Trump’s ef­fort to dam­age Bi­den could back­fire

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - COMMENTARY - By Jonah Gold­berg

Is Pres­i­dent Trump go­ing to get Joe Bi­den elected?

Opin­ions vary widely on how to char­ac­ter­ize Mr. Trump’s now-in­fa­mous con­ver­sa­tion with Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Ze­len­skiy. The pres­i­dent be­lieves it was “per­fect” and “beau­ti­ful.” In the mid­dle are those who think it was bad and im­proper or per­haps im­peach­able but not nec­es­sar­ily worth the bother this close to a na­tional elec­tion. And then there are those who be­lieve we know all we need to know to war­rant im­peach­ment and re­moval right now.

But one thing vir­tu­ally ev­ery sen­tient be­ing agrees on, even if some won’t say so pub­licly, is that if Joe Bi­den weren’t run­ning for pres­i­dent — and out­polling Mr. Trump in gen­eral elec­tion matchups — Mr. Trump would be a lot less in­ter­ested in Mr. Bi­den’s al­leged mis­deeds.

And that raises the amus­ing pos­si­bil­ity that Mr. Trump’s ef­fort to dam­age Mr. Bi­den might, just might, end up be­ing a bless­ing in dis­guise for the former vice pres­i­dent.

The Trump im­peach­ment firestorm ig­nited just as Mr. Bi­den was de­clin­ing a bit in the polls and Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren of Mas­sachusetts was start­ing to surge.

On Sept. 21, Ms. War­ren pulled (slightly) in front of Mr. Bi­den for the first time in the Des Moines Reg­is­ter/CNN/Me­di­a­com poll of Iowa Democrats.

A few days later, a Mon­mouth Uni­ver­sity poll put War­ren two points ahead of Bi­den in New Hamp­shire.

Demo­cratic ac­tivists were giddy that Mr. Bi­den’s “electabil­ity” ar­gu­ment ap­peared to be im­plod­ing.

There was also a lot of glee in Trump World about the War­ren surge. The Trump­ists are con­vinced Ms. War­ren is much more beat­able than Mr. Bi­den be­cause she would al­low the pres­i­dent to run against so­cial­ism, “Poc­a­hon­tas” and con­fis­ca­tory taxes.

They might be right. It’s cer­tainly true that Ms. War­ren gal­va­nizes Repub­li­cans — par­tic­u­larly wealthy GOP donors — far more than Mr. Bi­den does. But more beat­able than Mr. Bi­den is not syn­ony­mous with eas­ily beaten. Ms. War­ren is a bet­ter cam­paigner than Mr. Bi­den and leads Mr. Trump in the Real Clear Pol­i­tics av­er­age of polls by four points.

The Ukraine story is still un­fold­ing, and there’s too much churn and un­cer­tainty to gauge or pre­dict its ef­fects. More­over, the spec­u­la­tion that Mr. Bi­den sim­ply isn’t up to the chal­lenge the way he once was is hardly base­less. That said, the all-out as­sault on Mr. Bi­den just might go down in his­tory as one of the great ex­am­ples of un­in­tended con­se­quences in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

One of the defin­ing dy­nam­ics of pol­i­tics to­day is nega­tive par­ti­san­ship. As Emory Uni­ver­sity’s Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster wrote in 2017, “Nega­tive par­ti­san­ship ex­plains nearly every­thing in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics to­day.”

The idea is sim­ple: Repub­li­cans vote less for Repub­li­cans than they do against Democrats, and vice versa. Hil­lary Clin­ton lost be­cause more peo­ple in sev­eral key states voted against her than voted against Mr. Trump.

The dy­namic doesn’t just ex­plain pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. Democrats (and var­i­ous me­dia per­son­al­i­ties) outdo each other try­ing to goad Mr. Trump into at­tack­ing them, be­cause they know that be­ing at­tacked by Mr. Trump is a boon for do­na­tions, me­dia at­ten­tion and rat­ings. Mean­while, Mr. Trump’s base re­mains loyal in part be­cause he is so good at iden­ti­fy­ing and at­tack­ing en­e­mies.

In the last week, all of the Demo­cratic can­di­dates have ral­lied to Mr. Bi­den’s de­fense. Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris of Cal­i­for­nia, who briefly surged in the polls be­cause of her at­tacks on Mr. Bi­den, now says, “Leave Joe Bi­den alone.” It would be nice to think they’re all mo­ti­vated by a sense of honor and de­cency in re­sponse to what they be­lieve to be un­fair at­tacks. But logic dic­tates it’s more about nega­tive par­ti­san­ship. The en­emy of my en­emy is my friend, as the proverb goes.

Of course, things could get to the point where Democrats de­cide to toss Mr. Bi­den un­der the train the way they did Sen. Al Franken of Min­ne­sota, but as­sum­ing Mr. Bi­den doesn’t crack un­der the pres­sure (a real pos­si­bil­ity), it’s hard to see how that hap­pens as long as im­peach­ment re­mains the defin­ing is­sue of our pol­i­tics. In 2016, Sen. Bernie San­ders of Ver­mont caved to the pres­sures of nega­tive par­ti­san­ship and re­fused to make an is­sue of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s “emails.” Ms. War­ren may well feel sim­i­lar pres­sure.

Hence the pos­si­bil­ity that an at­tempt to de­stroy Mr. Bi­den could one day be re­mem­bered as his life­line.

Jonah Gold­berg is a fel­low at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute and a se­nior edi­tor of Na­tional Re­view. His lat­est book is “The Sui­cide of the West.” Email: gold­bergcol­[email protected]; Twit­ter: @Jon­ahNRO.

MIC SMITH/AP

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date former Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den greets sup­port­ers af­ter the fu­neral for Ma­jor­ity Whip Jim Cly­burn’s wife, Emily Cly­burn, last month in Charleston, S.C.

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