Bernie-Hillary echoes seen in Biden-Sanders primary fight
When Joe Biden was asked last week at an Iowa town hall if he was running a better campaign than Hillary Clinton had in 2016, it highlighted a question on the minds of some Democrats: Is Biden this cycle’s Clinton?
The question is becoming more significant as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) gains traction.
Weeks away from the Iowa caucuses, Biden remains the front-runner with Sanders as his most compelling competitor.
While the much bigger field of candidates and strong campaigns from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg make the 2020 primary different than the one four years ago, Democrats are also seeing some parallels. And some would just as soon avoid them.
“No one wants deja vu. And the big fear is that it will be just that,” said one Democratic strategist who has worked on recent presidential campaigns but is uncommitted to a candidate in this cycle.
Biden, like Clinton in 2016, is seen as the safe candidate by a number of strategists, and the most likely to appeal to general election swing voters.
The former vice president “is going to be cast as the third iteration of an institutional-establishment candidate,” said Basil Smikle, a former aide to Clinton who also served as the executive director of the New York State Democratic Party.
Sanders and his supporters then and now argue Democrats would make a mistake by going safe and establishment over the candidate with grassroots energy.
Warren makes some similar arguments as Sanders and is battling for progressive support. Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have set themselves up as alternative centrist candidates to Biden.
“It’s so clear that Biden is our worst foot forward against Trump and he would ironically cede the outsider mantle to a corrupt incumbent president,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
Some Clinton supporters still carry grudges over the 2016 Sanders campaign, arguing he took too long to endorse her candidacy. Worries that 2020 could provide a rerun of that theme are becoming audible.
Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins wrote of the parallels in an opinion piece for The Hill last week.
“[Biden’s] supporters argue that his experience, combined with his appeal to both Democrats and Republicans, make him the safe choice in a general election,” he wrote.
“If all this sounds eerily familiar, it should. In many ways, his candidacy is a continuation of the campaign Hillary Clinton ran in 2016.”
To be sure, there are important differences between Biden and Clinton.
Clinton, a divisive figure in politics, was dogged throughout her campaign by the controversy surrounding her use of a private email server for official communication while serving as secretary of State.
Former FBI Director James Comey announced just more than a week before the election that he was looking at new emails from Clinton that were found on a computer used by former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), the subject of a different investigation. Clinton has blamed Comey’s public remarks for killing her campaign.
Clinton ended up dealing with Russian interference with her campaign, including the theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee that were selectively leaked out.
She also was seeking to break the last glass ceiling in American politics, and it is impossible to know how many voters decided against voting for her because of her gender.
Democratic strategist Brad Bannon pointed out that while Biden doesn’t have a controversy like Clinton’s emails, he does have to contend with the storyline about his son Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas company.
Trump has pounced on the issue, asking Ukraine to investigate his role on the board of the company as well as Joe Biden’s connection.
“To counter those attacks, the former vice president needs to be aboveboard about his own personal finances and go on the offensive about the shady financing of the shaky Trump financial empire which includes the president and his children,” Bannon said. “Biden will be able to give as good as he gets when it comes to wayward children.”
Biden and his allies and surrogates say there are clear differences between this year’s race and 2016.
During the town hall, Biden said one of the reasons Clinton lost was because of sexism. He called the attacks against her “unfair” but added “that’s not going to happen with me.”
A spokesman for Biden dismissed any parallels between the two candidates, refusing to engage on the subject on the record.
“These are my Star Wars rankings: The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, A New Hope, and Rogue One. Those are all of the movies in the franchise of which I’m aware,” the spokesman, Andrew Bates, wrote in an email.
An ally of Biden’s said the former vice president can still fire up a crowd and is a stronger campaigner than Clinton.
“He has instincts about connecting with activists that didn’t come naturally to Hillary. She was much more cautious. If there’s a Clinton he’s more often compared to it’s Bill not Hillary,” the ally said.
The Biden supporter also said motivation among Democrats to end Trump’s presidency makes for a different situation.
“Democrats will do anything to get rid of Trump,” the ally said. “In 2018, we saw that in record turnout everywhere. Everything Trump is doing only turbocharges that base for Democrats.”
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