My colleague Peter Beinart made the case last week that Trump has come out ahead. The president calculated early on that Biden was his most formidable opponent—the one best prepared to eat into the coalition of voters that Trump had assembled in 2016—and set out to weaken him. Trump was trying to replicate the trick that Barack Obama played in 2012, laying the groundwork to define Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat while Romney was still toiling in a fierce Republican primary. That gave Obama a head start on the general election, and he never let Romney catch up.
Trump’s gambit worked, even without any actual evidence. Biden’s central argument in the primary was that he was the most electable candidate, but the specter of Trump once again smearing the Democratic nominee—But Her Emails 2: Electric Boogaloo—scared voters off. Biden’s bid now seems to be crumbling, leaving in his wake a disorganized Democratic Party and flawed potential candidates.
Perhaps that is right. Biden has done a poor job of responding to questions about Hunter Biden’s work on the board of the Ukrainian natural-gas company Burisma. The former vice president long bristled at questions or simply refused to answer them, and when he did, his answers were unsatisfying.
But this view is speculative and debatable. It’s plausible that Trump has placed his chips on knocking Biden out, not realizing that Biden was never the major challenge he appeared. Now that Biden is fading—for reasons that have little to do with Trump—what if the president embarked on a quixotic quest and ended up with nothing to show for it but the stain of impeachment?
Trump’s fear of Biden may have helped him seem like a stronger contender than he really was. Many head-to-head polls show Biden performing better against Trump than his Democratic rivals, but such polls are unreliable this far out. Besides, none of that matters if you can’t win the primary, and Biden’s weaknesses there were apparent long ago. Veterans of the Obama administration warned him off running four years ago—when he was four years younger and the Obama legacy was fresher. Pundits pointed out that his past bids for president had been shaky and come up well short. When the predicted collapse didn’t come early on, that conventional wisdom dissolved—but perhaps it was right, only premature.
Quantifying what hurt Biden is tough. Few recent polls have asked Democrats for their views on Ukraine, and although there’s anecdotal evidence that some voters are worried about how Trump might attack Biden over it, there’s anecdotal evidence of all sorts of concerns that voters have about Biden, from his policies to his mental and physical acuity. Biden’s Democratic rivals have assiduously avoided bringing up the subject of Hunter Biden—wary of being seen as carrying Trump’s water, though it may have deprived Joe Biden of a chance to defuse the issue—making it a bit of a lacuna in the campaign. Ukraine didn’t help Biden, but there’s little to suggest it sank him.