John Kerry got “Swift Boated” in 2004. For Hillary Clinton in 2016, it was her “damn emails.” Remembering those failed Democratic presidential campaigns, Joe Biden is determined not to get “Ukrained” in 2020.
Since a whistleblower report last week revealed President Donald Trump asked Ukrainian officials to investigate Mr Biden, the former vice president has struck an aggressive tone.
He has told supporters he would beat Mr Trump “like a drum” in a general election and that the Republican president was scared of that possibility.
Mr Biden has demanded reporters “ask the right questions” and accused Mr Trump of trying to “hijack” the campaign with unfounded assertions Mr Biden and his son Hunter had corrupt dealings in Ukrainian business and politics.
Mr Biden has built his campaign around the idea he can return Washington to a more stable pre-Trump era. But Mr Biden’s ability to win will turn on his ability to navigate the turbulent, no-holds-barred vortex Mr Trump has imposed on American politics with his Twitter megaphone, deep well of campaign cash and phalanx of surrogates.
And while many Democratic strategists and Biden supporters give him plaudits for pushback, there remain some worries about how the storyline might affect Mr Biden’s tenuous front-runner status.
“It’s really a no-win situation,” said Karen Finney, an adviser to Mrs Clinton in 2016, when the former secretary of state was besieged with media scrutiny and criticism from Mr Trump over her use of a private email server when she ran the State Department.
Ms Finney credited the Biden campaign for “working the refs” by sending detailed memos to the media explaining the timeline of Hunter Biden’s service on a Ukrainian energy company board and Joe Biden’s involvement in Ukraine as vice president to establish that there were no conflicts. The campaign followed that by pressuring television executives not to give a platform to Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney.
Mr Giuliani has alleged Mr Biden, while vice president, tried to quash a Ukrainian investigation of the company that paid Hunter Biden as a board member. The top Ukrainian prosecutor said earlier this year that his team found no wrongdoing, and there is no evidence that US law enforcement has become involved.
“Why should Joe Biden be forced to defend himself against something that’s not true?” Ms Finney argued.
Mr Trump raised his theory in a July telephone conversation with the new Ukrainian president, asking Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens anew. That move, now the centre of a formal whistleblower complaint and the House impeachment inquiry, could be found to violate US law making it a crime to solicit or accept foreign contributions in an American election.
“This is about Donald Trump, not Joe Biden,” said Barry Goodman, a Michigan attorney and major Biden donor.
But a media cacophony can smother any argument, Ms Finney said, pointing back to Mrs Clinton and to Mr Kerry’s 2004 campaign. Mr Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran who’d earned a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for his service, was criticised in the summer of 2004 by a group of Vietnam veterans who — contrary to military records — questioned the service accounts that resulted in his recognition.
Mr Kerry was later admonished for not aggressively counterattacking the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” despite his campaign releasing his military records.
Ms Finney put the onus on the media “to not get sucked in” to Mr Trump’s narrative.
Mr Goodman, the Biden donor, said he was pleased with the campaign’s strategy. But he said there were other ways to stay on the attack — and not necessarily against Mr Trump. Mr Biden must also push back against Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, his chief progressive rivals for the Democratic nomination.
“Many Democrats are scared … of ‘Medicare for All’ and losing their private health insurance,” Mr Goodman said, referring to single-payer health insurance proposals from Senators Sanders and Warren.