The Trump impeachment inquiry has consumed media attention in recent days, but how will the story affect the Democratic presidential primary? While many experts assume it will hurt Joe Biden by spotlighting unfounded allegations by Donald Trump that Biden improperly used his position as vice president to bully Ukraine into helping his son, Thomas Gift argues that the actual impact could be the opposite; by showering attention on Biden and making the storyline a head-to-head conflict between the President and former Vice President Biden, it could —in effect—make the 2020 election a two-way race before any primary votes are cast.
Donald Trump’s July 25th phone conversation with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky – where he suggested that the President investigate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter – was problematic for many reasons. By pressing a foreign leader to investigate a political adversary, he’s broken presidential norms, comprised US national security, and may have even violated the law.
Trump, however, also stepped into a giant puddle of political mud. He finally pushed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats to say enough is enough. An impeachment inquiry will distract from the White House’s policy agenda and consume its attention between now and the next election.
But that might not be Trump’s biggest worry.
Trump hoped to use his call with Zelensky to undermine his most serious challenger in 2020, Joe Biden. Ironically, however, Trump may doing more than anyone to give Biden a boost—and ensure that he now faces the former vice president in his bid to regain the Oval Office. With Republicans controlling the Senate and shielding Trump from losing his job, impeachment won’t be the president’s undoing. But helping Biden to earn the Democratic nomination—by spotlighting the former VP and showing just how much Trump fears him—could be.
This isn’t the conventional wisdom. Many pundits surmise that the impeachment inquiry could be almost as bad for Biden as for Trump. Here’s the concern: While there’s no credence to charges that Biden bullied Ukraine to help his son, Trump’s mere suggestion of it could raise eyebrows. For example, former Speaker of the House and noted Republican Newt Gingrich has opined, “I think what Pelosi’s done is destroyed Biden’s candidacy…I don’t think that Joe Biden can survive it.”
Alexander Burns and Katie Glueck of the New York Times have argued that, with impeachment on the table, “Mr. Biden now faces a crucial political test where his standing may hinge on how he handles a wildly unpredictable confrontation with Mr. Trump.”
Seth Barron of the conservative City Journal magazine has even floated the idea that an impeachment inquiry is an inside-job by a cadre of Democratic Party elites—one aimed not just at damaging Trump, but Biden, as well. “It is certain [emphasis added] that an investigation into Trump’s conversation with Zelensky will injure Joe Biden,” he says. “Opening an investigation—nominally against Trump—… will force Joe Biden to exit the race sooner than later.” That seems far-fetched. In fact, the more likely outcome of Trump scapegoating Biden to distract from impeachment? To solidify Biden as the Democratic front-runner.
In his call with Zelensky, Trump took a huge gamble to undercut the former VP because he knows Biden has the best chance of beating him. He’d never do that against any other rival. The move shows just how much Trump fears Biden, who already holds a healthy lead over him in most polls. As Trump knows, a Biden nomination would seriously hurt the president’s odds of winning key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.
Over the coming weeks, the impeachment inquiry into Trump will keep the focus on Biden. All press isn’t good press—but it is for Biden here. By trying to sling mud onto the former Vice President, Trump only reinforces the 2020 presidential election as a fight between two heavyweights. That’s enough to blunt the momentum of other Democratic candidates.
The result? The 2020 Race for the White House may become a two-way contest well before the Iowa caucuses ever get underway.
This isn’t to say that the Trump impeachment inquiry poses no political landmines for Biden. If Trump’s unfounded allegations against Biden gain even a bit of traction, it could hurt him in the general election. With the Trump campaign pledging to spend $10 million in advertisements aimed at criticizing Biden over Ukraine, this concern is real.
Yet as far as the primaries go, it’s unlikely that Democratic voters will be swayed by Trump’s misleading accusations. As a result, all eyes will be on Biden—and on the pending Trump vs. Biden showdown. For a candidate who wants to be seen as the clear frontrunner, and whose case for the Democratic nomination rests mostly on electability, that only plays into Biden’s hands.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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About the author
Thomas Gift – University College London
Thomas Gift is a Lecturer of Political Science at UCL, where he teaches on Public Policy Economics and Analysis and is the Director of the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) Programme. He is also a Visiting Fellow at the LSE US Centre.