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A Democrat facing questions about alleged buckraking abroad. The specter of possible foreign interference. And a Republican standard-bearer eager to use any argument or insinuation to tag his opponent as part of a corrupted system.
Three years ago, Donald J. Trump cast Hillary Clinton as a symbol of Washington self-dealing and corruption, attacking her family foundation for raising money abroad and her use of a private email server.
Now, the president is trying to cast Joe Biden in the role of Mrs. Clinton.
Over the weekend, Mr. Trump’s team launched a full-scale assault on Mr. Biden, with top cabinet officials taking to the Sunday talk shows to push for greater scrutiny of Mr. Biden and his son, Hunter, who did business in Ukraine while his father was vice president.
Of course, there are key differences between 2016 and today: Mr. Trump is now president, making the allegations that he mixed the country’s foreign policy with his political operations truly extraordinary — and maybe even the basis for impeachment.
But whatever happens on Capitol Hill, the situation still leaves Mr. Biden in risky political territory.
So far, there’s been no evidence that Mr. Biden used his position as vice president to help Hunter Biden lobby in Ukraine.
But the image of his son making as much as $50,000 per month from a Ukrainian energy company while his father was the Obama administration’s point person on the country creates potential headaches for the Biden campaign — particularly at a time when populism is ascendant in both parties.
The reality is, any insinuation about Mr. Biden — even those without facts or evidence — could serve the president’s political purposes.
“Trump’s basic argument is we live in a world where nothing is on the level, everybody is self-interested, nobody is better than him and everybody plays the same dirty game,” said David Axelrod, who led Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.
Such insinuations could also hurt Mr. Biden in the Democratic primary race, raising questions about the core of his campaign message: that he is the candidate best able to beat Mr. Trump.
That’s the message Mr. Biden embraced in Iowa this weekend, saying Mr. Trump is going after him because “he knows I’ll beat him like a drum.” He said he had never discussed Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine with his son, growing irate as he pointed a finger into a reporter’s chest and demanded, “Ask the right question.”
His Democratic rivals also declined to dive into specific questions about his family. They may not need to go there: Senator Bernie Sanders was able to weaken Mrs. Clinton in the 2016 primary by casting her as part of a “broken political system,” without ever hammering the specifics all that forcefully.
Mr. Trump’s attacks could still redound to Mr. Biden’s benefit, if voters see them as unfair. But the risk remains that his rivals — perhaps Mr. Sanders or Senator Elizabeth Warren — could reap even greater benefits from another unstated contrast.
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Aboard the Buttigieg bus
Reid J. Epstein, a New York Times political reporter and my Iowa car pool pal, sends this dispatch from the first day of Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s bus tour across the Hawkeye State.
His campaign bus rolling into Waterloo, Iowa, Pete Buttigieg pondered yet another theoretical question: What other jobs would he like other than being president? Would he like to be an ambassador or a cabinet secretary?
The South Bend, Ind., mayor offered the following thoughts:
“It would be nice to write for a living.”
“I enjoyed being a military officer.”
“If I were a truck driver, I could take advantage of the fact that you can listen to a lot of content and learn languages and talk to people and also be doing your job.”
“I think I’d be pretty good at customer service.”
“I always wanted to be an astronaut.”
Mr. Buttigieg’s four-day, eight-stop bus tour is, like so much of the Buttigieg campaign, built around the idea of presenting him as a fresh face to a screen-obsessed electorate in a confused era of politics. To the news media, his trip was pitched as a Twitter-age version of the Straight Talk Express, the rolling and rambling no-holds-barred 2000 campaign bus that cemented John McCain’s reputation as, well, a straight talker. Mr. McCain, back then, half-joked that the media was “my base.”
While Mr. McCain reveled in jousting with reporters on his bus, Mr. Buttigieg prefers more of a professorial style, especially when he’s not keen to answer the question. “Pass,” Mr. Buttigieg said, when asked whom he’d support for president if he wasn’t running himself.
Not much news was made, and few new insights were revealed beyond how many white dress shirts he owns (“a baker’s dozen”) and where he buys them (Suit Supply). He ate a cheeseburger, slurped an Oreo Blizzard from Dairy Queen and pronounced himself against banning plastic straws.
In an era where voters perceive so much of politics as prepackaged and fake, this was a trip aimed at driving headlines about Mr. Buttigieg as authentic and real. The point wasn’t to make new news. It was just to be in the news.
We now know more about the November debate
The Democratic National Committee just announced the qualification requirements for the fifth presidential primary debate, which will be held in November. Candidates will need to have at least 165,000 donors, in addition to meeting one of two polling thresholds: at least 3 percent support in four polls by approved organizations, or at least 5 percent support in two polls of early-voting states.
Of the 11 candidates who have qualified for the October debate (which has lower thresholds), 10 have already met the new donor requirement. The only one who hasn’t is Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. But some of them may fall short of the new polling requirement.
— Maggie Astor
Join us this Friday in Austin
We’re going on the road for Politics Live with The New York Times. Get your tickets now!
Join us for an evening devoted to understanding this historic campaign, and understanding how to enjoy yourself as you follow along.
You’ll hear from New York Times political reporters Jennifer Medina, Matt Flegenheimer, Katie Glueck and Astead Herndon about the state of the race. And Kim Severson, a Southern-based correspondent who covers the nation’s food culture, and national political correspondent Jonathan Martin will discuss two very important things that often go together: food and politics. Hosted by deputy politics editor Rachel Dry at the 2019 Texas Tribune Festival.
Friday, Sept. 27, 7 p.m., Stateside at the Paramount, 719 Congress Avenue, Austin, Tex.
What to read tonight
“André deserved better.”
The Emmys confused a dead conductor for one who is very much still alive.
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