Biden Thinks Trump Is the Problem, Not All Republicans. Other Democrats Disagree.
DUBUQUE, Iowa — As Joseph R. Biden Jr. made his way across Iowa on his first trip as a 2020 presidential candidate, the former vice president repeatedly returned to one term — aberration — when he referred to the Trump presidency.
“Limit it to four years,” Mr. Biden pleaded with a ballroom crowd of 600 in the eastern Iowa city of Dubuque. “History will treat this administration’s time as an aberration.”
“This is not the Republican Party,” he added, citing his relationships with “my Republican friends in the House and Senate.”
There is no disagreement among Democrats about the urgency of defeating Mr. Trump. But Mr. Biden’s singular focus on the president as the source of the nation’s ills, while extending an olive branch to Republicans, has exposed a significant fault line in the Democratic primary.
Democrats, like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, see the president as a symptom of something deeper, both in a Republican Party overtaken by Trumpism and a nation cleaved by partisanship. Simply ousting Mr. Trump, they tell voters, is not enough.
It’s a debate that goes beyond the policy differences separating a moderate like Mr. Biden from an insurgent like Mr. Sanders, elevating questions about whether the old rules of inside-the-Beltway governance still apply. And it has thrown into stark relief one of the fundamental questions facing the Democratic electorate: Do Democrats want a bipartisan deal-maker promising a return to normalcy, or a partisan warrior offering more transformative change?
Since winning the Republican nomination almost three years ago, Mr. Trump has tightened his grip on the party, installing loyalists in key positions and commanding fealty from Republican candidates as some of his loudest Republican critics retired rather than face electoral defeat. Most important, many Republicans in Congress have voted almost in lock step with the president, even as he has cast aside longstanding party orthodoxies, such as free trade, and sought to exert his will on traditionally nonpartisan institutions like the Federal Reserve and the Justice Department.
Just this past week, Democrats raised alarms about Attorney General William P. Barr’s unyielding defense of the president in a Senate hearing on the Mueller report, where Mr. Barr adopted some of Mr. Trump’s talking points on the Russia investigation.
“Make no mistake about it, this struggle is not just about defeating Donald Trump,” Mr. Sanders declared in his own kickoff speech in Brooklyn. “This struggle is about taking on the incredibly powerful institutions that control the economic and political life of this country.”
After more than 40 years in Washington, Mr. Biden has forged more and deeper relationships with Republicans than any other Democrat running. In the Obama White House, he was known as the “McConnell whisperer” for his skills in striking agreements with the often recalcitrant Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. Mr. Biden spent decades cutting deals in the Senate.
Mr. Biden’s opening pitch as an electable pragmatist who can reach across the aisle has resonated with many Iowa Democrats who are desperate to end Mr. Trump’s presidency.
“I just want to see decency again,” sighed Jimmy Stumpff, who wore a “Make Lies Wrong Again” shirt to Mr. Biden’s event in Cedar Rapids this past week. “I feel Biden’s our best chance to beat Trump — by far.”
John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster who has previously advised Mr. Biden, said it should be no surprise that bipartisan appeals sell, even in a party primary. “Guess what,” he said. “Democratic primary voters agree with the fact that a Democratic president should work with Republicans to get things done.”
“There is this narrative about Democratic primary voters that they’re all about anger and the fight, or principles,” Mr. Anzalone added. “But real voters know one thing: If anything is going to get done to help them, it’ll have to be done across party lines.”
On the trail, Mr. Biden has made no secret that he plans to narrow the focus to a Trump-Biden matchup. From his campaign’s opening video montage, he has purposefully targeted Mr. Trump while ignoring the wider Republican Party and his own Democratic rivals, a strategy that allows him to project himself as the front-runner and direct attention to his perceived electability.
It seemed no accident that Mr. Biden quickly took his deal-making case from the swing state of Pennsylvania to Dubuque County, which flipped from the Democratic column to Mr. Trump in 2016, and sits in the middle of the densest stretch of counties in the nation that made the same shift to Mr. Trump.
Yet many on the left believe that Mr. Biden’s nostalgia for a bygone era of comity, compromise and civility — while appealing — is misplaced, or even naïve. They question whether historic pragmatism can even be considered pragmatic anymore in an era of norm-busting hyperpartisanship.
“Joe Biden knows better,” said Brian Fallon, a former top spokesman for Hillary Clinton and Senator Chuck Schumer, “because Joe Biden was the wingman for Barack Obama, who in his first year in his presidency had Mitch McConnell say his No. 1 objective was that Barack Obama wasn’t re-elected.”
Mr. Fallon acknowledged the political temptation to be “less partisan sounding,” by condemning only Mr. Trump in an attempt to appeal to disaffected Republicans. “I’m not saying a candidate needs to go around preaching doom and gloom,” he said. “But for the good of the country — beyond the short-term political calculus — we need someone who is cleareyed about the situation they will be inheriting if they win the White House.”
Some Democratic strategists point to Mayor Pete Buttigieg as a candidate who grasps the challenges to bipartisan deal-making. While he has offered rhetorical gestures to Republicans — casting himself as a consensus-seeking executive in a red state, Indiana — he has embraced more radical ideas that would help Democrats bypass the opposition party, such as eliminating the filibuster and stacking the Supreme Court with additional justices.
It took Ms. Warren only two days after the 2016 election to cast Mr. Trump as an outgrowth of an electorate demanding change. “The final results may have divided us — but the entire electorate embraced deep, fundamental reform of our economic system and our political system,” she said then.
Mr. Biden’s graciousness toward Republicans has gotten him into trouble with Democrats who see him as overly solicitous to an intransigent party. Last year, he gave a paid speech in Michigan in which he praised an endangered Republican congressman only weeks before the election. His remarks were spliced into ads for the Republican candidate, who narrowly won re-election.
More recently, he said his successor, Vice President Mike Pence, was a “decent guy,” prompting criticism that forced him to backtrack and say that “there is nothing decent about being anti-L.G.B.T.Q. rights.”
This week, his critics unearthed a 2015 video clip of Mr. Biden praising his own predecessor, Dick Cheney — “I think he’s a decent man,” Mr. Biden said. It drew widespread attention on social media, and condemnation from the left.
As Mr. Biden has elevated the urgency and centrality of defeating Mr. Trump, he has sought to play down the policy differences with his Democratic rivals.
“We agree on basically everything, all of us running — all 400 of us,” Mr. Biden said in Dubuque.
His Democratic rivals would disagree, however, and there are real ideological divides in the party.
Mr. Sanders, for instance, is the chief advocate of imposing a sweeping new Medicare-for-all health care system that would guarantee coverage and end the current system of private insurance. Mr. Biden is advocating a more incremental approach: adding a “public option” for anyone to buy into the current Medicare system, without unwinding the existing insurance marketplace.
Early polls show why Mr. Biden would want to elide any disagreements. Only 23 percent of Democrats said he had the “best policy ideas” in a recent poll by Quinnipiac University. But 56 percent of Democrats said he had the best chance of defeating Mr. Trump.
Some Democrats say the idea of trying to predict electability and casting Mr. Trump as an “aberration” was tried by Mrs. Clinton in 2016 — and it failed.
“I feel like the party went through this and the 2016 election showed that Trumpism isn’t just Donald Trump — it’s the entire Republican Congress, too,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive Democratic strategist unaligned in the 2020 contest. “Until there is someone in the Republican Party who can stand up to Trump, then none of them are better than Trump.”
Republicans aligned with Mr. Trump say that, whatever the president’s failings, he has overseen a growing economy, the appointment of a vast array of conservative judges and a huge tax cut. They note that they offer dissent when they disagree with his policies; Mr. Trump recently suffered setbacks on his desired nominations to the Federal Reserve, for example, because of Republican opposition.
In a 21-candidate Democratic field, Mr. Biden, of course, is not the only candidate running as a potential healer. Senator Cory Booker has described seeking “to channel our common pain into common purpose.” Senator Amy Klobuchar talks up her bipartisan credentials. And Senator Michael Bennet entered the race this past week making the case for moderation as a “pragmatic idealist.”
But Mr. Biden is, by far, the most prominent.
At an Iowa City brewery, as Anne Spencer considered whether she would support the former vice president, she wondered what ever happened to all of Mr. Trump’s Republican critics in 2016. “The ones who spoke out against him are now with him,” she said. “It just makes one question our system.”
“We hope,” she added of Mr. Trump, “he’s an aberration.”
A few minutes later, Mr. Biden was onstage plugging the need to work together. “We have to unify this country,” he said. “It’s not just about — the other side is not my enemy, it’s my opposition. And folks, we’ve got to take it on, we’ve got to take it on in a real way.”