Trump advisers call Sanders their 'ideal opponent.' Are they trying to psych out the Democrats?


Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 19 days until the Iowa caucuses and 293 days until the 2020 election.

According to Democratic National Committee guidelines, the party’s next presidential nominee will be chosen over the next several months by tens of millions of primary voters and caucus-goers in every U.S. state and territory. As a rule, Republicans don’t get a vote.

But apparently that won’t stop Donald Trump from trying to influence the process.

While the top six Democrats debated Tuesday night in Des Moines, the president strayed from his stump speech at a Milwaukee rally to weigh in on the opposing side’s latest internal conflict: whether Bernie Sanders had once told Elizabeth Warren a woman couldn’t win the 2020 election.

Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a climate rally in Iowa City, Iowa, Jan. 12, 2020. (Photo: Scott Morgan/Reuters)

“I don’t believe that he said this,” Trump opined.

Lest anyone think, however, that the president was rushing to Sanders’s defense out of affection, Trump quickly added, “I don’t particularly like him. He’s a nasty guy.”

So why bother? In one sense, Trump probably can’t help himself. As someone who has always thrived on controversy and attention, he tends to want a piece of whatever controversy is currently attracting the most attention. In 2012, it was Kristen Stewart’s painful breakup with Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson. Yesterday it was Warren vs. Sanders. Tomorrow it will be something else.

Yet a new report in the New York Times suggests that there may also be some method to Trump’s meddling. According to reporters Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni, “President Trump’s advisers see Senator Bernie Sanders as their ideal Democratic opponent in November and have been doing what they can to elevate his profile and bolster his chances of winning the Iowa caucuses,” primarily by “attacking him” in order to “excite his base and draw attention away from other Democrats.”

Donald Trump
President Trump at a Milwaukee campaign rally on Tuesday. (Photo: Jeffrey Phelps/AP)

This is hardly the first time Trump has shown interest in defining his 2020 opponent. He has, for instance, been calling Warren “Pocahontas” (or, as he put it in his latest tweet on the subject, “Pocahontus”) for years; his off-color campaign to depict her as dishonest for claiming Native American ancestry tends to wax and wane with her position in the polls. When Pete Buttigieg first emerged as a contender, Trump compared him to “Alfred E. Neuman,” Mad magazine’s gap-toothed midcentury mascot; lately he’s been mocking the former South Bend, Ind., mayor’s height and claiming he “dreams” about facing Buttigieg in 2020.

And, lest we forget, Trump just got impeached for pressuring a foreign power to dig up dirt on front-runner Joe Biden, who has in turn used Trump’s attention to argue both on the debate stage and in a new digital ad that the president “knows Biden will beat him in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — the states we need to take back the presidency.”

“Look, I’ve been the object of Donald Trump’s affection now more than anyone else,” Biden said Tuesday in Des Moines. “I’ve taken all the hits he’s delivered, and I’m only getting stronger in the polls.”

Will Sanders soon be able to claim a similar distinction? It’s impossible to say how much of Trump’s new obsession is about novelty (Sanders’s poll numbers have been improving) and how much is about strategy. Likewise, no one can tell whether “Trump’s advisers” actually consider Sanders “their ideal Democratic opponent in November” or whether they’re just telling the Times that because they’d prefer not to run against him and want to trick Democrats into nominating someone else. And it’s not even clear whether Trump and his team see eye to eye here: According to the Times, Trump “believes he is actually hurting Mr. Sanders” while his advisers “find utility in trying to elevate” him.

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders greets supporters after a campaign stop in Davenport, Iowa. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

In this, at least, Republicans appear to be in the same boat as Democrats: totally confused about who has the best chance of winning on Election Day. On the one hand, the Times reports that Trump allies believe Sanders could help “solve Mr. Trump’s problem with suburban voters in states like Virginia,” who are put off by Trump’s rhetoric and behavior but perhaps more afraid of a self-described democratic socialist. On the other hand, they also think Sanders “might be more durable in the Rust Belt states like Michigan and Wisconsin” because “in their voter research Mr. Sanders registers with his own supporters as authentic — the same quality that Mr. Trump’s base ascribed to the president in 2016.” In response, “Mr. Trump’s advisers are discussing rolling out policies to counter Mr. Sanders’s populist appeal” — which doesn’t sound like something you do when you’re dying to run against someone. (For the record, Sanders has led Trump in nearly every head-to-head national poll conducted since the 2016 election.)

And so, unable to figure out who represents the greatest threat, Trump & Co. may also come to resemble Democrats in their indecision — flitting from one potential challenger to the next as poll numbers rise and fall and news cycles come and go. As if to prove this point, Trump has even been trolling California billionaire Tom Steyer in recent days. The president, ever the counterpuncher, is desperate for an enemy. Democrats are desperate for a hero. Both sides will keep flailing until they find one.

For his part, though, Sanders shows no signs of wavering.

“Wow! Crazy Bernie Sanders is surging in the polls, looking very good against his opponents in the Do Nothing Party,” Trump tweeted Sunday after a Des Moines Register poll showed Sanders leading in the state. “So what does this all mean? Stay tuned!”

“It means you’re going to lose,” Sanders tweeted in response.

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