ANALYSIS | Two very different speeches by two very different politicians Thursday — made 1,600 miles apart — provide a possible preview of the next presidential campaign.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, went first by feting his longtime friend Sen. John McCain at a memorial service for the late Arizona Republican in Phoenix. Biden spoke about “values, fairness, honesty, dignity, respect,” and McCain’s belief in “giving hate no safe harbor.”
Biden spent much of his eulogy lauding McCain’s willingness to work with Democrats and lamenting America’s us-versus-them tribal politics that in many ways Trump embodies.
“All we do today is attack the oppositions of both parties, their motives — not the substance of their argument,” he said. “This is the mid-’90s. It began to go downhill from there.”
“The last day John was on the Senate floor, what was he fighting to do? He was fighting to restore what you call ‘regular order,’” Biden said. “Just start to treat one another again like we used to.”
Listening to the former Delaware senator speak, it was easy to imagine him — should he opt to make his third run for the White House — talking about McCain on the campaign trail as part of a pitch to reject Trump’s brash style and slash-and-burn approach to politics.
“Bottom line was, I think John believed in us. I think he believed in the American people,” Biden said. “I think John’s legacy is going to continue to inspire and challenge generations of leaders as they step forward. ... John McCain’s America is not over. It’s not hyperbole, it’s not over. It’s not closed.”
Earlier in the day, Vice President Mike Pence started a speech at an American Legion conference in Minnesota with a tribute to McCain.
Trump started his rally in Evansville, Indiana, by bragging about his 2016 victory.
Biden was at the Phoenix church to talk about a Republican lawmaker.
Trump was in Indiana to talk about a Democratic one, vulnerable Sen. Joe Donnelly. The contrasts in their remarks and styles were crystal clear.
Later in Evansville: “He says open up those borders, get them in,” Trump said of Donnelly and migrants. “Donnelly also voted for liberal Obama judges who want to take away your Second Amendment and lots of other things.”
Trump called Donnelly “the worst” and least-effective senator, citing a Center for Effective Lawmaking study. “I have to tell you if that’s what you want representing Indiana, you can have it,” the president said, dismissively tossing the printed article onto the stage. “A vote for … Sleepy Joe is a vote for Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and, who else, Maxine Waters,” he said, referring to the Senate and House Democratic leaders as well as the California Democratic congresswoman with whom he has a running feud.
The tribal era of American politics began before Trump’s emergence as the GOP frontrunner during the 2016 campaign. The former New York real estate tycoon and reality television star was more a product of it than its catalyst.
Watch: McCain vs. Trump: Can the President Give Up the Spotlight?
Biden appears to reject it. But Trump seems to embrace and exploit it, using it as an accelerant to fire up friendly rally audiences and his core supporters across the country.
“The most remarkable thing about the modern Democratic Party is how undemocratic they’ve become,” he told the sometimes-raucous crowd Thursday night. “They’re the old and corrupt globalist ruling class. … They’ll create borders in other countries, but here, open the borders and let them in because [Democrats] don’t care about crime.”
While Biden was speaking to the entire country, Trump largely used the Evansville rally like he often does as such events: to address his base and try to get them energized to turnout in big numbers in November.
“Republicans stand for stopping illegal immigration,” Trump said after contending the other party is indifferent to “massive amounts of crime” he said — without offering evidence — would inevitably be caused by increased immigration rates.
“Democrats want to raise your taxes, we want to lower your taxes. … We want money for your military, they want money for things you wouldn’t believe,” the president said.
Trump made the trek to attack Donnelly, who is in a close race with Republican Mike Braun, and try to score another personal political victory — the president often boasts about his record in congressional races in which he has gotten involved.
He didn’t tell any stories about sitting with Democrats, unlike Biden, who noted he and McCain were chided by their respective caucus leaders in the mid-1990s for sitting beside one another on the Senate floor.
“Joe, it doesn’t look good, you sitting next to John all the time,” Biden said of Democratic leaders. “Same thing was said to John in [his] caucus. … That’s when things began to change for the worse in America in the Senate.”
The two speeches signaled Trump’s 2020 message likely would be an embrace of win-at-all-costs and tear-down-your-opponent tactics, while Biden’s would focus on a return to bipartisanship based on, as he put it when speaking about McCain, “knowing this project is bigger than yourself.”
And parts of each speech showed how a Trump vs. Biden race would, in many ways, challenge voters to decide just what they want from a president.
“He’d part company with you,” Biden said of McCain, “if you lacked the basic values of decency, respect, knowing this project is bigger than yourself.”
Hours later, Trump said he inherited a Democratic-run country that was “choking with regulation, choking with high taxes,” contending without his 2016 win “you would have seen some real mess.”
But Trump apparently knows well what fuels his popularity with many Republicans and a steady 40 percent of the overall electorate— and his presidency.
“You can call it a revolution if you’d like,” he said with a grin. “And we want to keep it going.”