Once, Joe Biden was adamant. He would wait until after the November election to give his opponent a nickname: “Former president Donald Trump.”
But as the smears from the president, his family and his campaign grew increasingly caustic, Biden responded with a moniker of his own.
“I call him President Tweety,” Biden said this week.
The name was perhaps more a statement of fact than an effective rejoinder to Trump’s own nickname for Biden: “Sleepy Joe”. But its genesis also reflected the difficulty of running against a man whose appetite for political combat defined his rise to power.
Name-calling, conspiracy-peddling and grievance-airing were parts of the playbook Trump deployed in 2016, first against 16 Republicans, then against Hillary Clinton.
Now, six months before another election, eager to distract from a pandemic that has killed nearly 100,000 and ravaged the US economy, Trump and his allies are reprising these same brutal tactics, generating a fog of insinuations, accusations and smears.
Trump is going to throw everything and the kitchen sink. And we haven't seen the kitchen sink yetMoe Vela
“He’s going to throw everything and the kitchen sink,” said Moe Vela, a former senior adviser to Biden. “And we haven’t seen the kitchen sink yet.”
Flush with cash and digital prowess, the Trump campaign recently unveiled an ad offensive targeting Biden on fronts including his age and past comments on China. Trump hammered the theme in an interview on Sunday, the 73-year-old president accusing his 77-year-old rival of lacking the mental acuity to lead an economic recovery, claiming Biden “doesn’t know he’s alive”.
The president’s sons also got in on the act. On Fox News, Eric Trump accused Democrats of “milking” coronavirus lockdowns to improve their electoral prospects. Donald Trump Jr shared a meme that baselessly suggested Biden was a pedophile. The younger Trump claimed he was “just joking” – then shared another message that made the same insinuation.
All of that came as Trump launched a dark and unfounded accusation that Barack Obama – and by extension his vice-president – was involved in a plot to undermine his successor.
“God almighty this is sick,” Biden told Yahoo News. But he dismissed the onslaught as a tired attempt to divert the public from Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, a central theme of the Biden post-primary campaign so far.
Asked if he intended to ignore the president, Biden, who once challenged Trump to a push-up contest, replied: “I don’t want to get down in the mud with these guys.”
And yet his campaign has acknowledged the effectiveness of Trump’s tactics in a fundraising email that included a screen grab of one of the president’s campaign blasts to supporters that carried the subject line: Joe Biden Is Guilty.
Biden’s campaign, lamenting the falsehoods in the email, warned: “It is the EXACT same thing he did in 2016. And quite honestly, we’re scared because we know it worked last time.”
‘The more he talks, the better off I am’
The Trump camp hopes to frame the election as it did in 2016: a choice between an anti-establishment change agent and a corrupt Washington insider. But it is far from certain if it can deliver the same dramatic ending, as the cast, roles and backdrop have all changed significantly.
Trump is now a president with a governing record to defend. And Biden, despite his vulnerabilities and a lengthy record of his own, is far less polarizing than Clinton, who had been the target of decades of sensationalist attacks.
The campaign looks different too. It remains uncertain when, if ever, the candidates will be able return to the traditional trail. Under the pandemic, rallies, debates, even party conventions are in doubt. And though Biden lacks Trump’s bully pulpit, he believes the new landscape has worked to his advantage.
“The more he talks, the better off I am,” the challenger said this week.
Yet even by the standards of Trump’s presidency, his behavior has alarmed some in his party. They fear he may cost them the Senate and the White House. But he has also rattled some Democrats, who warn that he now has at his disposal the arsenal of the federal government, reinforced by Republican allies in Congress.
“He used to tweet, ‘Lock her up,’ said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic operative who worked on Clinton’s campaign. “Now he pressures the justice department to issue a subpoena.”
After Trump alleged criminal conduct by his predecessor in the Oval Office, attorney general William Barr was forced to respond, dismissing the possibility of an investigation into Obama or Biden. But Barr did not count out investigations of Obama aides and Senate Republicans vowed to look into the matter. Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin, forged ahead with a vote this week, authorizing a subpoena to investigate business dealings involving Biden’s son, Hunter.
Democrats think an anxious nation simply wants leadership in a moment of crisis.
“[Trump] tries to be the master distractor but it’s those very distractions that are one of his biggest problems right now,” Ferguson said. “Every time he goes in for a smear, what people see is him avoiding responsibility for his failures.”
‘A lizard brain’
Trump’s penchant for conspiracy theories poses a unique problem. Responding to baseless claims risks elevating them. Not responding can allow such claims to spread uncontrollably.
Already Trump has elevated unsubstantiated claims about Biden’s ties to China, his son’s business dealings and the supposed “deep state” plot he calls “Obamagate”. Inside the conservative media echo chamber, these messages are easily amplified.
One of the lessons we learned from 2016 is that just pivoting to policy is not a solutionTim Miller, former Jeb Bush adviser
“Trump is uniquely skilled at this,” said Tim Miller, a Republican who worked on Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign. “He’s got a lizard brain for it.”
Miller said it was important to closely monitor stories on social media and fringe websites, to determine what is gaining traction and thus warrants a response.
Part of the trick is knowing when and how to respond. He said Biden’s campaign should arm allies and surrogates with forceful rebuttals, particularly to claims about Hunter Biden and the Obama administration. Perhaps most importantly, he said, the campaign must be ready to go on the offensive.
“One of the lessons we learned from 2016 is that just pivoting to policy is not a solution,” he said.
Biden’s campaign has been quick to decry Trump’s attacks as a sign of desperation, as the president slides in national polls. In response to the effort to paint Biden as “China’s puppet”, an ad hit Trump as soft on Beijing. And the campaign has also escalated critiques of Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis.
“We know that Donald Trump has utterly failed his test of leadership,” Biden said at a virtual Wisconsin rally. “He thinks he’s a builder but he’s a destroyer of everything he touches.”
In turn, the Trump camp has indicated that little will be off limits – even charges that apply equally to the president himself. When Biden said on Friday that African Americans who don’t support him “ain’t black”, the Trump campaign quickly assembled a press call featuring prominent black supporters of a president whose critics regularly accuse him of racism. Hours later, Biden apologized.
As one Republican operative described the strategy, “It’s not, ‘My guy is better than your guy.’ It’s ‘Your guy isn’t as good as you think he is.’”
‘You can’t let any attack go unanswered’
Give the current national crisis, few strategists believe Trump can successfully reframe the election as anything but a referendum on his record in office. Democrats say his scattershot messaging suggests his campaign is struggling to find a line of attack that sticks.
But even a marginal impact on support or turnout could make a difference in what will likely be another close race, said Ben Tulchin, a top pollster on both Bernie Sanders campaigns for the Democratic nomination.
“You can’t let any attack go unanswered,” he said. “Any attack he makes, you have to respond forcefully. You can’t allow him to define you.”
After nearly 50 years in national politics, Biden believes Trump and his allies face an uphill battle trying to change public perception of him.
“People know me,” Biden said this week. “The good news is the bad news.”
On Friday evening, perhaps seeking to assuage any doubts stoked by Trump’s “Sleepy Joe” attacks, the candidate outlined for donors a daily workout routine designed by a former White House doctor. Every exercise and repetition must add up to 46, Biden said, because he would be the 46th president.
“I wish I’d been the 20th president,” he said. “It would have been a lot easier.”