Judging presidential candidates by the company they keep

The Trump campaign wants voters to focus on who the candidates are surrounding themselves with. That should work well - for Biden.
Image: Donald Trump, Joe Biden
Donald Trump, Joe Biden.Getty Images/Reuters
By Steve Benen

Michael Steel, a former leading aide to Republicans such as House Speaker John Boehner and Jeb Bush, recently raised an observation about the 2020 presidential race that stood out for me.

“People disparage Joe Biden. People question Joe Biden’s judgment. People question Joe Biden’s acuity at this point. But no one hates Joe Biden,” Steel said. “And so the 2016 playbook that the president used successfully against Hillary Clinton just doesn’t work.”

There are, of course, all kinds of relevant details, and I'd quibble with some of the nuances to Steel's analysis, but in broad strokes, there's something to this. Donald Trump knows there's a big chunk of the American electorate that hates him, and the president hoped that a larger chunk of voters would hate Biden. That was never wise, and it doesn't appear to be working.

And so, Team Trump appears to be adopting a new posture: Americans may not hate Biden, and they may never end up hating Biden, but plenty of voters may be open to hating the Democratic base, progressive activists, and the left's policy goals. It's this thinking that's behind the new Republican ad campaign. Politico reported today:

President Donald Trump's reelection campaign released two new advertisements Monday casting former Vice President Joe Biden as beholden to the left wing of the Democratic Party, deploying the 30-second spots in four early voting swing states. The media offensive comes after the president's campaign went dark on television airwaves last week amid a reevaluation of its advertising strategy by Bill Stepien, Trump's newly installed campaign manager.

No one hates Joe Biden, so the president's operation launched an ad featuring Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). The idea, of course, is to persuade the electorate that a vote for Biden is actually a vote for liberals Team Trump expects people to dislike.

There's very little to suggest such a strategy will work -- I'll be eager to see Team Trump's Plan C, which I assume will be unveiled sometime next month -- but Stepien took the pitch to Fox News this morning.

"I think you need to judge Joe Biden by the people he's surrounding himself with," he said.

There is a certain logic behind the message. In a contest between Biden and Trump, Biden very likely wins for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that most people will simply like him more. So Stepien and his team see the need to change the nature of the contest: it's not just Biden vs. Trump; it's Biden and his allies vs. Trump and his allies.

But has the president's operation really thought through the implications of a judge-the-candidates-by-the-company-they-keep message? For one thing, much of Biden's team is made up of veterans of Barack Obama's team -- and for much of the American mainstream, that's not especially scary. On the contrary, Barack Obama is currently the nation's most popular political figure.

For another, has Bill Stepien taken a good look at the company his boss has kept? As we discussed in detail in February, we are talking about a president surrounded by a "remarkable universe of criminality," with many of Trump's top aides having been convicted of felonies, sent to prison, or both. Even Stepien himself brings a controversial background to the table, as does Jason Miller, a Team Trump senior adviser and spokesperson.

What's more, the president has also surrounded himself with a scandal-plagued cabinet and an administration filled with people who are manifestly unqualified for powerful positions in the executive branch.

Plenty of others from Trump's immediate orbit left his operation and started warning the public about how awful he is, including a series of books that characterizes the president as someone who "rarely reads, gets bored easily, is irritable and distracted, has trouble remembering complicated things, has no intellectual curiosity and is ignorant not just about his job but about things generally considered common knowledge."

If the 2020 race comes down to questions about who the candidates have surrounded themselves with, the incumbent is going to struggle to keep it close.