The Democrats currently vying for the chance to challenge Donald Trump as our president are walking an exceptionally difficult tightrope. The remaining 19 are jockeying for the favor of the great mass of Democratic primary voters—a crew whose most fervent wish is that everyone can stay cool and keep their eyes on the ultimate prize of beating the current big bad president. This means that candidates must take great pains to be seen as team players, since going negative against the other contenders presents a greater-than-usual risk of turning primary voters off.
And yet the reality is that a one-on-one contest with Trump is still only a distant, gauzy possibility for most of the candidates, who are in the meantime spending their days scheming and maneuvering to prise every potential voter they possibly can away from their current tentative allegiances to Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. The posture the moment demands—fighting tooth and nail to hamstring your primary opponents, while never for a moment actually appearing to be doing so—requires a level of political acuity that is nearly superhuman.
Not surprisingly, they sometimes fail to stick the landing. But rarely has this looked as awkward as it did for Kamala Harris on Monday when she was asked to comment on the whistleblower report concerning President Trump and Ukraine—and Trump’s repeated attacks on Joe Biden.
The Ukraine affair, which came bubbling up out of nowhere last week, is perhaps the Trump administration’s biggest international scandal since the Trump Tower meeting between Trump campaign officials and a Russian lawyer was unearthed in July 2017. The reporting last Friday by the Wall Street Journal reads more like a parody of Trump’s monomaniacal diplomacy than an actual historical account: In a July phone call, Trump allegedly put heavy pressure on the recently-elected president of Ukraine to open an investigation into Biden’s son Hunter, who did consulting work for a natural gas company operating in Ukraine while Biden was vice president.
Cajoling a foreign government to dig up dirt on a political rival is wretched enough, but it might be even worse: Many observers, including some within the White House, have linked Trump’s desire for Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden with his decision, made days prior to the call, to freeze almost $400 million of aid money to Ukraine. The White House has officially denied that Trump tried to negotiate an investigation-for-aid deal, but Trump has suggested in off-the-cuff remarks that such a quid pro quo was exactly what he had in mind. “We’re supporting a country. We want to make sure that country is honest. It’s very important to talk about corruption… Why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”
That the president may have used U.S. foreign policy to aid his own reelection campaign is the sort of story that shakes up politics for a minute or two, and 2020 Democrats have wasted no time trumpeting their disapproval. Many have renewed their calls for Trump’s impeachment.
And yet—there’s one slight hangup. Because, after all, the Trump/Ukraine story does involve Biden: the pole position candidate the rest of the 2020 pack is desperate to overtake. Sure, the story Trump is selling—that Joe Biden changed U.S. diplomatic policy toward Ukraine for the benefit of the company that employed his son—falls apart under a few minutes’ scrutiny. But there does seem to be at least a whisper of impropriety in the whole thing—what was Hunter doing raking in natural gas cash overseas, anyway? If the scandal did happen to hurt Biden’s chances—well, that would be a damn shame, but maybe the silver lining is that we’d get an even better new president!
Which brings us back to Kamala Harris.
In the past few days, Harris has been among the 2020 Democrats who have pounced hardest on the Ukraine story. At a Los Angeles campaign stop Monday, Reuters reports, Harris “accused Trump of trying to collaborate with the Ukrainian president to influence the 2020 election.” Later, on Twitter, she thundered that “It’s time to impeach.”
And yet when asked specifically about Trump’s smears against Biden, Harris grew surprisingly taciturn. Asked at her campaign event whether Democrats should feel “discomfort” about Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine, Harris responded that she’d “leave that to the voters to decide.” The Associated Press followed up, asking whether the Ukraine story cast aspersion on Biden’s “campaign or his character.” Harris again demurred: “I’ll leave that up to the pundits. I don’t have a comment on that.”
We’ve seen this move time and again since 2015: a politician suspects that he or she might benefit from Trump doing damage to a political opponent, and so opts not to call his insane scorched-earth techniques to task. In the end, it generally turns out, the only one who really benefits is Donald Trump.
This was the blueprint for the also-rans of the 2016 GOP primary, who failed to realize it was time to suspend their in-group bickering to focus their energies on the external threat of Trump until it was too late. It would be ironic in the extreme if Democratic candidates made the same mistake this cycle.
Imagine the blow it would be to Trump’s narrative if the other candidates rallied to Biden’s side against the president’s attacks—to proclaim that they would not stand by and see a rival smeared unjustly, even if they themselves might benefit from the smears.
And now consider how perfectly it plays into his hands if, instead, they take the route Kamala has taken: denouncing Trump’s lies sonorously when it is to their benefit, then turning around and mumbling that perhaps, after all, he has a point about Joe Biden.