A common fallacy circulating among the pundit class is that every presidential election cycle will be as ‘disruptive’ as 2016 undoubtedly was. Or in other words, the lessons of that year – which marked a genuine ideological upheaval across the political spectrum in the United States – are extrapolated into the aphorism that such all-consuming disruption will be the ‘new normal’ going forward.
But there’s a decent chance that 2020 instead brings a reversion to the predictable and the banal. If the economy stays relatively ’good’, at least in the macro sense, it would be naive to dismiss the possibility that a critical mass of Democratic primary voters simply opt for a return to the pre-Trump status quo, rather than mobilize for sweeping, structural change. Yes, there are still examples of old political structures around the world crumbling under the weight of their own corruption, but assuming this trend must continue in perpetuity could be an exercise in wish-fulfillment fantasy on the part of opinion-makers. Especially absent severe economic distress, reclaiming ’normalcy’ after four long years of Trump-induced insanity might well become the overriding priority for Democrats voting next year in primaries and caucuses. And what could better encapsulate a wish to return to the pre-Trump status quo than nominating Joe Biden, who served alongside Barack Obama for eight faithful years as perhaps his most trusted and steadfast confidant? Most Democrats would give an arm and a leg to bring Obama back tomorrow, no questions asked.
If you gaze upon Twitter, where little support for Biden is evident among chattering journalists and activists, you will often find old video clips resurfacing where he says something nominally untoward or shameful. Yes, some of these clips are certainly illustrative, such as the 1995 snippet where he proclaims how much he ‘likes’ the idea of keeping people in jail for longer sentences. But the image of Biden that currently exists in the minds of most Democrats, and the reason why he currently leads national polls by a sizable margin, does not derive from C-SPAN clips from 1995 or 1978. Democrats are so fond of him because of his two terms spent as the jovial and wisecracking vice president under Obama, who is still extremely popular within the party rank-and-file. Most of these people do not know or care about statements or Senate votes from decades ago.
That’s why, in order to successfully challenge Biden, his Democratic competitors will have to confront the Obama/Biden legacy. Because it’s that legacy on which Biden is predicating his campaign. However, this poses a confounding dilemma for the other candidates. They can’t just start attacking Barack Obama willy-nilly, seeing as Obama remains hugely adulated within the party and his tenure in office is looked back on with wistful longing in the midst of nonstop daily Trump furor. Former presidents tend to gain in public approval after they leave office, and Obama is no different in that regard. In fact, Obama is in a unique position relative to the 2020 primary race. At least in recent history, departing or departed presidents had various liabilities that incentivized candidates from their party to keep a safe distance. Republican candidates in the 2008 cycle strenuously avoided George W. Bush, who was on his way out the door with an approval rating at historic lows. John McCain eventually bit the bullet and met Bush at the White House after he secured the nomination, a meeting which was panned at the time as extremely awkward and damaging to McCain. Likewise, Bill Clinton basically sat out the 2000 election cycle, with Al Gore wanting nothing to do with Clinton on account of his years-long Monica Lewinsky tarnish. Clinton was actually fairly popular as he left office, but Gore nonetheless shunned him – to the point where Clinton blamed Gore’s ultimate loss on his failure to embrace full-throatedly the Clinton/Gore legacy.
Obama, on the other hand, is now the most coveted endorsement any 2020 Democratic candidate could receive. Biden claims he asked Obama not to endorse him, but that’s a lot of hogwash. He may well have asked something to that effect, so as to not give the appearance of tipping the scales, but Biden would obviously relish an Obama endorsement at a key moment later on in the race. And of course, he’s far from alone. Kamala Harris would cleave off her left arm in exchange for an Obama endorsement. Amy Klobuchar would wear a full clown suit for the rest of the campaign. Heck, Beto O’Rourke would probably strip naked on national TV just to get Michelle Obama’s endorsement. That’s serious power in the context of a party primary, and it speaks to how politically valuable the association with the Obamas is for Biden.
Rightly or wrongly, Hillary Clinton’s nomination in 2016 was seen by many Democrats as a foregone conclusion. She racked up innumerable endorsements and superdelegate supporters well before any voting ever happened, and the party machinery obviously engineered as smooth a coronation for her as they could. They hid debates on Saturday nights and essentially converted the Democratic National Committee into an unabashed pro-Clinton organ, as the WikiLeaks release of exfiltrated emails later confirmed in copious detail. These plans were disrupted somewhat when Bernie Sanders virtually tied Hillary in the Iowa caucus and won the New Hampshire primary in a rout, but she ultimately locked the nomination with relative ease. As such, Democratic voter turnout for the 2016 primary cycle was comparatively low. Over six million fewer votes were cast in 2016 than in 2008, not taking into account population growth or the fact that in 2008, two major states (Florida and Michigan) held primaries that were effectively moot due to procedural arcana. The low turnout in 2016 augured Hillary’s eventual general election defeat. Conversely, Republican primary turnout was the highest in decades; 600,000 more votes were cast in the Florida Republican primary election that year than the Democratic one, for example. Needless to say, Trump won Florida in November.
Fast-forwarding, voter turnout for the 2018 midterm elections was shockingly high; the highest for any midterm election since 1914, which presages vastly increased turnout for 2020 primaries and caucuses. Who do you suppose will be turning out in such greater numbers? Twitter activists and left-wing organizers? Probably not. Those people turned out for Bernie in 2016 and will likely do the same this time, but they won’t be the ones who account for the projected increase.
Rather, the people turning out will be what one might call ‘normie Dems.’ These are voters who aren’t terribly invested in internecine party debates, basically like most if not all of the candidates, and simply want someone who can beat Trump. They’re generally not fulminating on social media everyday about Pete Buttigieg’s latest fundraising numbers or Jay Inslee’s latest policy proposal. Rather, they are casual news consumers who know that they intensely dislike Trump, want him out of office as quickly as possible, and base their candidate preferences on who stands the best chance of achieving this goal. The programming on MSNBC roughly captures their sensibility: constant indignation about Trump’s perceived character flaws, as well as a perpetually frenzied focus on the Russia saga and Mueller report. MSNBC generally doesn’t dwell on the structural inequities which gave rise to Trump, and neither do these voters.
One potential analog to consider is the 2004 Democratic primaries. ‘Who can beat Bush’ was the dominant theme of that campaign. Howard Dean, then the fire-breathing anti-war Governor of Vermont, got a bit of a surge early on, but then flamed out as voters opted for the more ‘conservative’ choice – the sober-minded Vietnam veteran senator John Kerry. After Kerry won Iowa and New Hampshire, the race was pretty much over. Relative to the rest of the field, Kerry more or less assumed the mantle of ‘moderate,’ even though he would later be cast by Republicans as a wussy Massachusetts liberal anyway. Even his Vietnam service was depicted as somehow dishonorable; recall the infamous ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’ attack ads that accused him of fabricating his war record. (Amusingly, these attacks were based in large part on a book written by conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, who recently came back onto the scene as a key figure, farcically enough, in the Mueller investigation.)
Though he ultimately lost, the Democratic electorate’s quick coalescence around Kerry reflected a certain ‘conservative’ tendency that becomes operative among primary electorates when the overriding objective is to defeat an incumbent president. In other words, voters didn’t want to take any risks and went with the ‘safe’ choice to match up against Bush. Their calculation failed, but that was the thinking. They opted for the candidate who appeared to be the most conventionally ‘electable,’ and had no interest in elevating anyone promising to usher in an ideological revolution in the party. It should also be noted that Kerry voted for the Iraq War, the central issue of the 2004 campaign, and spent month after month trying to rationalize that vote, which culminated in his infamously unintelligible statement, ‘I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.’ He was referring to an appropriations bill, and his statement was technically accurate, but politically that didn’t matter. What mattered was that his ostensible inconsistency got transformed into a wide-ranging narrative that cast him as a ‘flip-flopper.’ It stuck. Voting for the Iraq War caused him a bunch of political problems; gee, who could have guessed. As you may recall, Hillary also voted for the Iraq War, which caused her major political problems in both 2008 and 2016. Biden voted for it too, which means we’re probably going to spend yet another election cycle re-litigating this 2002 war authorization resolution. How joyous.
Yet even though they both voted to back Bush’s war, assuming that Biden carries the same kind of political baggage as Hillary did would be a mistake. There’s another frequently propounded fallacy that Biden is nothing more than ‘Hillary 2.0’: the latest incarnation of failed Democratic establishment orthodoxies, and therefore stands no chance, whether in the primaries or against Trump. While there must be some truth to that critique – Biden is already striding from fundraiser to high-dollar fundraiser, replicating Hillary’s self-defeating strategy – it would be an analytical error to blithely equate the two candidates. Biden has unique political strengths that Hillary plainly lacked, and likewise Hillary had unique flaws that Biden plainly lacks. For one, as yet there’s no reason to believe that Biden is under criminal investigation by the FBI. You might write that off, but the fact that Hillary spent virtually the entire 2016 campaign being personally investigated for potential commission of felonies fed potently into the public perception that she was corrupt, a liar, and above the law. Democrats spent years in stubborn denial about the electoral liability this presented. And of course, it all came back to bite them when James Comey issued his infamous letter on the eve of the election announcing that Hillary was back under investigation due to the seizure of Anthony Weiner’s laptop (which, let’s be honest, had to be one of the most dazzling plot twists in American political history). Unless there’s a private email server tucked away somewhere in Delaware that we don’t know about, Biden will not encounter these same pitfalls. That alone is hugely significant.
What’s more, Hillary ran against Barack Obama in 2008 and attacked him mercilessly at times for being foolish and underqualified. Recall the highly animated rant Hillary went on in February of that year when she mocked Obama for allegedly prophesying that ‘the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.’ Though Obama later installed her as Secretary of State, it’s clear that these old wounds never quite healed. Just last week excerpts were published from a book by New York Times reporter Peter Baker, who revealed that Obama blamed Hillary’s 2016 loss on her ’scripted, soulless campaign.’ To rub salt on the still-festering wound, Obama reportedly added: ‘No one forced her to set up a private email server.’
You won’t find Obama leveling any such criticisms of Biden, or vice versa. Rather, the two became close friends and partners over their eight years in office, with Obama even delivering the eulogy at the funeral of Biden’s son Beau, who died in 2015 of brain cancer. They are very fond of each other, and as such Biden benefits more from his association with Obama than Hillary ever did. In a Democratic primary race where Obama could very well end up being the kingmaker, that’s an unparalleled asset.
As far as the general election goes, a good economy doesn’t necessarily mean Trump will sail to victory. He has failed to marshal many of the ordinary advantages of presidential incumbency, significantly weakening his hand. Just this week, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who had previously been eager to work with the administration on immigration restriction legislative measures, criticized Trump for, as Cotton put it, ’the decision to import tens of thousands more low-skilled workers to take jobs that Americans want to do.’
Meanwhile, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo seem to be dictating the administration’s foreign policy, which entails projecting perpetual belligerence all over the world and perhaps even setting the groundwork for war. The latest bugaboo is Iran, of course, where Bolton this week has once again ratcheted up the antagonistic rhetoric and provocative military actions, in keeping with his decades-long obsession with bringing down that country’s government. For his part, Pompeo delivered a speech in Finland on Monday announcing an elaborate plan to counteract ‘aggressive Russian behavior’ in the Arctic. ‘In response to Russia’s destabilizing activities,’ Pompeo proclaimed, ‘we are hosting military exercises, strengthening our force presence, rebuilding our icebreaker fleet, expanding Coast Guard funding, and creating a new senior military post for Arctic Affairs.’ OK, then!
Neither of these agenda items set forth by Pompeo and Bolton sound particularly consonant with Trump’s 2016 campaign messaging, which emphasized the futility and economic disutility of endless foreign military misadventures. Funds which otherwise could have gone to ‘rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure,’ which Trump incessantly claims he wants but never seems to act on, appear instead to be heading outward from the Pentagon to subsidize yet more fruitless adventurism. And if it leads to war in any of the possible theaters, one wonders whether the voters inclined toward ‘non-interventionism’ who comprised a significant faction of Trump’s original support base will abandon him once and for all. Polling data indicates that he is an unusually vulnerable incumbent, relative to recent historical trends.
Doubtless, Trump will attempt to paper over these shortcomings by stoking incessant superficial Culture War battles, whether it’s over the American flag, NFL players, or some future unforeseen controversy of comparable ridiculousness. But none of that will compensate for the fundamental reality that he deferred for two years of his term to Paul Ryan, and went along meekly with Ryan’s legislative priorities, which are simply not popular with the general public (hence Ryan’s shellacking, along with Mitt Romney, in the 2012 election.)
The specter of Paul Ryan also raises another potential strong suit of Biden’s. In their 2012 vice presidential debate, Biden absolutely shredded Ryan, who came across as an ill-equipped and ideologically-twisted amateur in comparison to Uncle Joe. Notwithstanding Biden’s avuncular joviality and use of strange words like ‘malarkey,’ he was able to systematically dismantle Ryan with facts and compelling arguments. That was approaching seven years ago now, and who knows how Biden’s cognitive faculties are holding up at age 76. But his raw skill as a political rhetorician should not be discounted.
Biden has already received a number of significant endorsements, which play directly into his electoral strengths. On the very day of his campaign announcement last month, Rep. Cedric Richmond declared his support: perhaps Biden’s most important endorser yet. Until this year, Richmond was the head of the Congressional Black Caucus; he routinely talks up Biden’s ‘electability,’ which may or may not be a true asset. Nonetheless, it signals that powerful black members of Congress are not just receptive to Biden, but more enthusiastic about him than the media might presume. Richmond is a ‘moderate’ relative to the rest of the party caucus, and is representative of exactly the kind of voters that Biden will need to secure victory in a Democratic primary: blacks who are still intensely devoted to Barack Obama, and don’t particularly prioritize sweeping structural change, but rather desire a reversion back to when Obama was the one leading the Executive Branch. Again, Biden was right by his side for eight years. That’s extremely potent for a large swath of Democratic primary voters – possibly a critical mass. When he identifies himself as an ‘Obama-Biden Democrat,’ Biden is identifying with the exact same label that a large amount of mainstream Democratic voters themselves identify with. He steadfastly supported the first black president for two terms, to which Obama and Biden both were elected by sizable margins. Especially in Southern states like South Carolina, where blacks make up a majority of the Democratic electorate, that too should not be discounted.
Rep. Donald McEachin is another significant early endorsement for Biden; McEachin is overseeing 2020 House candidate recruitment for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and currently serves as whip for the Congressional Black Caucus, both powerful positions in the party leadership structure. It’s an early signal that at least certain elements of the Democratic machinery are embracing Biden.
Bizarrely, some pundits seem to wave off the fact that yes, Biden was also twice elected in addition to Obama. True: voters generally don’t vote for vice president. But nonetheless they by necessity vote for an entire ticket, and Biden was on the ticket on two separate occasions. His electoral value to Obama should not be dismissed. I can distinctly recall canvassing in working class white areas of Philadelphia in 2008, where older Democratic-leaning voters with misgivings about Obama routinely told me that they were more comfortable voting for him in part because of Biden. People forget that there was still considerable anxiety at the time over whether ‘traditional’ Democrats of a certain age would be willing to vote for a black candidate whose middle name was Hussein.
Once elected, Biden became something of a ‘pop culture icon’ in his own right, with his quirkiness and off-the-cuff manner regularly extolled by the press. He was also a uniquely visible and active VP, by historical standards, which is largely why he now leads national polls by double-digits. His appeal is really not all that difficult to understand.
None of this is to say, of course, that Biden does not have major liabilities. There’s a decent chance he will implode before any voting begins next year. One issue that the media probably won’t raise with him, but should, concerns the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation. Bob Woodward recently stated that the CIA under John Brennan was ‘pushing’ the sleazy and discredited Steele dossier in the summer of 2016 – even going so far as to incorporate it into an official intelligence briefing. The logical question for Biden, then, would be: ‘When did you first learn of the Steele dossier?’ Furthermore, ‘To the best of your knowledge and recollection, when did Barack Obama first learn of the Steele dossier?’ But as important as these queries are, they’re not of concern to most Democratic primary voters, which is the constituency Biden now must court.
Bernie Sanders still has many dynamics working in his favor, such as an energized activist base and a national network of skilled organizers. Arguably, he is still in some sense the ‘front-runner,’ especially considering his formidability in New Hampshire. (Although new numbers released by Monmouth, perhaps the most accurate polling firm, now shows Biden with an 18-point lead.) But Biden, if for no reason other than his relationship with Obama – a highly popular former president that most Democrats would gladly reinstate in about two seconds – is obviously a very strong candidate, and probably stronger than a lot of people in the media initially wanted to believe. Barring something truly unexpected, any forthcoming ‘gaffes’ or old video clips that surface won’t meaningfully change this basic circumstance. Accordingly, his rivals will have to challenge the Obama/Biden legacy in order to dispel Biden’s mystique. And that will be an exceptionally difficult line to walk; attacking Obama risks alienating a huge portion of the primary electorate who aren’t interested in rehashing the Libya intervention or the Affordable Care Act. They just want Trump out. And into that void steps trusty old Joe.
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