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The Memo: Midterms shape up as proxy war between Biden and Trump

The midterm elections are shaping up as a proxy war between President Biden and former President Trump.

Biden has gone after Trump in a fiery fashion in recent weeks, including in Thursday night’s prime-time speech in Philadelphia.

Referring to the movement that takes its inspiration from the former president, Biden said: “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”

The Thursday speech made crystal clear that the days of Biden seeking to focus only on his own agenda, or making oblique reference to “the former guy,” are a thing of the past.

Biden also recently contended that elements of the current Trump-centric Republicanism amount to “semi-fascism” — a reference that delighted his base even as it elicited a demand for an apology from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Trump, meanwhile, is playing a huge role in the elections — though in a way that may wind up hurting the GOP.

GOP Senate nominees who won their primaries in part thanks to the former president’s backing have encountered serious turbulence in their general election campaigns. That’s true to a greater or lesser degree of Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia, J.D. Vance in Ohio and Blake Masters in Arizona.

Trump has, of course, also returned to the headlines in the most dramatic fashion possible after the FBI’s search of his Mar-a-Lago club on Aug. 8. Almost one month later, there is no sign of that story ebbing.

The upshot is that a midterms campaign that seemed likely to be fought on the economy and inflation just a few months ago is now shaping up as a battle between the two septuagenarians who faced off in the last presidential election — and who might yet have a rematch in the next one.

Putting the focus on Trump is just fine with Democrats.

“To the extent that this election becomes about Trump, I don’t think it is good for the Republicans,” said Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh. “It may be somewhat motivating to their base, but as a whole it takes them off of the frame that they would prefer — talking about inflation, the economy, to some degree crime.”

Last weekend, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) responded to the ongoing controversy over Trump’s handling of presidential records by complaining on ABC’s “This Week” that it was “less than 100 days before the election [and] suddenly we’re talking about this rather than the economy or inflation.”

Todd Belt, a George Washington University professor who specializes in political management, also noted that Trump faces several investigations beyond the Mar-a-Lago matter, including a Georgia probe into efforts by him and his allies to overturn the 2020 election and the Department of Justice examination of the events around the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

Politically, that could be problematic for the GOP, given that Republicans normally benefit from their strong anti-crime, pro-law enforcement image.

“The fact that the leader of the party is under several different investigations really undercuts the Republican playbook for the upcoming election,” Belt said.

Even so, Republicans argue that Biden’s newly vigorous campaigning mode is not a panacea for his party’s challenges either.

They note that the president’s approval ratings remain poor, even though they have ticked up a little from their lowest points.

In the RealClearPolitics polling average, Biden’s approval stood at 42 percent, with roughly 55 percent of the public disapproving, on Thursday evening.

Biden has enjoyed some big wins lately, particularly the passage of a huge bill addressing climate change, prescription drug costs and taxes, but other efforts — like his decision to wipe out up to $20,000 in student loan debt for some borrowers — are more politically divisive.

“It doesn’t really serve Democrats well to have Biden out front and center,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. “He has had some buoyancy in the polls but his numbers are still low. And look at the number of Democrats in contested races who are walking away from the student loans issue.”

Biden, for his part, is clearly trying to link Trump, the GOP and the recent conservative tilt of the Supreme Court into one overarching narrative.

Democrats’ standing has improved in the polls since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in late June, and the abortion issue was vital to a Democratic victory in an Aug. 23 special House election in New York’s 19th District. There, Democrat Pat Ryan made abortion rights a centerpiece of his campaign and carried the district, a classic bellwether.

In Philadelphia, Biden asserted: “MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards. Backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.”

Belt, the George Washington University professor, noted that Biden had spoken out strongly against Trump and Trumpism at the start of this year, to mark the first anniversary of the Capitol riot. That didn’t noticeably help Democratic political fortunes.

But “what’s different this time is that Biden has the wind in his sails,” Belt said, “Right now, he is riding a wave of success. And that makes it a better time to take on former President Trump.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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