Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid for the presidency ended in a demoralizing defeat for Democrats four years ago. But it could provide Joe Biden’s campaign with a playbook on how to handle President Donald Trump’s persistent and personal attacks over the next six months.
Trump, with the coronavirus presenting him with the most existential threat to his presidency yet, has shown he plans to use the same strategy that got him elected four years ago. He has accused Biden of everything from being a corrupt political insider to using veiled, personal innuendo against the former vice president and his family. This has led Biden’s top aides, some of whom worked for Clinton four years ago, to closely study the former secretary of state’s crushing loss, looking to both avoid the traps Clinton fell into while also seizing on the attacks that worked well against the former reality TV star.
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While Biden’s political calculations are different than Clinton’s – warnings about Trump as president are no longer hypothetical and voters see the President’s attacks as far less novel than four years ago – top Democrats worry that the former vice president could allow Trump to define Biden as the most establishment candidate in the race and fall into some of the same traps that hampered Clinton.
In the eyes of aides and operatives who worked for her 2016 campaign, Clinton spent too much time focused on casting Trump as an immoral, dangerous figure – she tied him to racist elements, suggested he would be a national security liability and cast him as a sexist who enjoys degrading women – while not making enough of an affirmative case for herself. The former secretary of state also strenuously avoided the media during her campaign, helping Trump dominate news coverage while also drawing the Clinton campaign into debates over her career and character.
But the biggest lesson from 2016, according to Biden aides, is to not allow Trump to tout himself as the change candidate. He did that easily in 2016 against Clinton, who was largely running as the person to build on former President Barack Obama’s success.
Biden’s campaign plans to argue that the change Trump has ushered in – especially his response to the coronavirus pandemic – has been too turbulent and that Biden is the person to reverse that dramatic shift.
“Trump ran as a disruptor, as the change candidate. But his performance in office has been an absolute train wreck – now nearly 90,000 Americans have lost their lives and over 30 million have lost their jobs,” said Andrew Bates, a Biden spokesman who previously worked for Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “That makes Joe Biden the change candidate. Biden represents change because the whole country recognizes the urgent need to restore competence to the Oval Office.”
That, though, may not be enough, warned some former Clinton aides, who see the 2020 debate focusing more on who is seen as the establishment figure in the race.
“Not since George H.W. Bush has a party establishment candidate won the general election,” a former senior Clinton aide said. “You do not want to be too much of the establishment candidate when you are running (against Trump).”
‘Be prepared for anything’
Trump has already tried to elevate attacks against Biden that first began to bubble up in distant corners of the internet, on everything from tying the former vice president to China to accusations that Hunter Biden profited from his father’s power.
That has led Bates and other Biden aides to use a lesson from the Clinton campaign: Don’t allow even a baseless attack go entirely unanswered.
At different times during the 2016 campaign, Clinton’s team avoided commenting on certain stories that hadn’t yet picked up national attention, not wanting to provide them oxygen or elevate conspiracy theories. Trump, however, would often seize on these stories and use his Twitter followers to elevate them without serious news coverage.
Some of Biden’s top aides learned this firsthand working for Clinton. Jake Sullivan, a top policy aide to Clinton in 2016, is now a senior adviser to Biden, along with Ron Klain, a former campaign adviser to Clinton who is now Biden’s top adviser on the coronavirus. Cristóbal Alex, who worked as deputy director of voter outreach and mobilization for Clinton, is now a senior adviser for Biden, and Rob Flaherty, Biden’s digital director, worked as Clinton’s director of digital rapid response.
“For the Biden campaign, if it is a critique people have been hearing all the time, you need to give your supporters a way to think about it,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a former top Clinton aide. She added that there needs to be a balance between “having enough of a response so that people know what to think about this and having enough offense to not allow it to drive your campaign.”
Palmieri added: “You have to be prepared for anything. He knows no shame, no boundaries and he is relentless.”
A top aide with Clinton’s 2016 campaign, who requested anonymity, said the operation had sophisticated tools to scan the Internet to pick up on trends and stories that were getting pick up outside of main media outlets.
“We just didn’t do much about it,” the former aide said. “Paying attention to that and actually actively addressing it is important.”
Biden’s team has been considering this dynamic already, with Bates and other top aides forcefully responding to Trump’s unfounded attacks without fighting the entire campaign on Trump’s terms.
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“We’ll call out his discredited smears for what they are – desperate lies – and then immediately segue to… his coronavirus failures,” Bates said. “Trump has not evolved. In 2016, he disrupted the way US politics operates. … But his playbook has been static. And that’s how your tactics become tired and obsolete.”
Much of that pushback is being driven by Biden aides and surrogates, however, not the candidate himself. Biden who has largely struggled to get anywhere near the same kind of media attention that Trump earns during the coronavirus. To some Democrats, that isn’t a bad thing – Trump is getting mostly negative media attention and has been unable to control the coronavirus story like others he has dominated in the past.
But former Clinton aides worried that Biden is avoiding the media, too much, something that the former Secretary of State also did throughout the 2016 campaign.
“I don’t think it would be crazy if he were doing socially distanced press conferences regularly to create some action,” said a longtime Clinton adviser, who said that was a “lesson learned” from 2016. “She should have been out there two to three times as much as she was. And it was a mistake.”
Hypotheticals vs. evidence
The calculation for the Biden campaign is also markedly different than it was for Clinton.
Clinton tried throughout her campaign to convince voters of what Trump would be like as president. In a June 2016 speech in San Diego, Clinton eviscerated Trump’s national security credentials, warning that he was “temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility.”
And in an August 2016 speech in Reno, Nevada, Clinton said Trump would elevate “fringe” elements of the Republican Party as president.
“He’s taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party,” Clinton said. “His disregard for the values that make our country great is profoundly dangerous.”
Clinton, only dealing in hypotheticals at this point, was unable to convince enough swing voters that the warnings she was raising could soon become reality. More than three years into Trump’s presidency, Biden is in a much stronger position, able to point back to back up his arguments with real-life examples from the President’s first term.
“The dynamic with (Trump) has fundamentally changed,” said Jesse Ferguson, a longtime Democratic operative and spokesman on Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “He has gone from a laugh line on the comedy shows to a clear and present danger in people’s lives. It is gone from reality show to reality.”
Ferguson said it was particularly hard for the campaign to “prove a hypothetical to people.” The Clinton campaign, he said, would often hear from swing voter focus groups that while they did worry about Trump’s temperament, they would add that they felt he would “surround himself with smart advisers” or “not be that bad if he actually wins.”
“We were trying to prosecute an indictment before the evidence was clear,” Ferguson said. “And now the evidence if before people each night.”