There are two ways to bludgeon President Donald Trump - one is to go after his character and behavior, the other is to skewer his inept and counterproductive policies. When both he and Joe Biden were in Iowa on Tuesday, the former vice president did both - quite effectively.
Trump's biggest foreign policy campaign promise (other than backing out of the Iran nuclear deal) was to take on China and protect American workers. Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2020, went right after Trump's counterproductive policy. As he does so well, Biden laid into Trump for being indifferent to the average guy. "America's farmers have been crushed by his tariff war with China. No one knows that better than Iowa," Biden said. "He thinks he's being tough. Well, it's easy to be tough when someone else is feeling the pain." He continued, "How many farmers across this state and across this nation have had to face the prospect of losing their business, of losing their farm because of Trump's tariffs? How many have had to stare at the ceiling at night wondering how they're going to make it? How many sleepless nights do you think Trump has had over what he's doing to America's farmers?" He then answered his own question: "Just as many as he had when he stiffed the construction workers and electricians and plumbers who built his hotels and casinos. Zero."
Biden knows that trade and China are important to the president's base, and so he goes for the jugular, threatening Trump's grip on rural voters. But Biden also played some defense, following an earlier comment he had made to the effect that China was no competition for the United States. "We are in a competition with China. We need to get tough with China," Biden argued. "They are a serious challenge to us, and in some areas a real threat."
Biden then turned Trump's tough-guy routine into a liability. "Every single step that Donald Trump is taking is only exacerbating the challenge. While Trump is tweeting, China is making massive investments in technologies of the future. While Trump is name-calling, China is building roads, bridges, and high-speed rail. While Trump is pursuing a damaging and erratic trade war, without any real strategy, China is positioning itself to lead the world in renewable energy.While Trump is attacking our friends, China is pressing its advantage all over the world." In other words, Trump's unhinged, narcissistic behavior and total ignorance hurts the United States. He's not up for the job.
Biden then offered his own plan, one designed to get at the problem rather than rile up low-information voters. "First, let's invest in ourselves - that's why I've proposed a historic initiative in scientific research, cutting-edge infrastructure, and a modern workforce that will help American workers and entrepreneurs compete and win," he explained. "Second, let's build a united front of allies to challenge China's abusive behavior. Trump is attacking the very partners we need with us to deal with China. We need to rally more than half the world's economy to hold China to account for their cheating. And get a chorus of voices speaking out on China's repression." He also argued that Trump has gone weak on cybertheft.
In short, it's satisfying to attack Trump for being a blowhard, an ignoramus and a liar, but it is effective in reaching voters who know he is all those things to show how those traits contribute to rotten policies and pain for Americans. Trump's rants denying climate change would be "just another rich guy sitting in his gold-plated apartment in Manhattan tweeting about how those pointy-headed scientists don't know anything," Biden said. However, when his conspiratorial theories and willful ignorance result in bad policy choices (e.g., pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, trying to "put a muzzle on a State Department analyst to prevent him from discussing climate science in testimony to Congress," denigrating renewable energy), he poses a threat to Americans' security and prosperity.
Biden has the four successful elements of an attack on Trump: Mock him; point out his indifference to average Americans' troubles; show how Trump's ill-conceived policies hurt voters; and then lay out common-sense alternatives that Trump is incapable of adopting. If Biden gets through the primary, it'll be quite something to see him on the debate stage with Trump.
Jennifer Rubin wrote this for The Washington Post.