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Biden bets Democrats want a battle with Trump, not an ideological fight in their ranks

Biden bets Democrats want a battle with Trump, not an ideological fight in their ranks
  (Lo Angeles Times)

From its first word — “Charlottesville” — to its last, Joe Biden's presidential announcement video conveyed a single message: Donald Trump is a national emergency, and defeating him stands as the moral equivalent of World War II and the civil rights movement.

It was a call for Democrats to unite — around him.

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Whether the garrulous former vice president can stay on course with that message over a long campaign remains to be seen. But for a candidate in his position — an elder statesman in a party craving fresh faces — the focus on Trump provides a strong, if imperfect, argument.

TRUMP OR THE SYSTEM?

In the video, Biden portrayed Trump as “aberrant” and a singular threat to the country’s national character.

That’s not the argument most of his rivals for the nomination have made. As Janet Hook wrote, the other Democratic hopefuls have not focused on Trump so directly. To the extent they have talked about him, it’s been in different terms — not as a singular, deviant phenomenon, but as the logical product of deeper problems in the nation.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who runs the closest second to Biden in most polls so far, has often talked of the need to defeat Trump, for example, but he’s portrayed that as only a first step. Simply beating Trump is “not good enough,” Sanders has said, emphasizing his call for a “political revolution” to take on the power of organized wealth that he says Trump represents.

Though both say they support his impeachment, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California have talked little about Trump directly, instead emphasizing the need for systemic reforms to end what Warren refers to as a “rigged” system.

Harris talks repeatedly about “truths” that the country needs to confront, suggesting an implied contrast with Trump’s untruthfulness, but also a deeper critique of the nation’s failures on racism, sexism and inequality of opportunity.

Those ideological arguments make the case for a set of policies the candidates advocate. They set a goal not simply to return the country to the status quo prior to Trump, but to seek significant changes — most radically in Sanders’ case.

Biden’s opening salvo makes a different argument. He doesn’t eschew a reform agenda, but says, in effect, that ridding the country of Trump in 2020 overrides all other goals.

As the campaign proceeds, Biden almost surely will broaden his case to offer plans on specific issues. His aides talk of “three pillars” of his campaign, one of which — “rebuilding the middle class” — clearly lends itself to economic policy ideas.

But even as he offers new plans, the central thrust likely will continue to aim at Trump.

The reason is no secret: An ideological campaign works against Biden. He has a 40-year record as a man of the center who now seeks to lead a party heading to the center-left. The focus on Trump attempts to sidestep those differences and also reach across the country’s partisan divide toward at least some Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, isolating Trump as a common foe.

Biden’s bet is that even if many of the party’s primary voters disagree with him on some issues, they don’t really want an ideological war within. Not when Trump poses such a threat to values that nearly all Democrats hold.

The use of Charlottesville as a touchstone puts a sharp point on the argument, emphasizing the 2017 incident in Virginia that , more than any, symbolizes everything Democrats loathe about Trump and his impact on the country.

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The approach fits not only Biden’s political position, but his personality and his fondness for the bipartisan Senate of his youth.

But it’s also a tack Democrats tried just a little more than two years ago, only to find themselves sailing into the rocks.

In the summer of 2016, Democratic operatives divided sharply on the question of whether to depict Trump as the logical extension of Republicanism or as a singular villain.

Hillary Clinton’s high command ultimately settled on the latter, much to the dismay of Democratic congressional campaign strategists who had wanted to tie their Republican opponents to the unpopular presidential nominee.

The Clinton campaign hoped to peel large numbers of traditional Republican voters away from Trump. Doing that, they decided, required downplaying the idea of Trump as a typical Republican.

The approach didn’t entirely fail — Clinton did, in fact, do quite well in some traditionally Republican suburbs, areas in which Democrats made further gains in last year’s midterm elections. But it didn’t work well enough. Partisanship proved stronger than the anti-Trump argument for most voters.

Why should a similar approach work any better for Biden? One possibility, as Hook noted, involves experience: Biden’s strategists believe that voters, who have now had time to see what a Trump administration looks like, will respond more strongly to an anti-Trump message in 2020 than they did in 2016. The high Democratic turnout in the 2018 midterms provides some support for that idea.

The other prong of their argument turns on personality: The 2016 Democrats had the right message, but the wrong messenger, they say. Clinton was so unpopular herself that she couldn’t take full advantage of Trump’s own highly negative rating.

Perhaps. But in this era of close-fought partisan battles, all nominees of both parties end up unpopular with nearly half the country. Clinton may have been particularly vulnerable to attack, but Republicans will surely find ways to critique Biden if he becomes the nominee.

Whether Biden’s affable personality stands up better than Clinton’s often-defensive one could be a fascinating test. First, however, he’ll have to convince Democrats that unity in the face of Trump’s threat justifies putting aside their ideological differences.

IMPEACHMENT DEBATE CONTINUES

On Capitol Hill, most leading Democrats have taken their cue from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who advocates continued investigation of Trump, but not an overt push for impeachment. On the campaign trail, the picture is more mixed. At a CNN town hall this week, for example, Harris called for impeachment, Sanders did not, Hook and Melanie Mason reported.

Our colleague Doyle McManus largely agrees with Pelosi, as he explained in his column on why Democrats shouldn’t impeach Trump — yet

Meanwhile, the fight over future investigations continues to heat up in the wake of the Mueller report, as Noah Bierman and Chris Megerian wrote. Trump has taken an increasingly confrontational stance that likely will lead to court battles that could last the rest of this term. And while he insists he’s “not even a little” worried, the frantic volume of his tweet storms says otherwise, as Eli Stokols wrote.

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What’s left to investigate? Megerian looked at the significant unanswered questions in the Russia investigation.

DEMOCRATS TALKING POLICY

Biden’s entry into the presidential race took the week’s headlines, but Warren continues to roll out interesting policy ideas — this week’s entry was a plan to cancel student loan debt, as Hook wrote.

One topic Democratic candidates are not eager to talk about is border security, Evan Halper wrote. The Democrats are happy to critique Trump’s highly unpopular policies, but have been slow to put forward ideas of their own. Some party strategists fear that reticence will leave the candidates vulnerable.

Beto O’Rourke opens his California campaign Saturday in Los Angeles. Our reporters will be there to watch the former Texas congressman on his four-day driving tour.

Women of color gathered in Houston this week and, as Mason wrote, posed a question for Democratic candidates: Why should we vote for you?

REPUBLICANS SEE AN ISSUE

Republicans believe late-term abortion could serve as a potent political issue for them, and they have moved quickly to exploit it, Jennifer Haberkorn writes.

SUPREME COURT POISED TO HAND TRUMP A WIN

The five-member conservative majority on the Supreme Court appeared ready to OK Trump’s census citizenship question, David Savage wrote. If the court rules in favor of the administration later this spring, it would continue a pattern in which Trump loses in lower courts, but gets the final victory.

The justices also agreed to hear a case next fall on whether workplace bias against gay and transgender employees violates federal civil rights law.

Two federal appeals courts said the law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on sex, also covers sexual orientation and gender expression. One appeals court went the other way. The justices will settled the disagreement, and civil rights groups will nervously await the ruling.

TRADE TALKS WITH CHINA NEAR A DEAL

The administration seems close to reaching an agreement with China that would, perhaps, settle the current trade war — or at least deescalate it. But as Don Lee explained, Trump’s tariffs are one of the last big obstacles in the talks.

Meanwhile, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal has hurt U.S. exports to Japan, whose prime minister was headed to Washington, Lee wrote.

A NEW IMMIGRATION TARGET

The administration has focused huge attention on people who cross the southern border without authorization. But most people who are in the country illegally don’t enter that way — they get legal visas that are valid for a fixed time, then stay in the U.S. once those visas have expired. Now the administration has begun to target foreign travelers who overstay, Molly O’Toole wrote.

Administration officials also revived a plan to expand fracking on more than 1 million acres in California. The plan, first put forward in the Obama administration, had been put on hold by court challenges, Anna Phillips wrote.

AVENATTI’S PROBLEMS DEEPEN

The latest charges again lawyer Michael Avenatti, who rose to fame representing Stormy Daniels, accuse him of embezzling nearly $2 million that an NBA player paid to an ex-girlfriend who was an Avenatti client, Michael Finnegan writes.

PELOSI’S FAVORITE?

Rep. Katie Hill of Agua Dulce has Nancy Pelosi’s favor, but, as Sarah Wire writes, that can be a mixed blessing. Pelosi, of San Francisco, has put Hill on a fast track toward leadership positions in the House, but with that backing, Hill also inherits Pelosi’s enemies.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

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