Six takeaways from Joe Biden's Iowa speech eviscerating Donald Trump

Six takeaways from Joe Biden's Iowa speech eviscerating Donald Trump
"Joe Biden" by sagabardon is licensed under CC by-nc 2.0

Joe Biden and Donald Trump traded barbs in dueling speeches in Iowa on Tuesday. Trump called Biden a "dummy," and repeatedly referred to him as "sleepy Joe." Biden, who has been known to ramble, gave a lengthy, focused speech methodically making the case that Trump is unfit to be president, much less be given a second term.

Biden's strategy to win the Democratic primaries--and the general election should he become the nominee--hasn't been a great mystery, but his thorough scorching of Trump on Tuesday brought it into sharper relief.

Here are six things we took away from it.

Biden's making his campaign about rescuing the country from Trump …

In 2016, Hillary Clinton hit Trump for appealing to white supremacists and various other right-wing extremists. But conservatives characterized her "basket of deplorables" speech as an attack on all Trump voters, and much of the mainstream press embraced that spin.

Biden hopes to appeal to at least some factions of the Republican coalition (more on that below), and in a speech that was notably light on policy, he focused instead on Trump's own deplorable character.

The quote that made headlines was, "I believe Trump is an existential threat to America," adding that "we can overcome four years of Trump –but if we give him eight years in the White House he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation."

Biden's indictment had three counts. He said that Trump threatened our "core values," citing Trump's infamous claim that there were "good people on both sides" of a neo-fascist rally in Charlottesville that culminated in the murder of progressive activist Heather Heyer. (Biden launched his campaign with the same theme.)

Count Two: Trump threatens "Our standing in the world."

Did he do anything to signal that he’s prepared to walk away from the thugs he’s embraced on the world stage – from Putin to Kin Jung Un? No. He did none of that. Instead, he gets up in the middle of the night to attack Bette Midler. He attacks the mayor of London. He attacks the American Speaker of the House. It was a stunning display of childishness for the whole world to see…

Just look at what’s happening around the world. Dictators and tyrants are using Trump’s words to justify their own abuses of power in their countries. Trump’s goal is simple – discredit the news, discredit the free press –and he gets to run roughshod over America.

Finally, he warned that "our democracy is at risk."

I never thought I would say those words. But it’s true. Everywhere you turn, Trump is tearing down the guardrails of democracy. It’s the abuse of power. And if there is one thing I can’t stand – it’s the abuse of power. Whether it’s a man raising his hand to strike a woman or a child, or an employer treating his workers like dirt, or an American president who has no respect for the rule of law – I can’t stand for it.

Biden hopes to peel off chunks of the Trump coalition…

Biden kept returning to Trump's character, or lack thereof, warning that "this president is setting a standard for crude language and embarrassing behavior that is burrowing deep into this culture –and it’s going to take a long time to get rid of it."

But he also dinged Trump for betraying his campaign promise to stick up for the country's "forgotten men and women."

America’s farmers have been crushed by his tariff war with China. No one knows that better than Iowa. He thinks he’s being tough. Well, it’s easy to be tough when someone else is feeling the pain. How many farmers across this state and across this nation have had to face the prospect of losing their business, of losing their farm because of Trump’s tariffs?

He asked the crowd how often Trump's lost sleep over the plight of America's farmers, and then answered his own question: "Just as many as he had when he stiffed the construction workers and electricians and plumbers who built his hotels and casinos. Zero."

In contrast, Biden vowed to repeal the GOP tax scam if elected and portrayed Trump as "just another rich guy sitting in his gold-plated apartment in Manhattan tweeting" out nonsense. "Trump may think Wall Street and the Super Rich built this country," he said. "I don’t. I think this country was built by you –by the working people of this nation –by America’s great middle class."

Both themes seem to be intended to appeal to those few Trump supporters who may be souring on him after so many broken promises, and college-educated white Republicans with whom this president has had a tenuous relationship from the beginning.

The campaign is effectively skipping the Democratic primaries, for now…

Biden's campaign is portraying their candidate as the presumptive nominee despite the fact that he has run two terrible campaigns for the White House in the past and is a weak frontrunner by historical standards. He's passed up invitations to a number of events for the crowded field of Democratic candidates, and on Tuesday he largely ignored his rivals for the nomination altogether.

His only acknowledgement that there are others vying for it was a brief aside dismissing the view, now dominant on the left, that if/when Dems regain power they have to fight just as hard to ram through their agenda as Mitch McConnell and Republicans on Capitol Hill and in red state legislatures have done with theirs.

"There are some in our party who say the response to what we’re living through is to ram through what we can when we get power," he said. "We will regret that."

This is likely to infuriate those who support one of the other twenty-plus candidates running for the Democratic nomination, but there's a certain logic to it. All of the cable networks carried his speech live. And creating the impression that he's a shoe-in might also attracts more support, as well as new donors and volunteers. People tend to like choosing on a winning horse.

Biden's betting that leveraging his association with Barack Obama will boost him in the primaries…

While he gave scant mention of his fellow Dem candidates, he did send a message to primary voters by repeatedly emphasizing his close relationship to Barack Obama.

"You know, I want to say something that we don’t say enough as a party – or a nation: Barack Obama was a President of extraordinary character and decency," he said. "He was a president our kids could look up to. I was proud of the work we did together -from the Recovery Act to the Auto Rescue to Health Care –but I was most proud of the man he was."

Progressives may be divided over Obama's legacy, but the former president is viewed favorably by 63 percent of the public, according to Gallup, with over 80 percent of Democrats and Dem leaners expressing that view.

He's also appealing to Americans' nostalgia for a time when our politics were less awful politics…

Joe Biden was first elected to Congress during what's known as the era of liberal consensus. Democrats and Republicans argued fiercely over policy specifics and then went out to dinner together. Civility was the norm.

But he was also in Congress when Newt Gingrich launched an era of bloody partisan combat that only deepened during the Obama presidency. He was Vice President when Congressional Republicans vowed to do everything in their power to make Obama a one-term president, and when McConnell refused to even allow Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, a hearing.

Yet he suggested once again that defeating Trump would break the far-right's hold on the Republican Party and restore some semblance of comity in Washington.

"I know government is sometimes a knife-fight," he said. "But it can’t be a permanent frame of mind. So – yes — I will look to work with the Congress. I will work across the aisle. I will seek to find consensus." He added: "We’re at a moment when we need to re-set Constitutional norms in this country."

Biden may protect his left flank but he's not trying to appeal to progressives...

Last week, under fire from most of the rest of the Democratic field, Biden reversed his longstanding support for the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding for abortions for women who can’t afford the procedure.

But winning over progressives doesn't appear to be a goal of his campaign. It's likely that they're counting on extremely high turnout in both the primaries and the general election, and research shows that people who identify themselves as "very liberal" (or "very conservative") are more engaged in politics than more moderate voters. (They're more likely to not only turn out at the polls, but also to volunteer and contribute to campaigns.)

So far, Trump's inspired that kind of intense engagement from Democrats and Dem leaners across the board. If that's true next year, and all signs suggest it will be, then there's a good chance that a higher share of mainstream liberals and moderates turn out in the primaries than did in 2016. His campaign also seems to have calculated that his potential appeal to those working class voters in key battleground states like Ohio and Pennsylvania will be an important selling-point. And it may be.

But Joe Biden is a soft "frontrunner" known for being inappropriately touchy with women and constantly putting his foot in his mouth, and he faces a a tough road to the nomination. In less than two weeks, the first Democratic debates will mark the true start of the Democratic primaries, and it may not be long before we see if his campaign's strategy proves to be a sound one.


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