Washington (CNN)President Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden are becoming the best of enemies as their escalating head-to-head clash helps both accomplish early political goals on the road to the 2020 election.
The President and the former vice president are feuding on foreign policy, character issues and long ago political wars a year before the Democratic race produces a presumptive nominee.
The confrontation — that escalated over the Memorial Day weekend — has campaign handicappers debating whether Trump is running scared of Biden. Some believe that the Democratic veteran could threaten the President’s blue-collar appeal in swing states, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Such questions could end up deciding the destiny of the presidency. They can only be definitively answered should Biden emerge atop the crowded Democratic pack next summer.
But the two 70-somethings are currently doing more than simply offering a preview of how the final months of the 2020 campaign could play out. Right now — and despite some risks — both men benefit from their intensifying engagement, since it helps each of them position for a potential contest, offers a chance to wound a possible rival and strengthens them both with their respective bases.
Biden seizes on Trump’s love for foreign strongmen and disdain for traditional US values to paint him as dangerously unfit for the presidency and an affront to the very idea of America.
Trump is using Biden, for decades a denizen of the Washington establishment who is offering a return to political normality, to reinvigorate outsider credentials incumbents find difficult to preserve.
For the former vice president, every Trump attack plays into his implicit campaign rationale that he is the best-placed Democrat to beat the President. Trump’s preoccupation with Biden — even during a pomp-saturated trip to Japan — can be used to bolster the narrative that the longtime Delaware senator is a mortal peril for the President.
CNN has reported that aides have advised Trump not to elevate Biden — a potentially strong opponent. It might seem counter intuitive for Trump to put the candidate he fears most on a pedestal. But the President never takes the orthodox route.
The Biden campaign quickly turned the President’s embrace of weekend attacks on the former vice president by North Korea into a fundraising drive that positions him as Trump’s most dangerous foe — a key undercurrent of the entire Biden campaign.
“Folks — You’ve got Donald Trump rattled,” said a campaign email sent to Biden supporters highlighting repeated insults flung by the President towards Delaware’s favorite son.
“Why? It’s simple: Trump’s afraid he’s going to lose,” the email read, appealing for donations of between $5 and $250.
A flurry of rapid response exchanges between the two camps in recent days has looked like a general election fight, and helps Biden stand above the Democratic fray.
Trump could be playing into Biden’s hands
The rhetorical affray with Trump keeps Biden in the public eye even as he pursues a risk averse and stately campaign itinerary that is the privilege of the front-runner and involves heavy fundraising.
When the Democratic candidates climb on stage together in the first debates this summer, it will be harder for Biden to avoid scrutiny over the purity of his progressive appeal.
But it suits him for now to be perceived as fighting the President rather than his fellow Democrats — since any such bouts would simply elevate hopefuls who currently trail him.
A continuing confrontation with an angry, erratic President — and Trump’s odd kinship with foreign dictators — helps flesh out one of Biden’s foundational campaign pillars that the commander-in-chief is unfit to serve a second term.
There are risks for Biden in attacking Trump. Any sign that he is behaving like a nominee eight months before first nominating contests would be pounced upon by his Democratic foes.
In a party animated by debate over economic, social and health care policy, he’d also be wise to spend time on the issues that most liberal voters care about most.
Biden went some way to mitigating such concerns Tuesday with the roll out of education proposals that would up funding for schools in low-income areas and help teachers cancel student debt. He’s also promising a big climate change speech soon.
Few of Trump’s opponents have come off best in a knuckle dusting political brawl with a President who polished off a huge GOP field in 2016 and then blasted Democrat Hillary Clinton.
One lesson of Trump’s political career is that the President is simply prepared to go deeper into the barrel than any of his competitors — and that people who join him there get tarnished.
That may explain why Biden used a written response by his campaign’s deputy campaign manager to rebuke Trump for his behavior in Japan. The former vice president also made sure that his response came with the President back on US soil — preserving the hoary old custom that politics should stop at the water’s edge.
“The President’s comments are beneath the dignity of the office. To be on foreign soil, on Memorial Day, and to side repeatedly with a murderous dictator against a fellow American and former vice president speaks for itself,” said Biden aide Kate Bedingfield.
Why Trump likes the Biden clash
Trump has spent the last two years searching for a foil — and is more effective politically when there’s a target for his torrent of political attacks and character assassinations.
Since he’s coming off second best in his dust-up with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Biden makes a good target for a subject changing attack. Once he threw in a dollop or praise for Kim, Trump had a freshly lit firestorm that could rage for days.
When he got home from his trip to Japan, the President fired off a highly misleading tweet apparently designed to draw his opponent further down a rabbit hole.
“I was actually sticking up for Sleepy Joe Biden while on foreign soil. Kim Jong Un called him a ‘low IQ idiot,’ and many other things, whereas I related the quote of Chairman Kim as a much softer ‘low IQ individual.’ Who could possibly be upset with that?” Trump wrote on Twitter.
If Trump truly does fear Biden, their early exchanges of fire could be a way of roughing up a potential opponent and setting political brush fires that could turn into infernos later on.
His mockery of “Sleepy Joe Biden” is a familiar tactic — one he used against Clinton and Pelosi that suggests that a foe is intellectually diminished or verging on senility.
While the jab seems to be belied by the Democratic septuagenarian’s vigor, “Low Energy” Jeb Bush and “Little” Marco Rubio can attest to the corrosive impact of Trump’s derisive nicknames.
The President is also trying to do the work of Biden’s Democratic opponents for them, in a highly unusual personal intervention in the opposing party’s nominating derby.
En route from Japan, he tweeted about the 1994 crime bill Biden promoted as a senator and is now seen as a disaster by many liberals, especially in the crucial African-American voting bloc.
It is in Trump’s interests to ensure that the heavy black voter turnout that Barack Obama enjoyed in 2008 and 2012, but did not materialize for Clinton, does not return for Biden.
The Trump campaign’s response to the Biden team’s critique of the President’s performance in Japan revealed a potentially more significant development in the evolving confrontation.
His team apparently sees a chance to brand Biden as the product of the exact same corrupt political culture as Clinton — and to underscore the President’s own outsider credentials.
His campaign’s communications director Tim Murtaugh on Tuesday portrayed the former vice president as the epitome of a generation of missed establishment foreign policy bets that Trump loves to savage.
“From the Iraq War to the Russia reset, Joe Biden has been wrong on virtually every foreign policy call in the last four decades,” Murtaugh said in a statement.
Trump has repeatedly upbraided the last generation of Washington politicians for the Iraq War, which he sees as an expensive disaster. Tuesday’s attack was a clear sign that Trump is ready to ensure that the war — which Biden voted to authorize in 2002 — will be at the center of yet another presidential election.
The big risk for the President in effectively launching an early general election campaign against Biden is that he walks into a trap made by a possible rival who made the President the key rationale for his own argument to voters.
Trump could bolster Biden and effectively dampen the effectiveness of efforts by Democratic candidates to topple the front-runner. But the President has never let others do his dirty work. If there’s a political take down needed — he’ll do it himself.