Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Joe Biden, Frontrunner

New polls show lead sustaining, while rivals watch the calendar move like sands in an hourglass.

My take: There are basically now two schools of thought on Joe Biden.

One school says he was underestimated. He launched smart (staying away from hard media questions, focusing his rhetoric on Trump, stressing electability), and strong (rising poll numbers and impressive initial fundraising). This school says that if Biden continues to stay disciplined, he will consolidate enough support to be the frontrunner from wire to wire. Voters who care about electability, centrists, older voters, union households, and non-white voters are all part of the Biden coalition. This dynamic is being reinforced by sophisticated voters and donors who have appraised the rest of the field and feel that literally any other prospect would be a risk to lose to Trump. They worry that a Sanders nomination would bring a third candidate into the race, guaranteeing a Trump victory. Right now, for voters who want to stop Sanders, Biden appears to be the only game in town.

This camp says that Biden has shown much more discipline than they were expecting, and that his team thought through how to launch in a much more clever manner than they expected. They also believe that voters don’t care about the various controversies from Biden’s past that the media gets all worked up about. Additionally, they think Biden’s appeal to bipartisanship is not as poisonous in the nomination context as liberal Twitter makes it out to be.

The other camp concedes that Biden is stronger than they thought he would be, but think he is living on borrowed time. They say we are already seeing gaffes (like his China comments) that foreshadow more damaging errors to come. They believe Biden will eventually have to speak in more detail on health care, trade, and other issues, and he will start to alienate voters. They point to his relatively small crowds. And they say that other candidates will be able to make their own electability arguments if the head-to-head polls with Trump continue to show them competitive.

The big dilemma for the other candidates is how much to try to take Biden down. As with the Republicans and Trump in 2016, there’s a temptation to leave Biden alone for now, fight it out with the other members of the pack, trying to become the last person standing along with Biden, and only then take him on as a too-centrist creature of the past. Obviously, this strategy did not work to stop Trump four years ago.

And there is concern in the camps of the other candidates that the time is actually growing short to head Biden off, unless he makes his own errors.

They don’t believe the crowded debate stage will be a productive venue to engage Biden, who they predict will focus on staying above the fray and attacking Trump. They worry that going negative on Biden might hurt Biden, but will work to the benefit of some other candidates (rather than the attacker), in part because large segments of the party have no appetite for intra-Democratic conflict when the focus needs be on beating Trump. The attacker might hurt Biden, but will also hurt him or herself.

We’ve seen that dynamic in past Democratic nomination battles (See 1988 and 2004.). Even those who aren’t for Biden worry about other Democrats wounding him before he goes on to be the nominee, allowing Trump to win.

Even if he eventually takes the nomination, history strongly suggests that Biden will see turbulence at some point. The questions now are where does it come from, when does it come, and how much damage does it do to the frontrunner?

Biden is more likely to come down to earth by his own errors than based on the efforts of the other candidates, Trump, or outside groups. Until he starts taking voter and tough media questions, we won’t really know. Everyday he avoids his time in the barrel is another day closer to Iowa. But we haven’t seen him truly tested yet.

Trump Bumps

New high in Gallup poll and new support from big money Republican donors are more than tea leaves.My take: Of course the Democrats can beat Trump in 2020. But the failure to grapple with his advantages leaves the out-party in peril of not understanding the challenge of the task at hand. Beating an incumbent president with an economy showing signs of strength is not an easy task.

Great Wall of Confusion

US-China trade talks continue and/but with signs of ruinous brinkmanship.

My take: My take is the same as the Wall Street Journal editorial board. Read their lead item to understand the state of play as well as one can, given the inscrutability of the Chinese posture and the fuzziness of Trump’s bottom line.

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