Democrats think Trump is the opponent they want. They’re wrong, again

Former President Trump still commands legions of fans
Former President Trump still commands legions of fans - Scott Morgan/Reuters

In politics, the best friend is sometimes the right foe. Consider the case of Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

On the television program Meet the Press, Trump slammed a DeSantis-backed piece Florida legislation restricting abortion after six weeks gestation. The so-called “heartbeat bill” was described as a terrible thing by the former President, and his comments quickly ignited a fierce backlash from anti-abortion activists.

The Republican governor of Iowa (a key early primary state) Kim Reynolds indirectly attacked Trump, stating that “It’s never a ‘terrible thing’ to protect innocent life”, in a criticism echoed by other elected Republicans. The backlash may have spooked Donald: in a pair of posts on Truth Social, the former president trumpeted that his Supreme Court nominees had overturned Roe v. Wade, and reiterated his support for abortion restrictions.

Joe Biden also weighed on this issue. He posted a screenshot of Trump’s “Truth” and conveniently circled “I was able to kill Roe v. Wade” and underlined “Without me there would be no 6 weeks.” Biden added “Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is responsible for ending Roe v. Wade. And if you vote for him, he’ll go even further.” At the very moment Trump’s pro-life bona fides are called into question, Biden’s criticism seems uniquely designed to help him.

We’ve seen this movie before. Over the past decade, Democrats have hit upon the strategy of channelling negative partisanship to boost vulnerable Republican candidates. In 2012, Missouri Democratic senator Claire McCaskill used an attack ad to elevate Todd Akin in the Republican primary so that she could crush him in the general election. When Akin clinched the Republican nomination, McCaskill shotgunned a beer in celebration.

Trump himself has benefitted from this tactic. The Obama political strategist Jim Messina said in early 2016, “I wake up every morning and drop to my knees and pray, ‘Please, God, give me Donald Trump.’” In that year’s primary cycle, Democrats and their allies in the press helped to make Messina’s wish a reality by launching vitriolic attacks, paired with plenty of media coverage, against Trump. We all remember how that turned out.

Democrats also used this playbook in the 2022 midterms. Analysis from The Washington Post found that Democrats spent over $53 million in primaries across the country elevating Republican candidates who had challenged the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election.

While Donald Trump began 2023 seemingly vulnerable in the Republican presidential primary, his foes have worked overtime to raise his profile. A series of politically charged legal indictments from a special counsel and Democratic district attorneys have helped rally Republican voters to him, while fallout from the cases keeps Trump in the headlines.

In Georgia’s Fulton County, the democratic district attorney who has charged Trump with crimes related to the 2020 election requested that his trial start on March 4 the day before the Super Tuesday primaries. In addition to these legal controversies, leading Democrats have constantly assailed Trump, and press outlets have continually run pieces talking down Trump rivals like DeSantis and Ramaswamy.

President Biden may calculate that Trump as the nominee would help mute some of his own weaknesses as a candidate, including his low-40s approval rating and anxieties about his age. His polling numbers have slumped, and persistent murmurs that he should not run for re-election have begun to swell. Even David Ignatius, a pillar of the Washington establishment (and reportedly one of Biden’s favourite columnists), urged Biden to drop out in a much-discussed Washington Post piece.

At a fundraiser earlier this week, Biden said that “Donald Trump and his MAGA Republicans are determined to destroy American democracy.” For all this millenarian rhetoric, political interest may be prompting Biden to promote Trump as the standard-bearer for the Republican Party.

But this is a high-stakes gamble. In 2022, this bet worked out well for Democrats. Their support for Trump-branded Republicans (and Trump’s own decision to make discounting the 2020 election a key litmus test) helped turn what should have been a midterm Republican romp into a disappointment for the GOP. In 2016, though, Trump’s surprise win precipitated near-existential despair in Democrats.

Biden has continually defied political expectations. Many in the smart set wrote him off in the 2020 primary and thought that the 2022 midterms would prove to be a stern political rebuke. He has successfully outfought Trump before, and continued Democratic overperformance in special-elections may burnish their 2024 hopes. But for the first time polls have begun to place the sitting president neck and neck with Trump, regardless (or perhaps because of) his legal woes.

In boosting Trump, Biden also magnifies the whirlwind of disruption that the former president brings with him. And the American political system will reap the consequences.

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