WASHINGTON — During a campaign-style speech last week in the White House Rose Garden, President Donald Trump lamented that his efforts to turn Joe Biden’s son into a political vulnerability for the Democrat had flopped.
“But Hunter — where’s Hunter?” Trump said, referring to the younger Biden’s lucrative position on the board of a Ukrainian gas company while his father was vice president. “And you all know about Burisma, but nothing happens. Nobody cares.”
It’s one of many punches by Trump that have failed to land on his Democratic rival. He has called him “sleepy Joe” and derided him as too tired and unfit to do the job. He has mocked him for a steady stream of verbal stumbles. He has painted him as a tool of China. He has linked him to a “defund the police” movement that Biden has rejected. None of it is sticking.
As a result, the president and his allies have settled on a different strategy: Paint Biden as an empty vessel for socialist radicals to exploit. As Trump’s new campaign manager Bill Stepien said Tuesday, “We will expose Joe Biden as a hapless tool of the extreme left.”
Vice President Mike Pence made the case Friday during a trip to Wisconsin.
“Joe Biden would be nothing more than an auto pen, a Trojan horse for a radical agenda so radical, so all-encompassing that it would transform this country into something utterly unrecognizable,” he said.
Trump said Tuesday that “Biden has gone radical left” and suggested he would “abolish the suburbs,” a reference to the Democratic Party's support for desegregation efforts. The next day he floated a conspiracy theory on Twitter about a secret “pact” between Biden and Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who was resoundingly defeated in the primary, that is “further left than even Bernie had in mind.”
The new approach comes as Biden’s national lead has more than doubled to 9 points in the FiveThirtyEight polling average since the U.S. revealed its first death from COVID-19 at the end of February. Trump’s declining political fortunes mirror the sinking approval of his handling of a pandemic that has killed more than 138,000 Americans and crippled the economy.
Former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., took the narrative a step further by theorizing baselessly in an op-ed article for TheHill.com that the "socialist/progressive wing" of the Democratic Party would install a vice presidential candidate and use the 25th Amendment to topple Biden in a "coup" within months of his election.
“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,” said Michael Steel, a former aide to House Speaker John Boehner and to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. “And so the 2016 playbook that the president used successfully against Hillary Clinton just doesn’t work.”
“Secretary Clinton was a uniquely unpopular and polarizing figure. Despite high approval as secretary of state, the negative image of her had been burned in over decades,” he said. “She didn’t have to be a stalking horse. She motivated opposition all by herself.”
Democrats say Trump’s characterization of Biden as a socialist doesn’t pass the smell test.
“It's like saying Coca-Cola is arsenic,” said Ian Sams, a former presidential campaign aide to Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., last year and Clinton in 2016. “Voters are smarter than that.”
Biden, who cultivated a reputation as an institutionalist in Washington through 44 years as senator and then vice president, is proving to be an elusive opponent. He’s not as loved or hated as Trump. But surveys show he’s seen as more honest and trustworthy than Trump or Clinton. And polls say voters who dislike both presidential candidates prefer Biden, unlike in 2016 when Trump ultimately won them.
“The Trump campaign's efforts to paint Joe Biden as something he is not is nothing new,” Biden campaign spokesman Bill Russo said in a statement. “The only new development here is the increasingly deranged level of desperation they are showing in trying to sell another ridiculous theory.”
Biden has made some concessions to progressives in an attempt to unite the Democratic Party and avoid left-wing defections that hurt Clinton in 2016. He recently called for 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, drawing fierce criticism from the Trump campaign. But he has rejected the most liberal ideas in his party, such as a “Medicare for all” system that ends private insurance.
At a March 2 rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, before the pandemic caused nationwide shutdowns, Trump painted Biden as hapless, but more "moderate" than his rivals.
"I honestly don't think he knows what office he's running for, and it doesn't matter. You know, maybe he gets in because he's a little more moderate," he said. "So maybe he gets in, but he's not going to be running it."