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For Biden, another Trump nomination presents opportunity — and big risks

Written by The Anand Market

Updated on:

To be clear, no one in President Biden’s White House will ever support Donald J. Trump. To a person, they consider her an existential threat to the nation. But as they watched Mr. Trump open the race for the Republican presidential nomination by rampaging through Iowa, they also saw something else: a path to a second term.

They say Mr. Biden’s best chance of winning re-election in the fall is a rematch against Mr. Trump. The former president is so toxic, so polarizing, that his presence on the November ballot, as Mr. Biden’s advisers see it, would be the most powerful incentive possible to lure disaffected Democrats and independents into the contested president’s camp by elections.

So some Democrats felt a little torn this week as the Republican race got underway. None of them would cry if Mr. Trump were unseated by someone like former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, who has a chance in New Hampshire next week to make it a race. Whatever Ms. Haley’s flaws, and Democrats see many, they don’t believe she would pose the same danger to democracy as Mr. Trump.

But if she wins the Republican nomination, she could pose a greater danger to Mr. Biden.

The paradox is reminiscent of 2016, when many Democrats were not upset when Mr. Trump won the Republican nomination, based on the theory that the country would never elect an arrogant, specialized reality TV star in racist calls and political insults. Burned once, they’re not so sure this time, but Democrats are banking on hope that the country won’t take back a defeated president who inspired a violent mob to help him retain power and was accused of more crimes than Al Capone.

“I wasn’t one of those Democrats who thought Trump would be easier to beat in 2016,” said Jennifer Palmieri, Hillary Clinton’s communications director in the election she lost to Mr. Trump. “Some Democrats support Trump. I think it’s better for the country” if he “is defeated within the Republican Party and doesn’t continue to get stronger.” If Mr. Trump lost, she added, she thought Biden could defeat Ms. Haley or Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

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But maybe it’s not that simple. Ms. Haley would be vulnerable to attacks from Democrats for allowing Mr. Trump to become her ambassador to the United Nations, and even as a Republican presidential candidate who has largely refused to attack the former president and would not rule out vote for him if he won the election. nomination.

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Some Democrats agree that Nikki Haley would be harder to defeat than Mr. Trump, but express far fewer fears about her victory.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

However, it may not be as radioactive among undecided voters. And unlike Mr. Trump, who is 77, Ms. Haley, at 51, would have an easier time making a generational case against Mr. Biden, 81, who most Democratic voters say is too old for another termaccording to polls.

A CBS News investigation released Sunday indicated that Ms. Haley was a stronger potential challenger to Mr. Biden than Mr. Trump at this point in the race. She held an eight-point advantage over the incumbent president in a hypothetical matchup, 53% to 45%, while Mr. DeSantis had a three-point lead over Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump a two-point advantage.

As far as public opinion is concerned, at least, Democrats are sticking to the “we’ll beat anyone” line, and the Democratic National Committee has begun laying the groundwork by regularly attacking it and other alternatives Republicans to Mr. Trump, since the 2022 midterm elections. Privately, however, some Democrats agree that Ms. Haley would be harder to defeat, but express far less fear about her victory than Mr. Trump, who talked about being a dictator for 24 hours and using his power to exact retaliation against his enemies. .

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“Most Democrats I know are frankly terrified of another Trump presidency and that’s why you’ve seen President Biden and his team repeatedly emphasize how dangerous a second Trump term would be ” said Lis Smith, senior adviser to Pete Buttigieg during the press conference. the 2020 Democratic primary campaign. “Haley may be doing better in the polls now, but her numbers will come back to reality as voters learn more about her positions and her widespread support for the Republican Party’s most unpopular policies.”

Democrats have already tried to determine which Republican candidates might be easier to beat in the fall, an exercise pitting pragmatism against principle. In 2022, some Democrats promoted far-right allies of Mr. Trump in Republican Party primaries, believing they would be easier to defeat in a general election, even though they had criticized those candidates as dangerous for democracy.

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Ms. Haley, at 51, would have an easier time making a generational case against Mr. Biden, 81, than Mr. Trump, who is 77. Credit…Cheriss May for the New York Times

Democrats will not repeat this kind of intervention at the presidential level this year. “If anyone supports Trump, that’s crazy,” said Faiz Shakir, senior adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic socialist from Vermont who ran for president in 2016 and 2020. “Be careful what you want. He is undoubtedly generating enthusiasm among the electorate, which makes concerns about Biden’s turnout critical.”

Tim Miller, a former Republican strategist who has become one of his party’s most vocal opponents of Mr. Trump, said Democrats should not fool themselves into thinking they won’t face him again. “Democratic strategists and journalists can play parlor games about the GOP process all they want, but the only meaningful question for Democrats is how to run a campaign against the dangerous candidate their opponents are grooming to be designated,” he said.

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Unlike in 2016, Democrats can hardly say they didn’t see Mr. Trump coming. “Team Clinton failed to understand that a left or right populist movement, based primarily on vague facts, grievances and white nationalism, would not be corrected simply at the ballot box,” said Donna Brazile, who headed the Democratic National Committee that year. “But it’s different,” she added. The movement has transformed “into a great culture war with only two camps: you are either for Trump or you are against him. There’s no middle ground.”

Mr. Biden has acted as if he fully expected to face Mr. Trump again and has made clear that he is motivated by a singular desire to once again defeat his 2020 opponent. He recently told reporters that he might not have sought a second term if Mr. Trump had not attempted a comeback.

But Mr. Biden also went after Ms. Haley, as he did during a speech last week in his home state of South Carolina when he mocked her for initially refusing to say that slavery was the cause of the Civil War when asked at one point. of his public campaign meetings.

Mo Elleithee, a former Democratic strategist now executive director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, said it would be foolish to try to predict which Republican would be best for Democrats. “The polarization of our politics means things will be close no matter what,” he said. “Stop trying to figure out who you want to campaign against and start focusing on who you’re campaigning for. The stakes will be high no matter what.