President Donald Trump poses an unusual problem for his opposition. He’s “a target-rich environment,” said Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress. “He has befuddled his opponents by giving them too much to react to. It keeps the Democrats from having a disciplined message about why Trump sucks.”
Depending on the news cycle, the anti-Trump message may be that he is a tool of Russian President Vladimir Putin, or a racist, or a threat to democracy, or a failure, or a bad person, or a golfer. His Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, seems convinced much of the time that most voters have already rejected Trump as unfit for the presidency and that he need only establish himself as a decent alternative. He may be right. A similar campaign strategy might have worked in 2016, too, if the Democratic nominee that year, Hillary Clinton, had not been so widely disliked.
If the race gets tight, though, Biden may have to tighten his focus, or find himself wishing that he had done it earlier. Already each sign that Trump is closing the gap in the polls, especially in swing states, is giving panic attacks to Biden supporters who don’t want to relive the surprise of election night four years ago. (There are, weirdly, fewer cases of nerves in the Trump camp, even though Trump has consistently been behind in the polls and has made some screwy strategic decisions of his own.)
But how should Biden focus his critique of Trump to maximize his chances? Which target should he choose? The appeal of a character-based attack on Trump is obvious. It’s flattering to Biden. The president keeps creating new material for it. And it’s the kind of criticism of Trump that has the broadest appeal. At the end of the spring, Gallup pollsters asked whether “honest and trustworthy” were terms that applied to Trump, and 62 percent of the respondents said no.
The limitation of this focus, though, is evident in Gallup’s headline: “Americans‘ Views of Trump’s Character Firmly Established.” Gallup got the exact same numbers when it asked that question about Trump in April 2017. If a voter doesn’t think poorly of Trump’s personality traits or doesn’t care about them, Biden is unlikely to be able to get him to see it differently.
Biden will have to continue to make the case that Trump has failed the country: That’s part of any challenger’s campaign against an incumbent president. And while voters generally have firm views on how well Trump has performed, it is more plausible that some of them will change their views on that question than on his basic character in the remaining weeks of the campaign. But such changes in opinion are more likely to result from changes in condition -- in the state of the economy, and in the course of the coronavirus -- than from anything either campaign says.
For some of Trump’s opponents, what bears emphasis is all the ways he is “not normal,” and indeed gleefully or ignorantly smashes old norms. They released a short burst of criticism about Trump’s misuse of the White House and his administration’s violations of the Hatch Act, which restricts the political activities of government employees, during the Republican convention -- and their fury redoubled when the administration came back with the cynical response that voters don’t care about such things. Cynical doesn’t mean wrong, though, at least with respect to on-the-fence voters.
What might make a difference, though, would be for Biden to make the case that Trump’s populism is a scam: that he says he’s fighting for Americans, but is really in it only for himself and his friends. The night he was elected he promised to stand for “the forgotten men and women of our country,” but then immediately surrounded himself with Goldman Sachs alums.
He has talked for five years about building a wall, but hardly any building has happened. His administration’s main actual accomplishment is a corporate tax cut. Manufacturing jobs haven’t come back, but Trump’s hotels have gotten a lot of government business. He spends his days and nights tweeting about his enemies, not your needs.
This type of criticism overlaps with some of the other attacks on Trump: It touches on his dishonesty and his failure to deliver on promises. Without being narrowly addressed to white working class voters in the Midwest, it speaks directly to some of the people who backed Trump last time after having voted for Democrats previously. It takes their concerns seriously, and gives them a reason to change their minds instead of trying to shame them for giving Trump a chance. At the same time, it doesn’t alienate other types of voters that Biden needs, such as those who voted for third parties last time.
And if that’s not enough to appeal to Biden and his aides, they should reflect that criticizing Trump this way is sure to drive him to new heights of rage.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.