Donald Trump had the perfect opponent in the 2016 election. Running as a populist billionaire taking on the Washington elite, he couldn’t have asked for a better rival in Hillary Clinton, who carried heavy political baggage and who, for many, personified the so-called establishment. While Trump’s populist shtick was easy to pick apart, Clinton was the wrong person to promote the message she was trying to get across to voters.
By nominating a candidate whose place in the Democratic Party establishment was undeniable and who lacked credibility on issues like money in politics, the Democrats simply let Trump run as the anti-establishment candidate. Not only that, but the Clinton camp even tried courting establishment Republicans who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for their own party’s candidate.
Here was a man who had openly bragged about bribing politicians, yet Democrats couldn’t go after Trump on the issue because their own candidate was one of the politicians to whom he’d donated in the past. The Clinton camp raised (and spent) far more money than Trump, but whether this actually helped or hurt her is unclear, as it also gave credence to the perception that she was the candidate favored by big donors Meanwhile, Trump positioned himself as the self-financing candidate who couldn’t be bought.
As the Trump campaign’s onetime CEO, Steve Bannon, put it shortly after the election, “Hillary Clinton was the perfect foil for Trump’s message. From her email server, to her lavishly paid speeches to Wall Street bankers, to her FBI problems, she represented everything that middle-class Americans had had enough of.”
This time around, Trump should have zero credibility running as a “populist.” The president has presided over the most corrupt administration in modern history, plagued by investigations and numerous indictments that have led to convictions of some of his closest associates. Trump has nominated Supreme Court justices who defend money in politics, and his major legislative achievement has been to give billionaires and corporate elites major tax cuts.
Under Trump, corporate America has thrived while real-income growth has declined for most working- and middle-class people. Inequality has continued to reach historic levels, and billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Mike Bloomberg have seen their wealth surge. In 2020, Trump is no longer even pretending to self-finance his campaign. With his recent predatory budget proposal he has made it clear that he is getting ready to gut programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, during his second term.
It should be easy for Democrats to expose Trump as the corrupt charlatan that he is. In an age when a majority of voters rate political corruption as America’s biggest crisis and nearly 8 in 10 Americans agree that there should be “limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations” can spend on political campaigns, how hard can it be to defeat a hugely unpopular president who makes Richard Nixon look half decent? The surest way for Democrats to lose to Trump again would be to follow the same strategy as 2016 and nominate a candidate who embodies the establishment, carries a ton of political baggage and lacks credibility on issues like corruption.
By the looks of it, Democrats might just pull it off. After Super Tuesday, it appears that Trump will have another perfect foil for his message in 2020. Former Vice President Joe Biden has regained his place as the Democratic frontrunner after a successful showing on Tuesday, thanks in large part to party elites, and some of his former rivals, quickly consolidating around his campaign the day before. Though the race is far from over, Biden is now well-positioned to win the nomination. By selecting Biden, Democrats will effectively let Trump and his deeply corrupt administration off the hook yet again.
Biden is a lot like Clinton, but worse in almost every measurable way. On issue after issue, Biden has consistently been to the right of Clinton throughout his fifty-year political career. He has a record of advocating cuts to Social Security and Medicare; he helped write the 1994 Crime Bill that led to an explosion in mass incarceration; he played a critical role in passing the 2005 bankruptcy bill that stripped bankruptcy protection from some of the most vulnerable people. Biden also supported and championed the Iraq War.
This list goes on and on. Beyond his extremely problematic record, which will make it hard for Democrats to go after Trump about, say, cutting Social Security (which Biden himself supported not too long ago), Biden has his own personal scandals that will make it very difficult for him to cast Trump as corrupt.
While his son Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine may not qualify as corruption, it was doubtless unethical and sleazy for Biden’s son to take a high-paying consultant gig with a foreign firm while his father was vice president (and Biden’s refusal to acknowledge this conflict only makes it worse). The behavior of Biden’s family will haunt him in the general election. As Ryan Grim wrote in The Intercept last October, Biden’s son and brother have been “trading on their family name for decades, cashing in on the implication — and sometimes the explicit argument — that giving money to a member of Joe Biden’s family wins the favor of Joe Biden.” Predictably, a majority of voters believe it was inappropriate for Biden’s son to take a job with the Ukrainian firm, and Trump will exploit this and use it to defend his own family’s nepotism and corruption.
In the lead-up to the general election, Biden, who has recently struggled to string coherent sentences together, would provide the slick demagogue Donald Trump with all the ammunition he needs. We were given a little preview of what to expect in President Trump’s Super Tuesday commentary: “The Democrat establishment came together and crushed Bernie Sanders, AGAIN!” he gloated on Twitter, once again positioning himself as the anti-establishment populist.
On Monday, the Democratic establishment proved that it still has far more control over the party than the Republican establishment did over their own party in 2016. No one stands to benefit more from an establishment triumph than Donald Trump. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has the credibility to call out Trump on his corruption and neoliberal economic policies, is still in the race, but his chances are looking much slimmer than they were just a week ago.
Democrats have a choice: They can follow the same strategy that ended up costing them all three branches of government in recent years, or they can go another way. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Conor Lynch is a freelance writer and journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in The Week, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications. You can follow him on Twitter…