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Biden allies plot 2024 strategy focused on Trump, even if he fades away

Key to the approach is spotlighting Trump’s policies and worldview and forcing other GOP candidates to take positions on whether they agree with Trump or not.
A split of Joe Biden and Donald Trump separated by the words  "We the People"
Joe Biden’s allies think voters will be swayed by comments like Trump’s statement Dec. 3 that the level of “fraud” in the 2020 election was so severe that it “allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.”Shahrzad Elghanayan / NBC News; Getty Images

Joe Biden beat Donald Trump once, and Democrats are crafting a strategy to try to beat him again in 2024 — even if his name isn’t on the ballot. 

Anticipating that Trump may fade, Biden allies hope to persuade voters that the choice is the same and that any Republican successor would have to embrace enough of his policies to be a virtual clone of Trump himself. 

Key to that approach is spotlighting Trump’s policies and worldview and forcing other GOP candidates to take positions on whether they agree with Trump or not. One statement that stands out, as Democrats see it, is Trump’s recent suggestion that parts of the Constitution could be set aside to invalidate the 2020 election results. If Democrats can show that Trump’s successors won’t condemn such remarks, they can make the case that Trumpism is on the ballot even if the man himself is sidelined, party strategists and Biden allies said.

“As it develops, let’s say it’s Ron DeSantis and not Trump” as the Republican nominee, said Alan Kessler, a longtime Philadelphia fundraiser, referring the governor of Florida. “I don’t think it’s a heavy lift to make DeSantis into Trump.”

An unusual dynamic is driving the Democrats’ thinking about the ’24 race. As Trump’s poll numbers sag, party strategists are starting to imagine Trump’s losing the nomination fight to a younger candidate without the same mountain of baggage. Were that to happen, Biden would be stripped of perhaps the central rationale of his candidacy: While he’s an aging candidate with lackluster approval ratings, he comes off as a calmer and steadier hand than Trump. 

If Democrats succeed in painting the new GOP nominee as a Trump wannabe, however, they might be able to neutralize the advantage that a younger, fresher-faced opponent might bring to a race against Biden, who is 80.

Biden’s allies think voters will be swayed by comments like Trump’s statement Dec. 3 that the level of “fraud” in the 2020 election was so severe that it “allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.” (A slew of court rulings and audits haven’t shown any election fraud on a scale that would overturn Biden’s victory.)

Many statements from Trump spark outrage and then disappear from view, eclipsed by something else he says that’s even more incendiary. But Democrats interviewed about the emerging 2024 strategy said they plan to make sure this particular comment isn’t soon forgotten. They expect ad campaigns built around Trump’s suggestion that the Constitution — the founding document that enshrines America’s democracy — can be set aside. (Trump issued another statement on his Truth Social platform insisting he hadn’t said he wanted to “terminate” the Constitution.)

“It’s the goal of Democrats and independent groups and, eventually, campaigns to not let this go unremarked,” said Democratic activist David Brock, the president of Facts First USA, a group countering Republican-led congressional investigations.

“I really feel — and many people I’ve spoken to feel — that [Trump’s remark] definitely crossed a line and is definitely grist for Democratic campaign ads and messaging.”

The Democratic National Committee plans to hire staffers in New Hampshire, South Carolina and other key states targeting Republican presidential primaries. Part of their mission will be to try to get Republican candidates to take positions on Trump’s statements, including his views about the Constitution, said a national Democratic strategist familiar with the planning. The DNC communication staffers will be in place earlier than in past presidential campaign cycles, the strategist said.

“You’ll see a pretty aggressive and concerted effort to have Republicans answer for what he says,” the strategist said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely. “Donald Trump’s shadow will be over the party for as long as he’s alive.”

Republicans bet such tactics won’t matter.

A Trump ally, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said he doesn’t believe Trump will suffer a backlash over his comment about the Constitution.

“I doubt if this will play any role in 2024,” Gingrich said in an interview. “Trump has already denied any desire to suspend the Constitution.”

Some Democratic strategists are skeptical that anyone who emerges as the GOP front-runner can be sold to voters as Trump’s ideological twin. Trump’s persona and record as a twice-impeached ex-president are too unusual to make the claim convincing, they argue. Larry Hogan, Maryland’s moderate Republican governor, who has been mentioned as a presidential candidate, has denounced Trump repeatedly. Democrats tried repeatedly to tie Glenn Youngkin to Trump in the 2021 Virginia governor’s race — and failed. 

“Trump’s call to terminate the Constitution was extreme and beyond the pale — something we’ve never heard from a modern-day former president who also happens to be running again,” said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist. “I don’t know that you can credibly tie Trump’s call to terminate the Constitution to every single Republican candidate or even to the MAGA movement as a whole.” 

So far, a few prominent Republicans and possible presidential candidates have trodden carefully around Trump’s comment. Outright condemnation risks alienating Trump’s rank-and-file voters. Former Vice President Mike Pence gave an anodyne response that it’s important for public officials to “make it clear that they will support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Asked during an appearance in South Carolina whether Trump’s comment was dangerous, Pence hedged, saying, “That will be a decision for the American people in the days ahead.”

Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters last week that anyone who supported the idea of not following the Constitution “would have a very hard time being sworn in” as president. Yet McConnell wouldn’t say whether he would refuse to back Trump should he win the Republican nomination.

Whatever the political dividends, some advisers insist that combating threats to democracy is, for Biden, a moral imperative. He has delivered major speeches describing what he sees as mortal threats to the nation’s tradition of self-government.

“Trump is a threat,” said John Anzalone, a Biden pollster. “The fact is he has a demagogic pull on people. He made people believe in the election lie, and he can make people believe it’s OK to throw out the Constitution.”

Advisers say a recurring theme of Biden’s private conversations with historians who’ve studied the rise of authoritarian movements is that such threats can’t be “wished away” but must be consistently and aggressively called out.

Trump’s comment “is very serious,” said longtime Biden confidant Ted Kaufman, a former U.S. senator from Delaware. “For any other elected official I’ve known, especially a president, it would be disqualifying. If George W. Bush or Bill Clinton or anyone else suggested we put aside the Constitution, it would be disqualifying politically, let alone the fact that you swear an oath to uphold the Constitution when you’re sworn in.”

Constitutional experts are largely baffled by what Trump might have had in mind about a statement that is still visible on his social media site.

One said the idea Trump floated echoes constitutions in certain South American countries, which have emergency suspension clauses. Nothing like that exists in the U.S. Constitution.

“It has nothing to do with anything constitutional,” said Robert Post, a professor at Yale Law School. “It has to do with the ending of constitutional government.”