Joe Biden frightens Donald Trump
By David Axelrod, CNN Senior Political Commentator
Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT) June 23, 2020
David Axelrod, a senior CNN political commentator and host of "The Axe Files," was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)Much has been made of the spectacular flop that was President Trump's planned campaign re-launch in Tulsa over the weekend. But one of the most revealing moments got too little attention.
It was almost an afterthought in the middle of a nearly two-hour speech and improv when Trump rolled out his principal attack on Joe Biden. And in doing so, Trump also tipped his hand as to why he feared Biden so much that he bought himself an impeachment trying to dirty up the former Vice President.
"If the Democrats gain power, then the rioters will be in charge and no one will be safe and no one will have control," proclaimed the self-styled "law-and-order president" in the midst of his long, disorderly presentation. "Joe Biden is not the leader of his party. Joe Biden is a helpless puppet of the radical left."
The lines he appeared to ad-lib about Biden next were unintentionally revealing.
"He's not radical left. I don't think he knows what he is anymore, but he was never radical left. But he's controlled by the radical left, and now he's really controlled."
Donald Trump is a cultural warrior. His politics depends on mining the fear and resentment of white, working class voters who feel they are on the losing end of economic and demographic change.
The old-school campaign tactic that's boosting Biden
Joe Biden is culturally inconvenient for Trump's re-election project. An older, white, Irish Catholic from a working class Pennsylvania family, Biden is just not frightening enough to the voters Trump needs to scare.
Trump has recognized this from the start. It's why he leaned so hard on the President of Ukraine last summer to open a baseless investigation into Biden and his son Hunter's board membership of a Ukrainian energy company.
Now Trump has the match up he hoped to avoid. And his comments on Saturday underscored both why he fears Biden and what line of attack he will attempt to use to shove the race back into the cultural framework Trump believes will motivate his base. (Whether his base is large enough to win is another story.)
Trump's acknowledgment that Biden is not "radical left," was an admission that to try to paint the former VP as extreme was a losing proposition. So instead, Trump will try to portray Biden as the addled, doddering tool, too weak to resist the gravitational pull of the Left.
Trump is relying on Biden's occasionally uneven performances to support his argument. But Biden has been relatively disciplined in his comments since the Covid-19 outbreak began, and his team has been strategic about how and where he has appeared, mainly via Zoom, while it is Trump who has suffered from overexposure.
The President who suggested to the nation that consuming disinfectant might be a ready cure for Covid-19 opens himself up to a vicious counterpunch if he stakes his candidacy on attacking another man's mental acuity. Yet that is where he is going. That is the best shot he has.
Biden's most salient qualities -- empathy, decency, experience -- have always offered a valuable contrast to Trump's most glaring deficiencies as a leader. They have become even more pronounced in this period of trial and unrest, during which the cost of Trump's narcissism, divisiveness and inability to manage crises has come into sharper focus.
In February, the odds favored the re-election of the president. Today, they have shifted in favor of the challenger. This was symbolized by the startling sea of empty blue seats Trump confronted in Tulsa, as he offered up a melange of 1970 culture war hits: flag-burning, leftist mob rule, socialism, the confiscation of guns and toppling of Confederate icons.
Still, as Trump madly pushes these tried and true buttons, he's not getting the desired reaction. He is underperforming among the non-college white and evangelical voters whose overwhelming support facilitated his narrow electoral victory over Hillary Clinton four years ago.
Add this to a seismic move among suburban voters against Trump, who carried the suburbs in 2016, and a lesser but significant shift from voters over 65 who also favored Trump in '16 but now give Biden the edge, and you can see the president's challenge.
Biden's age, background and demographic profile may have been an obstacle in nailing down the nomination of an increasingly diverse Democratic Party, but it is working for him now.
For a white culture warrior like Trump, old Joe Biden is proving to be a vexing target.