressful it’s been to witness him day after day spewing hatred … and encouraging people who would divide us as a country.” Biden, she added, is “reassuring people that we’re still OK, that we can be OK again.”
Biden campaign officials declined to comment for this story. A spokesperson referred BuzzFeed News to previous comments from House Majority Whip James Clyburn and former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, both of whom expressed support for the focus on Charlottesville and Trump’s rhetoric.
Asked about the merits of adopting a Clintonesque strategy, Ted Kaufman, a longtime Biden adviser and close friend who briefly succeeded him in the Senate, instead offered thoughts that he and other allies say speak to what motivated Biden to engage Trump this way.
“Joe Biden has what I call a mirror test,” Kaufman said in a voicemail he left responding to an interview request. “Can he look himself in the mirror each day? Charlottesville galvanized for him what’s at stake in this country and the damage that current president is doing to our values and the fabric of the nation. His parents instilled in him that when you see an abuse of power, you stand up and combat it. That’s motivated him his entire life. That’s why he’s running for president, and frankly that’s what drives him.”
Biden is reveling in the rise his attacks already have gotten out of Trump.
“I understand the president has been tweeting about me a lot this morning,” he told the Iowa City crowd on a day when Trump had gone on a retweeting spree of purported firefighters unhappy with their union’s endorsement of Biden.
“I wonder why the hell he’s doing that,” Biden said with a chuckle.
He also has seized on the president’s latest explanation of his post-Charlottesville remarks — that the “very fine people” he spoke of were not the racists or the neo-Nazis but, rather, those simply upset about plans to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
“Give me a break, man,” Biden said at several Iowa stops.
In a statement Trump’s reelection campaign provided to BuzzFeed News, deputy communications director Erin Perrine accused the “liberal media and swamp-bred Democrats” of twisting the president’s “clear message” against hate and anti-Semitism.
“Since the 2020 socialist Democrat field does not have a real platform to run on, they continue to spread fake news and their cohorts in the mainstream media are generally all-too-happy to help,” Perrine said. “When pushed with the facts, Democrats and the fake news media have to explain themselves and realize their fear mongering won’t work.”
For former Clinton aides, the Biden launch video recalled the singular challenge of 2016: They knew they didn’t want to turn Donald Trump into Mitt Romney. Focus groups and polling showed that she lost otherwise obtainable moderate and suburban Republicans, particularly women, when she approached the race as a contest between a generic Democrat and generic Republican.
After spending months during the 2016 primary describing Trump as the inevitable conclusion of an increasingly extreme Republican Party — “their language may be more veiled than Trump’s,” she said in late 2015, “but their ideas are not so different” — she dropped the strategy entirely.
“So much of the debate in the party, and so much of the criticism of Hillary's campaign,” said a key former Clinton adviser, “was that she spent too much time attacking Trump on racism and social issues and not enough time making an economic pitch. And in the last few years, Biden and people around Biden were associated with that critique.”
(In 2017, Biden said Clinton's "was the first campaign that I can recall where my party did not talk about what it always stood for — and that was how to maintain a burgeoning middle class.")
So why would it work for Biden now?
Democrats see a few key distinctions. First, this is a primary, not a general election. “Among Democratic primary voters,” said Mark Longabaugh, a key adviser to Bernie Sanders in 2016, “you will not get any dissent that Donald Trump is fundamentally taking our country in the wrong direction.” (Second to Biden, Sanders has also made Trump central to his pitch to voters. The Vermont senator regularly says the president is a pathological liar who poses a unique threat.)
Charlottesville, he added, was a clarifying moment — “and that's what gave this thing lift,” he said. “Rather than a bunch of children looking at a TV screen of Donald Trump disparaging people” — he said, referencing one of Clinton’s general election ads — “there's a moral and qualitative difference, where neo-Nazis and KKK members went to Charlottesville to defend the Confederacy and a woman ultimately got killed. That's a bigger pivot point than Trump saying outrageous things from the stump. I think his time as president has changed that a little bit.”
Zac Petkanas, who helped lead Clinton’s messaging and research against Trump in the general election, said there’s an “academic question” to be asked about whether the president reflects an aberration — or the “logical consequence of a Republican Party that has been drifting this way over the last 40 years.” But from a political perspective, Petkanas said, “anybody who thinks the ultimate nominee is not gonna have that same frame is kidding themselves.”
The more cynical view of Biden’s approach: “It’s a way to hack the overly liberal primary,” said one veteran operative who is not working with a 2020 campaign.
In a field that has raced to embrace progressive politics, the operative said, Biden “is not going to win a woke-off against Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, or Cory Booker. So he hates Trump to prove he is a Democrat — and if you're anyone else, you're not gonna win a bidding war against Biden in hating Trump.”
Several voters who turned out for Biden’s events this week (a kickoff rally in Pittsburgh and four speeches in Iowa, which holds the first contest of caucus and primary season) were more charitable. To them, Clinton’s warnings were just that: warnings. Charlottesville and other moments of the Trump presidency provided tangible evidence.
“It’s definitely a different time,” Mary Meyer said after listening to Biden in Dubuque. “We’re seeing what can happen. He’s just the type of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, and I think that kind of guy will have everybody’s interest.”
Patrick Joyal, a political consultant in Pittsburgh who is backing Biden, said the campaign launch “found points of intersection that we can all relate to. I mean, the horrible stuff that happened in Charlottesville — the normalization of racism and bigotry and sexism. We’ve become so segmented to looking at things as these emergencies that we’re pinballing from one to the other that we’ve lost track of the fact that we’re all part of a larger trajectory.”
Joyal paused for several seconds when asked why he thought Clinton’s warnings about Trump didn’t work.
“Certainly sexism played a part of it,” he said, before adding that many voters in working-class areas like western Pennsylvania already had tuned out her message.
“My mom is a perfect example,” he said. “My mom grew up in Shaler, which is a river town near Pittsburgh. She told me earlier this year — she’s a die-hard Democrat, she worked for the steelworkers in their comms department — she didn’t vote for Secretary Clinton because she didn’t speak like she was one of us.
“For better or worse, the vice president speaks to the basic values and basic morals and uses language that is accessible to folks in Erie, folks in Crawford County, folks here,” Joyal said. “Like my mom. If I say to my mom that Joe Biden is running for president, she’ll say, ‘Oh, man!’"