Politics & Government

‘No centrist lane’ in Democratic primary, Trump campaign says

The battle for 2020: Possible Democratic presidential candidates

Following the results of the 2018 midterm elections, we take a look at the Democrats who could run for president in the 2020 election.
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Following the results of the 2018 midterm elections, we take a look at the Democrats who could run for president in the 2020 election.

President Donald Trump’s reelection strategy will cast the entire Democratic primary field as an “unprecedented lurch to the left,” with every candidate captive to the party’s extreme wing, two senior campaign officials told McClatchy.

The Trump team is already working to corner historically moderate Democrats in policy positions they believe are nonstarters in a general election, beginning with former Vice President Joe Biden, who formally entered the race on Thursday.

The strategy marks a new phase in the 2020 race. The president’s campaign plans to wade into the Democratic primary fight at opportune moments, tying more moderate candidates to policies they describe as socialist.

“The Green New Deal, Medicare for All – piece by piece they will all have to sign on to these proposals required of the wing of their party calling the shots,” one senior campaign official said. “They require purity of policy, purity of thought, purity of ideology.”

Trump campaign aides hope that candidates such as Biden, one of the Democratic Party’s most recognizable establishment figures, will be forced leftward by their peers and an invigorated progressive base over the course of a grueling 14-month fight for the nomination.

“You run as a centrist, you cannot win,” the campaign official added. “You can call yourself a moderate if you want to, but by the policies you’ll have to adopt you won’t be one.”

Biden plans to run as an “Obama-Biden Democrat,” casting himself as a pragmatic liberal, according to his aides. But the Trump campaign is already collecting material to present the elder statesman as radicalized, undercutting what they had viewed as his most potent asset: his reputation as a moderate.

It’s a long-game strategy characteristic of a traditional incumbent campaign. But even for a reelection campaign at this early stage, Trump’s aides are expressing exceptional zeal, confident that Democrats are headed toward a vicious internal battle over democratic socialism that will all but guarantee Trump’s victory.

“It doesn’t matter who comes out of the Democrat convention next year, because whoever it is will be beat up, broke, without a national operation, with a DNC that’s in debt, and saddled with all of the socialist policies they will have adopted in order to win the nomination,” Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, told McClatchy.

“There is no centrist lane in the Democrat primary, and Joe Biden admitted as much when he said he had the most ‘progressive’ record of anybody in the field, and claimed he had never been labeled a moderate in Delaware,” he said. “The entire Democrat field is hopelessly leftist, and that’s the kind of candidate who will emerge.”

When Julián Castro, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration and a declared candidate, said earlier this month that he supports the decriminalization of border crossing – a policy Republicans characterize as open borders – Trump’s team saw an opportunity to force a question on the rest of the field: “Do you agree with your buddy over here?”

That will be the tactic going forward, campaign staff said, brushing off reports that they are particularly concerned with one candidate over another.

“We view them as ideologically homogeneous,” a senior staffer said. “We know where the Democrats are going to end up, and we can begin painting that contrast now.”

But John Anzalone, a veteran Democratic pollster who is expected to advise Biden, pushed back against the Trump campaign’s message, arguing that Biden remained Trump’s most formidable threat.

“The good thing is that the Trump campaign doesn’t get to decide what the rules are for any Democratic candidate, and Joe Biden like anyone else is going to take a stand on issues on his own,” said Anzalone. “People throw around the term progressive– the fact is, he is a progressive with broad appeal. But you can be a progressive in this large field and not be in the far left of the party.”

Trump benefits from the traditional advantages of incumbency: He controls the country’s biggest bully pulpit from the White House and has more time to raise campaign funds that he can preserve for the general election fight. To that end, Trump’s reelection team began raising campaign dollars a full year before Barack Obama did during the 2012 race and has already net more than $129 million.

As with past incumbents, Trump has also synergized his campaign team with the national party. The Republican National Committee is sharing resources and staff with campaign headquarters, and its massive data operation, based on troves of consumer data, will provide the president with precision-guided tools to target voters.

It is a far cry from Trump’s first campaign, famously understaffed and dogged by infighting and short tenures. Trump’s staff and the national political environment are now entirely different, one campaign official said.

“I’ll tell you what’s the same – it’s Donald Trump,” he added. “Trump is the captain of the ship, he’s the campaign manager, he’s the communications director, he’s the finance director, he’s the political director. He has a team here in place to manage the day to day. But all the major decisions are his.”

The president’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, has so far succeeded in building a conventional campaign infrastructure that can mobilize what they claim to be an unprecedented number of volunteers across must-win states. They aim to recruit and train two million volunteers who can each contact 13 low-propensity or swing voters – 23 million to 26 million in total.

“They know who these people are,” a campaign official said, referencing the RNC’s extensive data operation. “They know their names, they know their voting history, they know what magazines they like, they know what websites they visit. It’s the voter file from the RNC and the data operation is unmatched – the DNC doesn’t have it.”

Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is the primary White House intermediary with the campaign and handpicked Parscale as campaign head. He has major policy initiatives of his own to pursue before the general election arrives, chief among them his long-awaited Middle East peace plan.

Parscale and Kushner speak daily, while Parscale speaks with the president weekly, “or whenever he calls,” one campaign official said.

The campaign believes it has a “long runway,” up until the Democratic national convention in July 2020, to recruit staff, volunteers and donors – a gift of time Trump’s staffers insist they will not waste. And White House aides also told McClatchy they see breathing room to strategize and put a few more wins on the board through a competitive Democratic primary schedule likely to last a full year.

Their moves on high-profile, highly contested subjects such as healthcare and immigration are inextricably tied to the president’s reelection hopes — the administration is expected to push legislation designed to highlight divisions within Democratic ranks in sync with congressional Republicans.

But the White House also considers the coming year an opportunity to conclude policy projects they have been pursuing since the beginning of the administration, unshackled from the weight of a special counsel investigation.

“There’s definitely a clock,” one senior administration official said. “But everyone here is comfortable with where we’re at. We have runway.”

“Ask me again in the fall,” the official added, “and I’ll probably have a different answer.”

Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.