Will Joe Biden's bid for the Democratic nomination survive the impeachment of President Trump?
It sounds like a strange question. Biden and his son Hunter would seem to be the blameless victims of the president's effort to strong-arm the president of Ukraine into digging up dirt on them. If the effort hadn't been revealed to the public by the whistleblower — and if the Eastern European fishing expedition had turned up anything remotely resembling impropriety that the Trump campaign could have weaponized against the former vice president — then Biden might have been fatally damaged, either in the primaries or in a general-election campaign. But the effort was revealed, and now it poses a far greater threat to the Trump administration. Doesn't that mean Biden is off the hook?
No, I'm afraid it doesn't — as I fear we're all going to find out very soon.
Biden's great strength has been his perceived electability in a match-up against the president. He isn't as left-wing as most of his rivals for the Democratic nomination. He believes in going back to an imagined golden age of bipartisanship. He isn't a woman. (Hillary Clinton's loss to Trump in 2016 has some Democrats feeling skittish about trying again so soon to shatter the proverbial glass ceiling.) He has a folksy, ordinary way of talking that drives verbally dexterous pundits batty but makes a certain class of voters feel like he's one of them. Most of all, he served for eight years by former President Barack Obama's side, and a lot of Democrats still have warm feelings for the 44th president and what his election in 2008 meant for the country and the party.
All of it convinces a plurality of voters in most opinion polls that Biden's the right guy to take on Trump, which makes him seem like the most electable option on offer and boosts his polling still further. (Throughout this column, I'll be presuming that Trump's impeachment will not culminate with him being removed from office by the Senate, and that he will remain the GOP nominee in 2020.)
The problem for Biden is that all of this depends on the electorate maintaining its strongly favorable view of him. The most recent major poll to measure the favorability of the Democratic candidates has him tied with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for first place with 73 percent of respondents holding either very favorable or somewhat favorable views of him. Meanwhile, just 18 percent view him somewhat or very unfavorably.
Those numbers are good. But we have reason to think they won't last once the House of Representatives begins to hold hearings that will unavoidably touch on exactly what Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate. Most informed observers see no indication of anything illegal or even overtly unethical on Biden's part in his dealings with Ukraine. Trump is indulging, as he so often does, in conspiracy theories that implicate his political opponents in an indistinct fog of wrongdoing without any hard evidence.
But it won't matter. Back in 2014, Biden's son received a job at a Ukrainian energy conglomerate to the tune of $50,000 a month for no other apparent reason than that his father was vice president of the United States. No one disputes this, and it is enough to implicate Biden and his family in the soft corruption of self-dealing political elites in Washington. That the story of Ukraine over the past decade has involved darker forms of corruption indulged in by a large and complicated cast of characters unknown to 99.9 percent of Americans will make it all too easy for the president and his surrogates to insinuate that Biden is implicated in those shading dealings.
Trump doesn't need to accuse Biden of a crime or even prove he did anything as blatantly corrupt as what the president's company and family does every day of his presidency. He just needs to use the impeachment hearings to damage Biden's favorability, pulling him down a little bit closer to his own sordid level. "I used to like Biden, but now he doesn't seem that much different than Trump," voters might say. And once they start muttering things like that, Biden will be finished, his aura of electability shattered. He'll be just another Washington swamp-dweller, monetizing his power and influence to benefit himself and his family.
Will it be fair? Not at all. Trump will be using dishonesty and outright lies to sink the campaign of the candidate who poses the greatest electoral threat to him in head-to-head polls — and all by trying to demonstrate that he's not that much less corrupt than Trump himself. Trump can only win in a world where no one is better than he is.
If none of Biden's rivals were nipping at his heels — if his lead were bigger, with Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sanders further back in the single digits with the rest of the pack — Biden might be able to ride out the storm of the next several months, prevail decisively in the primaries, and mount a strong challenge to Trump that even the smarmiest sewage-spewing campaign couldn't sink.
But Biden won't be able to pull it off. His lead remains, but it's not enormous. And he and his family are about to face an onslaught of accusations from a cornered master of the art of excrement-slinging. Some of it is bound to stick. When it does, Biden will no longer look like the surest bet to take on the president.
He will look, instead, like the second coming of Hillary Clinton. And no one will be very excited about the prospect of trying to take down Donald Trump with a campaign led by "Crooked Joe."
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