Democrats seeking their party’s 2020 nomination have largely avoided bludgeoning each other with lines of attack that President Trump has already signaled he’s ready to weaponize.
That’s likely to change soon.
Whether overseas business activities of Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden or Elizabeth Warren’s self-proclaimed Native American heritage, vulnerabilities of top-tier 2020 Democrats are likely to become targets, with the first primary contests less than 100 days away. Rivals of former Vice President Biden, 76, and Massachusetts Sen. Warren, 70, will start to draw sharper personal contrasts rather than sticking solely to policy.
“Everybody says, ‘We want to keep this clean, we want to keep it a positive campaign,’” said Democratic strategist Scott Ferson. “But then, as front lines emerge, they start getting targets on their back, and anything that has been talked about Hunter Biden, you know, Elizabeth Warren being a Northeastern elite, whatever it might be, I think it’s all fair game.”
The eventual nominee will face an onslaught of attacks from Republicans and President Trump in the general election. Trump has already started to attack Hunter Biden’s involvement with Ukrainian energy company Burisma while he was leading United States foreign policy toward the country. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, 78, suffered a heart attack, prompting arguments that he is too old to serve in office. Trump’s favorite nickname for Warren is “Pocahontas,” a reference to her claim of Native American ancestry.
“If Warren thinks her Native American problem has been put to bed, she’s got another thing coming,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “It is without a doubt going to resurface.”
Warren’s rivals so far have stuck to criticizing her sweeping policy proposals, such as a “Medicare for all” single-payer healthcare plan that would make virtually all private insurance illegal. They’ve avoided raising questions about her claims of Native American ancestry, which she attempted to end by releasing a DNA test showing at least one Native American ancestor six to 10 generations back.
“You’re going to see an aggressive campaign by the Trump folks to educate and persuade voters about Elizabeth Warren because, outside the Democratic process, a Democrat primary, she’s a blank slate,” O’Connell said. “They’re going to say, ‘Here is a woman who tried to work the system to benefit herself. There is no way that she’s fighting for you. It’s always about Elizabeth Warren.’”
Some candidates have subtly addressed their rivals’ personal vulnerabilities.
Biden, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 37, and Sanders have said that Warren’s plan to pay for “Medicare for all” without raising taxes on middle-class Americans is unrealistic and called her truthfulness on policy positions into question. That sort of theme would tie into Republican attacks alleging dishonesty in how Warren presents her personal narrative.
Several Democratic presidential candidates tiptoed around ethics questions surrounding how Biden, 76. handled his son’s Burisma board position by saying that they would not allow their vice president’s son or daughter to serve on a foreign board.
“I think we’re going to recycle all of these things again,” Ferson said, especially as more voters start tuning into the race and watching televised primary debates.
“The Hunter Biden thing was kind of left dangling out there,” Ferson said. “I think it’s right for an opponent to say, ‘Well, if you’re saying, you know, you wouldn’t have any of your relatives sit on the boards, when did you change your mind? Because you were the vice president of the United States.’”
The risk in drawing a personal contrast at this stage with so many candidates still in the race is that it could backfire. Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, for instance, met blowback after he took a jab at Biden’s memory during the September primary debate.
Some personal attributes are essentially off-limits for Democratic candidates and are seen as a low, Trump-like blow. For instance, Buttigieg has struggled to gain support from minority voters in part due to being openly gay, which could be a liability if he is the nominee.
“I would put putting out somebody’s sexuality can be in the category distinctly not fair game,” Ferson said.
The candidates hope that they will not have to directly point out their opponents’ personal vulnerabilities. In a best-case scenario, they are exposed and scrutinized via a debate question or news story.
But, as the field whittles to a handful of candidates, it is likely that they start drawing contrasts on personality and demographic differences such as gender or age, which are easier to grasp than subtle policy differences, while leaving the harshest attacks to Republicans.
“It’s a contest of contrast. And so you have to contrast yourself with your opponents,” Ferson said.
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