Donald Trump is a conservative. That should be an uncontroversial statement with universal agreement, but it’s not. In 2016 most voters described Trump as a moderate candidate and Hillary Clinton as either “liberal” or “too liberal”. Seriously. Of course some of that is gendered, women are seen as more liberal than men but some of it was intentional political strategy. In July around the conventions, 40% of voters described Trump as “a mix of liberal and conservative” and 11% of voters said “liberal on all or most issues”. Only 16% of voters saw Trump as conservative on “almost all issues” compared to 32% of voters viewing Clinton as liberal on the same metric. By October, Trump was still viewed as the most moderate GOP nominee in over a generation with only 47% calling him “conservative” while 58% called Clinton “liberal”. Then on election day, many undecided moderate voters cast their ballots for Trump. You’d be forgiven if this is a new narrative for you since the pundits on MSNBC and CNN love blaming Clinton’s election loss on holdout Sanders voters who deemed her insufficiently progressive. However, most objective analysis shows that this isn’t true and that only 12% of Sanders supporters voted for Trump in 2016 compared to 24% of Clinton supporters voting for McCain in 2008. In the greatest irony of ironies, Donald Trump used the Bill Clinton strategy of triangulation to defeat Hillary Clinton. If Democrats aren’t prepared, he will do it again and it’ll be relatively easy for this President to appear both to the right and the left of Joe Biden. Here’s how he’ll do it:
Criminal Justice (To the Left)
Donald Trump signed the First Step Act into law with bipartisan support which addresses a number of concerns criminal justice advocates have had about the prison industrial complex. It of course doesn’t go nearly far enough, affecting mostly the federal system which is responsible for only a small share of our nation’s prison population, but it represents a sea change in terms of the politics of “tough on crime”. The President has also not been afraid to issue pardons and has released a number of African-American prisoners, notably Alice Marie Johnson who was featured prominently in a Super Bowl ad. Meanwhile Joe Biden authored several key provisions of what has become known simply as “The Crime Bill” which perhaps more than any other piece of legislation has been responsible for our current era of mass incarceration. The President and Biden also both oppose the legalization of marijuana, but the President is likely hopeful that voters will give him undeserved credit for the liberalization of drug laws on the state level. The President is going to attempt to depress black turnout with this issue and at least muddy the waters with college educated white voters and it may work if only because Biden seems to have a terminal case of foot in mouth syndrome. If you’re unsure what I mean, I refer you to his “you ain’t black” comments and the Trump campaigns rapid response.
China (To the Right)
How Americans perceive fault in the coronavirus pandemic will largely determine President Trump’s reelection prospects. If America blames the incompetence of the administration, President Trump will lose. If America blames China and becomes Sino-phobic in its disposition, President Trump will win. That’s why the President calls COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus” and it’s also why he’s recently been mentioning how he took decisive action to close America’s borders. If Biden had held a consistent position on immigration or China, he could perhaps make a moral argument against scapegoating immigrants or the racism obvious in the President’s response. Unfortunately for Biden, as recently as 2006 Biden was saying “I voted for a fence, I voted, unlike most Democrats—and some of you won’t like it—I voted for 700 miles of fence” and has vacillated between being pro-China by voting for normalized trade relations and more critical of China in the last decade. The President will call Biden a flip-flopper with no consistency on the issue of China or Immigration. The President will point to his tariff policy, rejection of the TPP, and “tough talk” that only he understands China.
Trade (To the Left)
The president’s approval rating in the industrial Midwest is much higher than his approval rating nationwide, that is the reason why he remains competitive in this election despite the very likely possibility that he will lose the popular vote. This popularity can be traced to a number of factors, but trade stands head and shoulders above any other policy. Some experts put the number of jobs lost because of NAFTA at over 950,000. The economic despair seen in deindustrialized communities from Kansas City to Pittsburgh is palpable with empty factories scattered across the landscape, rising suicides, rising opioid abuse, and falling populations. Joe Biden voted for NAFTA, Fast-Track trade authority, Normal Trade Relations with China, and says he’d renegotiate TPP. Meanwhile President Trump fought for an inadequate but nonetheless popular repeal of NAFTA which was replaced with the USMCA. Although the AFL-CIO endorsed Biden, their President Richard Trumka lauded the USMCA as a “huge win for working people”. Obama won all union members by 34 points in 2012, while Clinton only won them by 16 points just 4 years later. President Trump will question the efficacy of Biden’s free trade history and it’s likely that his criticism will stick.
Foreign Policy (To the Left)
Is the Iraq War so distant in America’s memory that it won’t matter who believed what in 2002? 18 years is an eternity in politics, there are many voters alive today who do not remember Saddam Hussein or even an America before Iraq. However, there are still scars from that war, thousands of disabled veterans, a continued military presence in the Middle East, and sustained islamophobia in our politics. Joe Biden supported that War, he also supported interventions in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Serbia, Kuwait, etc. Biden is a hawk and doesn’t have many critiques of the Obama-Bush foreign policy doctrine which said drone now and ask questions later. Of course, neither does Donald Trump, he’s on pace with the number of atrocities committed in the last decade and will likely exceed them if given a second term. However, the difference between Trump and Biden is that Trump does not pretend to be a moral authority who cares about human rights. This unfortunately makes him immune to arguments of hypocrisy because he has no standards for himself and voters know this. It also draws greater attention to his few acts of non-interventionism like his negotiations with the Taliban and Kim Jong-un. It does not matter that Trump did not really oppose the Iraq war, that seems to be baked in. What matters is Trump gives the false appearance of non-intervention and Biden has been honest about his bad record. Trump will exploit this and will ask voters to consider why he was able to “make peace” with North Korea.
Gun Control (To the Right)
Beto O’Rourke left no lasting legacy in Congress or in his race for President except for his language about the Second Amendment which will be hung like an albatross around Joe Biden’s neck. During a debate, an ABC moderator asked O’Rourke “Are you proposing taking away their guns? And how would this work?” to which O’Rourke replied “Hell Yes…” there was more after, but it won’t matter because that’s enough to make an ad. Combined with an image of O’Rourke onstage endorsing Biden, it’s the kind of moment the NRA and GOP dream of. A Democrat, confirming the worst fears of millions of voters who have been told for years that Democrats are coming for their guns. The case against Biden will be made easier by the public record of his attacks on Bernie Sanders for his D minus rating from the NRA as somehow insufficiently pro-gun control. Despite their good intentions, the political power of the Bloomberg backed “Everytown For Gun Safety” is extraordinarily limited and their messaging won’t save Biden. One of Biden’s selling points is his “common sense solutions, “ that will be hard to justify when the president claims Biden is for gun confiscation. Again, it won’t matter what the actual truth is.
The president is not above lying, we know this. The president is still an effective communicator to many Americans even when they know he is lying. What is more dangerous is when the president is given the chance to tell the truth which is when he is at his strongest. Consider the 2016 Republican primaries when he attacked the party for supporting the Iraq war and cuts to Social Security. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and others were unable to satisfactorily reply to those attacks because they were true. During the general election campaign, Trump was able to speak to the truth of Americans anxieties about Hillary Clinton and her character. His critiques of her policy were ineffective, what she believed was broadly popular (which is true for the most part with Biden). However, his questions about her paid speeches, foreign donations to the Clinton foundation, the role of the DNC, and of course her private email server were very effective. Joe Biden represents a double edged sword, while he does not inspire the same antipathy as Hillary Clinton for reasons ranging from personality to inherent sexism, he is not nearly as talented a politician in terms of communicating or media manipulation. Joe Biden has a record, it’s inconsistent with his image as a politician, and those inconsistencies can’t really be reconciled in a positive way. The president will take advantage of that and his digital communications team is working overtime to define Joe Biden. If it were not for the coronavirus pandemic, we would likely be seeing the president make this case himself. The president, a master of projection, will attempt to define Biden not only as insufficiently liberal but insufficiently conservative, not only racist but also a cultural Marxist, not only a warmonger but also too willing to make peace with the enemy, and himself as the common sense candidate.
It will be ridiculous, you will be mystified, the media will be unprepared, the party will be unprepared, but I’m telling you now so that you will at least be able to see it coming. As for Joe Biden, if you’re reading this, don’t expect the pandemic or Trump’s idiocy to be enough, it will not be enough.