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Trump wants Americans to believe Biden is a radical leftist. It's a tough sell.

Joe Biden ran a Democratic primary campaign pitting himself against the party's rising progressive wing. From health care to foreign policy, the former vice president rejected the left's most ambitious policies and successfully pitched voters on his more moderate vision.

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Gregory Krieg
Eric Bradner, CNN
CNN — Joe Biden ran a Democratic primary campaign pitting himself against the party's rising progressive wing. From health care to foreign policy, the former vice president rejected the left's most ambitious policies and successfully pitched voters on his more moderate vision.

That reality has complicated matters for President Donald Trump, who has long sought to portray Democrats of all stripes as a front for socialist radicals and anti-fascist protesters. The caricature rarely applies, but the dissonance is especially clear when Trump uses it to project an image of Biden -- who has spent decades in public life -- as a closet leftist sympathizer determined to advance the policies he spent the last year running against.

Trump's one-size-fits-all playbook have been widely adopted by his allies, from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. It's even come some unexpected sources, like former New Hampshire governor and senator Judd Gregg, who in an op-ed this week that warned of a "coming Biden coup." But their arguments have so far failed to turn the tide against the presumptive Democratic nominee, who leads by double-digits in most national and swing state polling, or make much of a dent in the public perception of the 77-year-old.

View Trump and Biden head-to-head polling

Biden's campaign has been mostly dismissive of Trump's messaging, painting it as self-evidently false and unlikely to gain traction with voters. But some of the most pointed replies have actually come from the same progressive leaders and leftist activists and operatives that Biden did battle with, and ultimately defeated, over the past year.

New York Rep. Alexandrio Ocasio-Cortez, responding to a tweet from Cruz that accused Democrats of supporting "riots," "vandals" and "anarchists," offered perhaps the pithiest counterpoint.

"Yes," she tweeted on Sunday, quoting Cruz, "that is why the party nominated... Joe Biden."

'Sincere and real differences'

Biden's primary campaign, in which he clashed ideologically with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and his record over more than 40 years in the public eye has left little room for confusion about where he stands -- effectively inuring him, in the eyes of most Democrats, to this well-worn line of attack.

"The Trump critique is asking people to ignore the entire Democratic primary and is banking on people having forgotten that it existed -- and that there were sincere and real differences," said Faiz Shakir, Sanders' former campaign manager.

Trump and Republicans have also suggested that the formation by Biden and Sanders of policy working groups, which enlisted allies of both politicians as a step toward crafting an intraparty détente, is evidence of the former vice president's bending to progressives.

Shakir, again, was incredulous.

"Why would we need a unity task force? Because there are differences of perspective," he said. "Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden aren't forming unity task forces, because they're generally on the same (ideological) side."

On Wednesday, the campaigns released the work of the task forces, more than 100 pages in recommendations for the forthcoming party platform. Sanders, in a statement, first noted the "strong disagreements" that separated him and Biden -- and their voters -- before praising the compromises hammered out by the two sides.

"Though the end result is not what I or my supporters would have written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country," Sanders said.

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Still, with the release of the group's recommendations, some Republicans saw an opportunity to latch on to Trump's narrative.

"The Democratic party's unity task force is sending a not-so-subtle message that Joe Biden will let far-left environmental extremists control U.S. energy policy if he becomes president," North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer said in a statement.

But a close read of the task force recommendations reveals that, rather than being rolled by the left, Biden's side of the table did not budge off any meaningful policy position, instead adopting more progressive language and, on climate, a bolder framework that still fell well short of the Green New Deal's ambitions.

Biden's deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said in a memo Monday that Trump's attacks are "falling laughably flat."

"Despite the breathless coverage each new Trump attack gets, this endless rotation of the same debunked smears isn't the product of strategic genius, it's a sign of myopia and desperation as each successive attempt backfires, re-elevating a massive Trump liability while leaving his campaign scrambling to find something new," Bedingfield said.

Biden's campaign has ignored the Trump campaign's criticism of the former vice president's modest campaign schedule during the pandemic, which has recently featured about one trip away from Delaware per week. Aides argued that by ignoring many of Trump's attacks, Biden can zero in on those that expose the President's own political weaknesses.

"Donald Trump has spent his entire life depending on wild-eyed lies and asinine conspiracy theories to distract from his own failures and wrongdoing. But he also projects his own liabilities onto others, which means that with his desperate attacks he constantly elevates subjects that are disastrous for him -- like lashing out over China after begging Xi for a re-election bailout and giving him a pass on the coronavirus," Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said. "We starve Trump of the engagement that he wants and then pounce when he shows his underbelly."

The Trump campaign did not return a request for comment.

Line of attack

Recently, Trump and his allies have tweaked their line -- up to a point. Biden is not, in most Trumpian tellings, the radical red menace himself. He's just either happy to clear the way for their ascendance or too afraid to stand up against them. In one ad, Trump's campaign superimposed an image of Biden taking a knee over images of unruly protests and scenes of looting.

"Biden fails to stand up to the radical leftists fighting to defund and abolish the police," the narrator intones. "With Biden kneeling to the left, we'd have chaos in the streets."

Biden benefits, especially in these cases, where other lesser known politicians might suffer. Most Americans do not need a fact check -- though there have been many published -- to find the suggestion that Biden is in cahoots with looters, vandals and leftist activists difficult to believe. His record on criminal justice was a sore point during the Democratic primary, as some of his rivals argued that he too readily embraced or led on legislation like the 1994 crime bill, now widely viewed across party lines as a draconian failure that helped give rise to mass incarceration. (Trump has even used the bill as a cudgel against Biden in an effort to dampen his standing with Black voters.)

"Trump is so egregiously out of sync and overstepping, but Biden is also starving him of the oxygen he wants," Republican pollster Christine Matthews said.

Matthews said she was surprised by Monmouth University's finding -- in a survey published on Wednesday -- that Americans understood the nuance of calls to "defund the police," a slogan she thought could be "a very blunt instrument" for Trump to use against Democrats. The poll showed that more than three in four Americans understood the phrase to mean, broadly, that police departments should be reformed, as opposed to being disbanded or shuttered en masse.

But, she said, it follows seniors and suburban women seeing "the complete nuance" in conversations about police reform, the Black Lives Matter movement, the legacy of the Confederacy and more.

In opposing cuts to police funding and defending statues of American founders such as George Washington, she said, Biden is "coming up with these nuanced responses, and that's right where public opinion is."

"Trump is looking to create a foil, which is the leftist mobs of people who want to overturn your way of life and American history, i.e. White history," Matthews said. "And Biden's not playing into that. He's threading the needle beautifully."

Trump, meanwhile, continues to pound away with the same blunt objects that have failed him and others in a series of recent elections, with the most damage done during the midterms of 2018, when Republicans were swept out of the House majority.

Before and after his victory in 2016, Trump has repeatedly tried and failed to mobilize what he and his campaign -- as recently as on Wednesday in an afternoon fundraising email -- have referred to as "the silent majority," a decades-old code for typically White and affluent opponents of cultural progressivism.

In 2017, Trump spent the weeks leading up to the Virginia governor's race warning that Democrat Ralph Northam was "fighting for" the violent MS-13 gang and sanctuary cities. Northam won that race by 9 percentage points -- the largest margin of victory for a Democrat in a Virginia gubernatorial race in 32 years.

In 2018, Trump attempted to focus the midterm elections on caravans of migrants fleeing violence in Central America and arriving at the US-Mexico border. But voters, motivated instead by Trump's efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, overwhelmingly delivered control of the House of Representatives to Democrats.

After both losses, Trump largely dropped his failed messages.

This year, Trump has again tried to reprise the tactics that worked in his 2016 race against Hillary Clinton but have failed since then. He has cast Biden as "corrupt," attempted to latch him to progressive efforts to defund the police and tear down monuments, and used manipulated videos to portray Biden as senile, a move that could alienate elderly voters who polls have shown favoring Biden over Trump.

"It reminds me of some of the attacks against Barack Obama for being connected to the Weather Underground and Black nationalists and Palestinian activists -- that he was some sort of radical," said Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, a leading progressive group aligned with Ocasio-Cortez that has often been at odds ideologically with Biden. "It wasn't effective then and I don't think it will be effective now."

In another worrying sign for Trump and his campaign, down-ballot Republicans have not latched onto attacks on Biden the way GOP candidates did against Obama and Clinton.

The Washington Post, citing data from the TV advertising tracking firm Ad Analytics, reported this week that -- played back to back -- all Republican ads mentioning Biden in House and Senate races add up to just three minutes.

Even allies like Gingrich have begun to show hints or previews of the wider Republican messaging strategy that could emerge if Trump can't reverse the current trends. Biden, in this telling, isn't forgotten, but the message to Republican voters could shift away from pumping up support for Trump to entreaties to deny Democrats a governing troika in 2021.

"Several people have tweeted asking how I could be afraid of Joe Biden. I am not," Gingrich tweeted last weekend. "I AM afraid of the Biden-Pelosi-Schumer machine that would emerge if the Democrats won the White House, House and Senate. Precisely because Biden is weak he would be dominated by Pelosi and Schumer."

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