Joe Biden's Campaign Is Plodding and Forgettable and Winning
Incredible challenges lie ahead - for 2020 and 2024
In the sprawling New Yorker profile of Joe Biden that appeared earlier this month, an unnamed Obama administration official dropped an assessment of the presidential campaign that will resonate with liberals everywhere: “This country needs to just chill the fuck out and have a boring President.” Indeed, four years in the Trump gyre, suspended in a state of nonstop emergency, having a conventional, moderately competent president for America is probably a matter of survival. Donald Trump’s disastrous management of the COVID-19 pandemic, his denial of climate change, and his rank bigotry and inability to govern coherently all pose a deep threat to the American project. The idea of a “boring” president is one antidote to this: a president who engages in facts, not conspiracy, and operates from the minimal position that decent, intelligent people should staff federal bureaucracies to ensure they function. Biden, a moderate Democrat who occasionally lurches left, would do this, and for that alone he is worth voting for in the fall. American democracy itself, believe it or not, could withstand another four years of Trump—elections would continue, the two major parties would keep fielding candidates—but from a left perspective, a Democratic one, the second Trump term would be disastrous, another four years for Mitch McConnell to pack the judiciary with young, incendiary conservatives and Trump to, perhaps, select another Supreme Court justice or two, wrenching the nation rightward for a generation or more. In this sort of context, nearly apocalyptic, critiques of Biden amount to heresy. What, you want Trump to win? Well, no. Politics these days can take on an insectoid quality, with an inability to see beyond the present moment, either into the future or back to where we were just four years ago. For the good of the working class, the poor, those who may get sick from coronavirus, and the freefalling economy itself—places like New York City, desperately in need of enormous federal bailouts—Biden needs to win. But that doesn’t mean we can’t stop and acknowledge what an inconsequential campaign he has run, and the danger this poses for November and beyond.
First, the facts. Biden is in a stronger position than Hillary Clinton was in 2016. His victory over Bernie Sanders was much more commanding. Many Democratic voters, fearful of Trump, voted for him out of the belief that he was the best candidate for a general election. His national polling leads are larger and his strength in swing states may be more durable. Biden, for many reasons—his sex, his ties to Barack Obama and not Bill Clinton, and his own down home schtick—is a less polarizing figure, more acceptable to voters who probably refused to vote for Clinton four years ago. The share of third party votes, for the Libertarian and Green Parties, will inevitably decline, and many more Democrats will be motivated to vote against Trump, since the proposition of such a ludicrous figure becoming president is now reality and not fiction. Democratic turnout, as it did during the 2018 midterms, is likely to surge, even during a pandemic. If this was the highest turnout presidential election in a half century, I wouldn’t be surprised, though Post Office sabotage and new outbreaks of COVID-19 could temper it in different ways. Biden is a difficult opponent for Trump because he engages so little with him and generally exists offline. He is not easily baited into fights. He is hard to caricature as a radical, though Trump is trying. Running as a restoration candidate, an affable and familiar face to return a semblance of normalcy to the republic, Biden is a fine fit for this particular moment. He promises little more than defeat of Trump. For many Democrats, that’s enough. Trump, unlike George W. Bush, has never enjoyed a positive approval rating in a Gallup poll, and is inarguably in a weaker position than Bush was in 2004, when he fended off John Kerry. Trump is the most polarizing and outright hated president of anyone’s lifetime; he also commands a more fervent fanbase and personality cult than any president in living memory, Republican or Democrat. To a slice of the Republican electorate, Trump is something like a sun-god or Pope, utterly infallible. In a presidential race, this is his backstop. There is no equivalent passion for Biden, only for the memories of the man he served with, Barack Obama, as vice president.
Biden has run the most plodding and forgettable presidential campaign in recent memory. For many blinkered liberals, to even suggest Biden needs to articulate a clear, affirmative vision is to offer yourself up to the MAGA horde. Though the former vice president has been smart at times to physically remain in isolation, due to both COVID-19 and the reality that unscripted interactions inevitably lead to strange verbal gaffes, we are reaching a point where he will have to engage and attempt, perhaps, to form a coherent, forward-looking argument for his candidacy. This does not mean simply explaining, once more, why Trump is so awful and why he is a threat to American democracy. It does not mean releasing occasional, well-intentioned policy platforms, hoping voters see them on his website. It means, instead, doing what all winning campaigns have done: offering a compelling vision for a presidency that can be understood, and easily summarized, by average people. For good and ill, this is what victorious campaigns tend to do. Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all did it. Even Trump—”Make America Great Again!” “Build the Wall!—engaged in a version of this messaging in 2016. A campaign must answer a simple question: what do you hope to do for us? Biden, puttering ahead, hasn’t done this yet, not in a way beyond releasing policy papers to newspaper reporters. These policies, as ambitious as they may be, are hardly a part of his muddled messaging. Witness his commitment to enormous stimulus spending to rescue the economy, which seemed to be central to his agenda until one of his closest aides, Ted Kaufman, shot it down in one of the stranger misreads of a fiscal disaster in modern times. (The Biden campaign, later on, somewhat pushed back on Kaufman.) There is a not insignificant chance Biden could remain in his Delaware basement and find a way to defeat Trump. At the same juncture, he has hardly made any public visits to swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin or Florida, where voters can at least imagine their Democratic nominee has an interest in what they have to say. Robust field operations of the non-virtual variety aren’t apparent. Of course, it’s a pandemic, and person-to-person campaigning cannot be what it was. Still, many people are outside and congregating, and the weather is quite nice. Field organizers can get creative about meeting people where they are, in public places, engaging them in conversations and handing out campaign literature while in masks. Door-knocking should not entirely vanish either; it is not murder to ring a doorbell, wearing a mask, and stand six feet back to have a talk. The hotel and food service union, UNITE HERE, is running an in-person canvass for Biden in several states. At some point, this will need to be attempted on a wider scale, with safety precautions in place. There is a fair argument to be made only so much persuasion can be done in a highly polarized environment between two extremely well-known candidates. Few voters are undecided between Biden and Trump. Yet the absurdly small margins of Trump’s victory four years ago tell us that campaigns can be won or lost on decisions like these. That is the reality of the country where are in. Reports on the ground so far are that Trump campaign offices and volunteers are far more visible in crucial states like Pennsylvania. The Biden operation, meanwhile, is not so visually extant.
If Biden wins, it won’t matter, in some sense, what kind of campaign he ran. A victorious campaign is always remembered as a good one. But here is where resistance liberals, so determined to defeat Trump that they cannot fathom much space-time beyond his exit from office, fail to understand what is waiting for them. Obama, a far more charismatic and captivating president, presided over the downballot decimation of the Democratic Party, as Republicans captured both houses of Congress and many statehouses across America. Biden, who proudly regards himself as a transition (transitory?) candidate, has made odd noises about being a one-term president and handing off the 2024 Democratic nomination to Kamala Harris, who was not an adept enough politician to survive a Democratic primary against Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg. If Biden limps across the 2020 finish line, Democrats will need to begin planning how to guard against a wipeout in the 2022 midterms on the scale of what Obama endured a decade ago, when the Tea Party rose to power. Republicans have structural advantages in the Senate that will make driving them from power—and keeping them in the minority—very difficult to do. If, indeed, Biden wins, the Democrats will effectively have two years to implement the sweeping changes that are necessary to bolster the social safety net and safeguard it from a revanchist, radicalized Republican Party that will be free of Trump’s stunning incompetence.
There are Republicans who quietly wouldn’t mind losing this election. Biden, unlike Obama, lacks the gravitas to twice repel them with relative ease. In the meantime, since American politics is dizzyingly cyclical, Republicans will have time to win back seats on the state and county levels, assuming Democrats repeat their mistakes of a decade ago. The goal of the Democratic Party should be to erect, somehow, an unassailable FDR-style majority (yes, far harder in today’s polarized times) that is built on widely popular government programs that alter, for the better, the very fabric of society, as the New Deal programs and Social Security did in the 1930s, cementing a safety net that has endured more than 80 years of attacks. If Democrats are the party of real universal healthcare, not the market-based Affordable Care Act, and introduce a plan to guarantee every American a job, they will have won universalist victories that do more than just shift the political paradigm—they will have made rare, material differences in the lives of the vast working class and poor. This should be on Biden’s mind. Beating Trump is not a sufficient goal. There will be more Trumps—better, stronger, and ultimately more sinister Republicans, with all of his politics and none of his idiocy. The Democratic electorate chose Biden, plainly, because they believed he was the best to topple Trump. But the worst may be yet to come, especially if Biden proves as insipid and docile a communicator as he is in candidate form. It will not be enough to be the anti-Trump party when Trump is returned to the private sector, frothing on Fox or starting his own network. Democrats will have to start thinking about wielding power again.