On the morning of January 6th, a few thousand losers descended on the National Mall to rally with a President who had just lost his re-election by over 7 million votes, the largest margin in a national election in 12 years. The legitimately defeated President egged on his supporters and lead them to commit the worst terrorist act on American soil since at least 9/11. They weren’t tourists visiting the capitol. The people who stormed the Capitol were not patriots. They were domestic terrorists who defied and physically beat police officers, while stating they wanted to hang the Vice-President and others. They were the equivalent of toddlers throwing a hissy fit because they didn’t get their way. Those who attacked our Capitol were nothing short of criminal thugs, and should be treated as such.
Is my description of January 6th a little bit harsh? No, actually. It’s accurate. What I don’t understand is why this has grown more and more controversial by the day since it happened. Why members of Congress, GOP leaders, and even common Republican voters, almost all of which are good and decent people with whom I happen to disagree with on politics, are defending actions they themselves knew were wrong enough that they didn’t take part in themselves. One can oppose Joe Biden, dislike the way the election was carried out in the pandemic, think Trump was mistreated by Democrats and the media, and hold conservative views, but still know right and wrong enough to avoid taking part in an insurrection. 99.9% of Republicans did. One can be a staunch conservative and recognize that anyone involved in that nonsense should be held accountable, criminally where appropriate. There’s no reason to defend bad behavior that you yourself would not participate in. You’re not responsible for it. Republicans at the time understood this. Cabinet members, White House staffers, and Republican members of Congress denounced these violent thugs that day, some even resigned over it. Now they are almost universally defending these bums, all for cynical, political calculations.
There are lots of things wrong with a Democratic Party that is struggling to pass popular infrastructure legislation despite majorities in both houses. One can largely reject the policy and political failings of that party, but still recognize the rot at the core of the current GOP. Had the GOP rejected the insurrectionists and criminals of January 6th as a whole, they would deserve to be able to leave the terrible events of that day in the past. Instead, we are seeing them run these thugs for office (such as the GOP County Executive nominee here in Northampton County PA) and embrace their lies at a national level. We cannot allow a party willing to do that back into power. This was not a minor event. It was a very serious one. We should treat it as such.
Right now the cool kids in Democratic politics don’t like Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. The feeling is that the two of them are basically holding up progress on the Biden agenda by not being willing to kill the legislative filibuster or reform it in any way to push legislation through without Republican votes. They would say that infrastructure, voting rights, a higher minimum wage, and many other priorities are basically being vetoed by a bad faith Republican leadership who are likely to just eliminate the filibuster whenever it becomes convenient for them. They also say there would not be much political price for pushing through popular Democratic initiatives, but there could be a price to failure. Neither of these two Senators would do well right now with activist Twitter, but then again, neither did 2019 Joe Biden.
Since neither of them is really doing a great job putting forward a great case for their position in public though, I decided to give it a stab and see if I could make a cohesive argument for them. What I found was a long term argument that would probably not convert over most Democratic activists, but probably will end up being proven at least partially right five decades ago. Below is the basic line of thinking I came up with for their position on both the filibuster and the future direction of the party.
1. Are there 48 votes to end the filibuster? One of the great assumptions in this fight is that there are 48 other Democrats ready to end the filibuster. Do we know that though. It is certainly in Manchin’s political interests to fight the party on this issue if he wants to win in West Virginia, and probably in Sinema’s in Arizona too. Most other Senators are likely stay quiet on the matter though until faced with an up or down vote. There was an assumption that Manchin and Sinema were holding up the $15/hour minimum wage bill, until it was brought up for a vote and had only 42 votes for it. It seems likely other Democrats may at least have reservations on this matter, and might be wobbly. They may not be the only hurdles here.
2. The Democratic Party both represents a majority and is teetering on electoral ruin. President Biden won the 2020 Election by 7 million plus votes, a margin that JFK in 1960, Nixon in 1968, Carter in 1976, Gore or Bush in 2000, Bush in 2004, Obama in 2012, and especially Clinton in 2016 would have killed for. The result was that if Trump had done 50,000 votes better in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia, he would have won again anyway, losing by 7 million votes. Biden’s big win netted a 50-50 Senate, and a single digit House Majority. The Democrats have won every presidential popular vote but one since the Cold War, which has won them five of eight Presidential races, but produced Republican rule in the House for 20 of 30 years, and most of 17 of 30 years in the Senate. Democrats might get a majority of the votes, but they sure as hell don’t win a majority of districts and states. Democrats don’t win that often for the majority they have, and they have to thread the needle with the Manchins of the world when they do. There is no major electoral reforms coming on the horizon that will change this, so Democrats need to understand we’re at a disadvantage.
3. These Senators have to run competitive elections every six years, most don’t. Unlike most of their colleagues, Manchin and Sinema know they’ll never have an easy election again. Incumbency doesn’t make swing states or “red” states much easier. The factors that make point two true run straight into their faces every time they run. Being in agreement with online activists probably is bringing in the swing voters they need. If they’re seen as “partisan” Democrats, they probably lose, as Democrats pay a bigger price for appearing to be more partisan. While probably 80% of Senators have to spend more time concerned about losing a primary, they are two of the few that know any opponent from their left flank would likely be unelectable. Sure, they take hits within their party for moderating, but they’ve seen the price of going the other way in states that aren’t blue.
4. The demographics suggest Democratic minorities in the Senate for decades to come. America’s population is growing less and less white. That diversity is not evenly spread though. In just over 15 years, half the population will live in eight states. Since the growth in a more diverse population is almost entirely in those states, you have to consider a very scary likelihood- the majority of the states will be getting older, whiter, and if current voting trends hold, less Democratic. If Democratic messaging stays along it’s current course, and I believe it will, Democratic Senate candidates will be swimming up hill in nearly 80 Senate races. That is likely to mean the Democrats will be in the minority in the Senate more often than not. This also means Democrats will be the party more likely to use the filibuster to maintain a relevant voice in the process. They may regret killing the procedure if that’s the case.
5. These Senators probably believe the Democratic Party needs to moderateto remain viable. Manchin and Sinema are certainly more moderate than the Elizabeth Warrens of the world. It is reasonable to assume that they believe it is in the Democratic Party’s interests to moderate, for all of the reasons listed above. Keeping the filibuster in place would seem to force both sides to negotiate a more moderate product that passes. There is an argument that the threat of more passing in a majority-rule Senate would force more good faith negotiation, but it would be on the majority’s terms. If you believe the current Democratic messaging is likely to produce decades of Republican majorities, it makes sense that you would try to alter the direction of your party. You can argue their method, but I don’t doubt their goal.
If your belief is that the Democratic Party’s biggest problem moving forward is Republican state governments making it harder to vote, and stopping that makes Democratic victories more likely, of course you’d disregard the points above. You might even disagree with them on the grounds that Democrats won in 2020 and should not need Mitch McConnell’s approval to govern. If that’s your position, it probably makes sense to steamroll the filibuster and pass as much stuff as you can- but how much that actually is would be questionable when you only have 50 Democratic Senators, so beware.
Perhaps though your feeling is that the flaws of the Democratic Party run deeper. The party’s reliance on “the rising electorate” make future victories in our federal system, where there is no national election, but 50 state elections, much more difficult. If Democrats are likely to lose regardless of new voting laws, you’re likely to want to change the direction of the party. Perhaps you have questions about the impact of new state election laws, and their ultimate impact on future elections. If you think the electoral problems of the Democratic Party are much deeper than whether they pass HR1 or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, you might see some wisdom in Sinema and Manchin’s position. It really does come down to whether you think Democrats or Republicans are the biggest problem facing Democrats in the future. If I were guessing, Manchin and Sinema think the future of the party isn’t bright. An unequally distributed electorate, a likely deteriorating Democratic base, and the already lost courts have made them make peace with this view.
In reality, it’s probably not so cut and dry either way, and a case can be made that Democrats should simply do whatever makes Joe Biden have the easiest time winning re-election, to prevent a dramatic backslide for democracy under a Trump 2.0 or Trump-lite Presidency in 2025. While the party’s future prospects might be questionable, it probably goes without saying that the country is best off not going through that again. The current version of the GOP is likely in its final 15 years or so of existence, and while we don’t know what they will become either, running out as much clock on them as possible is good. In the end though, Democrats are best off at least considering what their long term prospects are, and whether or not they will be the ones needing the filibuster. Ultimately though, they can’t afford to give up democracy now based on those concerns.
Four years ago, Donald Trump spoke of an “American Carnage” in his inaugural address. He spoke of a country that resembled a hellscape. In his address, he said:
For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs, and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes, starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment — it belongs to you. It belongs to everyone gathered here today, and everyone watching, all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration, and this, the United States of America, is your country.
What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country, will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public, but for too many of our citizens a different reality exists. Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories, scattered like tombstones across the across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge, and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
Donald Trump got very little right as President, or as a candidate. What he did get right was appealing to his market- not a shocking feat for a guy who made his money “marketing his brand (or name, honestly).” His vision of a hellscape country, one being taken away from the “common man,” by the hyper-educated, the woke, and “the elite,” hit home to voters who happen to live in swing states, blue collar voters that feel left behind by Washington. In 2016 his message hooked high school educated white voters that felt talked down to, forgotten, and left behind. It was the perfect foil to a former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State who best appealed to voters when she appeared competent in office, and appealed less as a candidate pushing an agenda of change. In 2020 he aimed his appeals not only at that base, but went a step further- targeting Black and Latino men with a message that they too are not being served well by the “elite.” That message kept him in the ballgame against a very strong opponent who can appeal to a very broad cross-section of the country both personally and politically. While President Biden clearly beat him, Trump’s message of “every man” vs. “the elite” didn’t exactly fail him in a very difficult race.
We live in a very great nation, but not everyone enjoys the fruits of that greatness equally. For many, the last 50 years of American growth has not been marked by an exponential improvement in quality of life. While our economy has grown, people are working more and more to make ends meet. Anxiety, chronic pain, and other illnesses are leading to more addicting pharmaceuticals, and more addictions. Individual households are relying more and more on credit to maintain their lifestyles. The concept of vacations is more and more foreign. Divorce is now more common than “happily ever after.” In short, people are living to work, and seeing their personal lives suffer. It is a hellscape.
Even as society is feeling the stress of this unequal distribution, our institutions have spent much of the 21st century failing us. Millions are protesting against police brutality. The Catholic Church and major college sports programs failed to protect children from predators or hold people accountable for the abuse. Wall Street and the big banks gave us the 2008 crash through unethical and immoral behavior aimed at making themselves profits. Congress repeatedly shows itself as incapable of handling major issues from climate change to immigration. Terrorism has touched our shores several time this decade, most famously on 9/11. We had an insurrection after our last election. We fought the war in Iraq for over a decade, on false pretenses. We’ve been in Afghanistan even longer than the Soviets were. We do nothing about mass shootings. Bernie Madoff and Enron seem long ago, but they too were this century. And all of that was before Covid shut down society for a year. We have had an early 21st century of memorable and epic institutional failure. In a country that has long since accepted it’s higher standard of living, it has taken it’s toll on our public confidence.
Official Washington, particularly Democratic official Washington, doesn’t quite comprehend how Trump happened, or why his message worked. They don’t understand why he made inroads with non-white voters in 2020, let alone how he won once. Their advanced degrees from prestigious universities allow them a far better understanding of New York and California than Ohio, but Ohio is more like 30 other states cast out across the nation. They find themselves shocked that their message cannot reach tens of millions of Americans, or that many Americans would simply rather “burn it down.” How can Trump’s baseless, crude rhetoric be fine to many people? So much of official Washington was shocked on November 8th, 2016 as Hillary Clinton lost to this bleak vision of America, and they were shocked again on November 3rd, 2020, when Trump was not overwhelmingly repudiated at the polls. How did Iowa and Ohio go from Obama states to Trump states? Why has North Carolina stopped trending our way? How has Florida gone this way? The truth is that many pundits, appointees, staff on the Hill, and political consultants in DC would be totally and completely lost if they were dropped into a bar in Wilkes-Barre, PA, which may offer us a clue into why their algorithms can’t explain away the anger in our electorate.
On January 6th, I watch the insurrection against our democracy in a fit of rage. As he was leaving Washington, Donald Trump had managed to truly create the kind of carnage that he spoke of in his inaugural address. Like Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 43 before him, he left his successors with a mess to clean up, problems that would consume their political capital, preventing them from some of the big achievements they sought to do. Fortunately, Trump and his party paid a steep political price for their failings. Even if fairly narrowly, they lost the White House, House, and Senate. For a little while, we’re safe from Trumpism. That will not be the case forever. The forces that created Donald Trump’s Presidency still exist. His defeat is not an ending, unless the conditions many Americans live under improve. People do not embrace a bigoted demagogue all of a sudden, by accident. The carnage that leads to bad leaders takes a long time to create, and an even longer time to fix.
There are roughly 332 million people in America and roughly 209 million adults. In the last two Presidential Elections, we saw record turnout of 139 million in 2016 and 158 million in 2020. Meanwhile in prime time viewership, FOX News, MSNBC, and CNN combine for about 6.76 million viewers during the first quarter of 2021. In total, less than 5% of the 2020 electorate is watching cable news. Viewership is certainly declining in the Biden era, but even in the Trump era, well north of 8 in 10 voters weren’t consuming daily news cycles. This is true across demographics, and ideologies. Most Americans aren’t sitting by the TV to see political news. While more and more people are voting, how they are engaging their political system is not how we think they engage it.
Even as there isn’t a lot of debate about what I wrote above, American politics still tends to cater to and center the folks in the 2-3% of America who are internalizing the “Beltway” debates on television. The Republican Party has fully embraced some hybrid of the FOX audience and people in the red hats at the Trump rallies as their true base. The Democratic Party largely chose to center online “ActBlue” small donors last cycle when they made raw donor numbers a criteria for getting on the debate stage in the Presidential Primaries. They may not be numerous within the electorate, but the political parties seem to want to embrace the people most stuck on the podcasts, cable news shows, and Twitter. Does it make any sense though?
Of course it doesn’t, and one must not look any further than the man sitting in the Oval Office right now, Joe Biden. Did he lead in online donors in the primaries? No. Was he super popular in Twitter in the primaries? No. Did he have the coolest memes? No. Was he ever seemingly the most popular candidate with MSNBC’s primetime hosts? Definitely not. President Biden was elected as a basic rejection of all of that, of all the coverage that said the party was moving left, or that he was too old fashioned, or that he was not what the electorate wanted. President Biden won the nomination by the widest contested margin since at least 2004, and did so faster than anyone since that same 2004 race went to John Kerry. His coalition was largely working class, cutting across demographic lines of all kinds. It wasn’t close, and it’s meaning should have been clear. Joe Biden was nominated by a broad coalition of Democratic voters, despite a press that wanted to declare him dead, a bunch of opponents who thought they knew better where voter sentiment was moving, and a community of activists and leaders who were pretty sure that his politics weren’t all that appealing to the public, and would ultimately lose again. To be fair, Biden was hardly the first recent rejection of party orthodoxy in either party. One can fairly assume though that without change, he also won’t be the last.
The vast majority of voters aren’t really looking for what the cable news shows are selling as party orthodoxy. The story of the last 15 years in American political life is the voters selecting something and someone very different than what is expected. The truth is that the most partisan, most activist bases of the parties are very tiny groups, and they aren’t all that representative of the vast majority of primary voters, let alone general election voters. This has created a big industry, both politically and within the media, that is representing a tiny slice of American life. That ever shrinking pie is scaring the folks that make their money off of the conflict and chaos that drives “Beltway” conversations. As that dynamic continues to unfold in the era of President Biden, expect even more ridiculous stories about the President’s dogs shitting in the White House hallways, faux controversies about Dr. Seuss, and even ridiculous stories about the rantings of the former guy hanging out in Florida. There’s a need to create some kind of news, otherwise there’s a possibility that for some, the grift is up.
Remember back after President Obama won in 2012? We heard from a lot of Democrats about how “demographics are destiny.” The idea was that the Obama coalition would simply carry the Democratic Party to future majoritarian status. In the time since, it’s true that Democratic victories in 2018 and 2020 were built largely off of that coalition, but there have been cracks in the foundation that should be concerning, particularly given the radicalization of the GOP in the Trump era.
It is true that in the coming 20 to 30 years, the country should move from majority white to non-white in population. It is also true that within the next 20 years, half of the country’s population will reside in just eight (8) states. Yes, the diversifying country is happening in about 8 states, or roughly 16 Senate seats. In many of the more rural, smaller, more red states, the country may even be whitening. Those 42 other states will have 84 Senate seats. When you add on that the Democratic coalition of voters tend to live together in urban and inner-suburban House Districts, you get close to 200 Congressional seats where Democrats routinely win north of two-thirds of the vote, but those 200 seats aren’t enough for a majority. This means Democrats will need to win in more moderate suburban districts, where the politics can tend to be at odds with the politics in the blue districts that make up most of the Democratic caucus. In other words, an emerging non-white majority in America is in danger of being ruled by a shrinking minority of rural white voters, if Democrats can’t balance the politics just right to win the moderate suburbs.
Of course, all of this is assuming the current political alignment even holds, which is at best murky. If this isn’t clear yet, non-white voters in the Democratic Party tend to be more moderate than a lot of white Democrats, particularly the men. Making things even harder is a slight but noticeable split between white voters in the big cities and suburbs, breaking down clearly along educational grounds. When you combine more conservative non-white voters voting more ideologically than based on identity (seen in 2020 as very slight shifts towards Trump) with urban white working class voters behaving more like suburban are rural blue collar whites with their vote, because of culture grievances (canceling Christopher Columbus, Blue Lives Matter, “socialism,” etc.), you get the kind of minor cracks in the Democratic coalition foundation that can be lethal in the long-term. You get a 2016 to 2020 shift map of Eastern Pennsylvania with weird red pockets where you don’t expect them (see below).
That map tells us a lot of things, but what it’s screaming at us is that the places Trump did better are generally the places where Democrats have essentially one party rule- Philadelphia, Allentown, Harrisburg, Reading, Bethlehem, Easton. Again, we know the slight shifts among non-white men, and the more pronounced shift in white, blue collar urban neighborhoods explains a lot of this change. What I think we don’t appreciate enough is how hard it is to try and stop it. Big city mayors like Jim Kenney or Bill de Blasio are not going to be the kinds of spokes people that can push on more progressive politics, it’s antithetical to them winning. The same can be said for more progressive members of Congress that can increasingly win districts in cities and inner suburbs. While I loathe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the damage she does to Democratic candidates in the 40-50 competitive House seats left with her messaging and presence, she represents the district she represents. Asking her to “tone it down” would probably harm her as bad as asking the New York Mayoral candidates to endorse “stop and frisk.” She’d end her career taking that advice. Sure, it might help us in Long Island Congressional races and Presidential elections, but exactly zero members of Congress are taking one for the team like that. In short, the impediment of the politics in blue seats on Democratic victories is probably inevitable right now.
The map above screams a second thing at us- Joe Biden is a particularly strong politician. His ability to take the slight hits in Democratic strongholds across the country, but still flip nearly every major battleground state through suburban America is a unique political ability we haven’t seen in a long time. His coalition of voters probably had 90% overlap with President Obama or Secretary Clinton, yet he found the gains in the electorate that he needed to beat a motivated GOP electorate that produced the second most popular votes ever- behind him. Biden’s coalition was broad, really diverse, and most importantly improved on all the areas where Democrats underperformed in 2014 and 2016. Contrary to the views of pundits that Biden was “lucky” to get nominated, you could see the contours of his coalition in the primaries before Covid hit- he was winning black working class, white working class, and suburban educated voters, in some states literally taking every county. In short, Biden was the guy for right now.
So what can the President do to try and fight off the demographic and political doom that seems to be setting up a “red horizon” for us? While many Democrats are arguing policy particulars, I actually don’t think this comes down to how much they raise the minimum wage, or cut student debt, or any of the things people are rage tweeting about right now. I think there are three broad themes he needs to hit in this Presidency to stop our political decay.
End “Messiah politics,” turn down the political temperature. In short, be a boring, normal guy. Democrats, going back as far as JFK, have elected charismatic, big personality types. The GOP has done similar. We pretty much reached the peak with the Trump cult. Americans don’t elect kings, in fact we were founded on not doing so. The concentration of American power in Congressional leaders, nine lifetime appointed judges, and a singular American President has not done us well. It has divided leaders from the people, and created the perception of the “elite” ruling class. It has also made us concentrate a lot on the personal characteristics and scandals of Presidents, which short of breaking the law, should largely be irrelevant. The President doesn’t have to be a perfect person, in fact none of them are. The President can be boring, we don’t need to see them on TV every day. We certainly shouldn’t be hanging on their 1am tweets. The press is struggling with the lack of news from President Biden, and that is a good thing. Our hope and savior shouldn’t come from one elected leader, but from ourselves. Joe should be a boring guy, a devoted family guy with a very important job. We need to break our addiction to sensationalistic political news coverage that has become the newnormal, post-Gingrich.
Deliver tangible victories and results for his base. I would say a $1.9 trillion recovery package that revolutionizes public health, saves small businesses, puts cash in pockets, eradicates child poverty, and does a bunch to kill Covid is the best start we’ve seen in forever. It is not enough. Voting rights must be codified through federal legislation. The right to organize for unions must be strengthened after decades of attacks. Public education needs to be strengthened and funded. Action on climate change and the environment is needed. President Biden needs to enact legislation with Congressional Democrats that touch the lives of as much of his 82 million voting block as possible, particularly those groups who made up the backbone of his coalition.
Convince whatever portion of the Republican electorate he can that government can still be useful, at least sometimes. This is admittedly the trickiest part. Most of the Trump voting block was less interested in policy, but more so in grievance politics. Thank God for that. Had Trump went beyond his isolationist rhetoric on trade and wars, and actually combined action for the “forgotten man” on economics with his white man grievance politics, he may very well have rebuilt the FDR coalition and governed a new dynasty. Fortunately the grievances are still the lede in the GOP platform, but they can’t cross their rich donor base. Trump used their bigotry views to align lower educated white voters with millionaire Republicans better than anyone in modern time, in part because many working class white voters haven’t felt they get benefits from the government acting in decades. Of course they do, but the connection isn’t made. Whether it is on Covid relief, a massive infrastructure bill, or creating green jobs, the Biden Administration needs to change that perception. Left with their current presumptions, 47% of Americans were willing to follow an ignorant con-man into the abyss. We are on the verge of losing one of our only two American political parties permanently to the conspiracy theorists descending from the John Birchers through the Tea Party, a set of loons who stormed our Capitol and romanticize a second Civil War. In fifteen years the Republican Party will either be a healthy political party with political ideas, or it will be a dangerous, white nationalist cult that is governing the majority of the country through essentially an apartheid government. How they are brought back to the table after President Biden will decide that.
Looking at the future through the lense of reality is hard. In a couple decades, we could be a hellscape of a nation. That is, unless Joe Biden can restore some public confidence in the institutions that govern us. Unless he can convince us that DC is not a bunch of out-of-touch, hyper educated folks representing interest groups and eschewing reality in our lives. If he succeeds, he’s one of our greatest Presidents. If he fails, we will fall to the chaos of extremist politics and a bleak future.
Joe Biden is the President of the United States. To put it bluntly, it is one of the greatest political stories ever told. Once elected our youngest Senator in 1972, Biden’s promising career seemed to take a huge hit from his failed 1988 campaign. He rebounded to become a very powerful Senator, chairing the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. In 2008 his career seemed to take another hit from a tough Presidential campaign that ended in a crippling Iowa loss, but he rose again as then-Senator Obama’s choice for Vice-President. After two national victories, Biden was seemingly blocked from a 2016 run by Hillary Clinton’s perceived strength. She ran and got nominated, he didn’t enter the race after the tragic death of his son, and his career seemed over. Then fate threw a tragic curveball- Donald Trump won the Presidency. Suddenly some people saw Biden as a potential savior. Still others thought his time had passed.
The 2020 Biden campaign was incredibly predictable. Biden entered a crowded field late, and virtually everyone kicked him. People like Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, a more radical lefty, called Biden dumb. His now Vice-President attacked him for his 1970’s busing position. Barack Obama and many other members of his administration were not overly encouraging about his run. The press wrote him off repeatedly. The Bernie crowd shuffled between calling him senile, accusing him of assaulting Tara Reade, calling him a corporate shill, and saying other nasty things. Candidates like Bernie, Beto, Kamala, and Warren took turns rising up close to him in the polls, then fading. Julian Castro basically insinuated he was senile, while getting the facts wrong himself. Joe even had to take the indignities of losses in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada early on in the race. Predictably though, he overcame all of that. He won the nomination after a blowout South Carolina win and a Super Tuesday drubbing of the field. As he always has, he took the punches and stayed on his feet until he could give them back. Then he knocked the field out cold.
What Biden’s rivals didn’t understand was what some of us loved about him- Joe Biden was not the rest of the Democratic Party. While the rest of the candidates pandered and equivocated on who they were, Biden resisted the urge to move to the far left on health care and the environment, but knew he needed to be steadfast on issues that mattered to the true base of the Democratic Party, like labor laws, gun control, voting rights, and education. He lived with his extensive record. He was a nice guy, but he put a hardball team around him. He was strategic. In the end, he was honestly the only acceptable nominee who could beat Donald Trump. He had to win, and he won. The rest of these folks would have been rolled by Trump.
That he won without embracing “the new left” was a feature of why Biden won, not a bug. No one else could have whipped Trump as Biden did in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Atlanta, Phoenix, Milwaukee, and Detroit, not while Trump was slamming the “radical left” for huge tax increases and overreaching policies. If you don’t think Biden’s reputation mattered, built over a half century of work, just look at how Democrats did down ballot in so many targeted House and State Legislative races. It took a Biden to take those effective attacks and keep going. It took Biden’s “tough decency” to deal with Trump’s bullying style. He could tell Donald to “shut up” and still come off as the more decent human being. No one else survives that. Hell, even Hillary Clinton couldn’t.
And so here we are. Joe Biden beat every critic, 20 other Democrats, and Donald Trump. He won the nomination faster than anyone in the Democratic Party since at least 2004. He received a record of over 81 million votes, beating Trump by over 7 million votes, and 306-232 in the Electoral College. He walked into the White House with majorities in both houses, a mandate for change. He did without buckling to DC’s ideas about how to get here. While I would never call him or any other politician a saint, I’m proud to say I was both on his staff from Iowa forward, and served as a delegate for him. Joe Biden forged the only path forward for America, and he did it the right way.
All Biden inherits is the greatest mess of all time. No pressure or anything. In the short to immediate term, there are several “must do’s”- pass a major COVID/Stimulus bill, an infrastructure bill, raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, voting rights protection, and fixes to the ACA. Out on the horizon are other big issues waiting- replacing Justice Breyer, acting on climate change, and public education reform. With majorities in both houses of Congress for two years, a mandate from a popular victory in the election, and the backdrop of a pandemic and insurrection, Biden will have to strike while the iron is hot. As the most skilled legislator to serve as President since LBJ, there is good reason to think he is up to the job.
There is more to the job though than legislating, and Biden will be tasked with all of that too. American politics, at least since the rise of Newt Gingrich in 1994, and arguably since 1968, have been poisoned. We are narrowly, but deeply divided. We had an insurrection at our capitol, and protests that sometimes bordered on riots, both within the past year. Domestic terrorists are on the rise. Distrust in police and law enforcement is at an all time high after a series of police killings of Black Americans. Biden inherits a country where the population distrusts it’s institutions, in many cases their government, and in an alarmingly high number of cases, each other. It is simply unsustainable. The conspiracy theories, personal vitriol, and Social Media wars have to end. There’s no guarantee any of it will.
Millions of Americans don’t consider themselves to be a party to America’s success. We are the wealthiest, most militarily powerful country the world has ever known. For millions, they don’t feel like they have benefited- for decades. This cuts across racial lines. While America has benefited overall in the global economy, large regions of the country feel they have not. While his party has turned inward to their base in so much of their message, part of Biden’s challenge will be to speak to a broader audience across America. Taking away President Trump’s fictitious monopoly on the “forgotten man” is central to getting buy-in to progress.
Let’s face it, we don’t know the future. Will Joe Biden run again? Will Donald Trump? Will the GOP treat President Biden better than they did President Obama? Will we get Covid under control? How will the midterms go? None of that is clear yet. All we know is that Joe Biden has a four year term to do it.
The GOP is in a messy civil war over the post-Trump era, and it’s easy to sit here and predict ruin for them moving forward. If they try to moderate, the Trumpism theory is that his base will bail on the party. If they embrace the Trump base, the Democratic majorities built over the last four years very well could hold. It seems hopeless, unless of course you look back over the last roughly thirty years of politics in America. Every President since the Cold War has entered office with a majority, and all lost those Congressional majorities in a midterm (Only Bush 43 survived his first one, right after 9/11). History says McConnell and McCarthy will be running their chambers in 2023, regardless of the mess they are.
Which leads to the real question: what are the Democrats? Recent history says the losing Presidential ticket influences their party more in the midterms, and wins them. Can Democrats capture the Biden brand and win again in 2022? The 2018 Democratic wave looked way more like Hillary Clinton, but message wise the Clinton and Biden brands were similar. A pragmatic slate of suburban candidates, women and men, built this majority. Joe Biden’s improvement on Hillary’s suburban performance was what won him the suburbs, and subsequently the swing states. Can 2022 Democrats improve in suburban Charlotte, hold their gains in suburban Philadelphia, and continue to grow in suburban Atlanta and Phoenix? At the same time can they deliver the needed policy victories for their non-white base that will produce big turnout? If so, maybe they can beat history. That’s their coalition now, not more radical elements on the left and seemingly gone folks still in the Trump camp. Democrats must keep the pragmatic center that was repulsed by Trump, while holding the equally pragmatic minority coalition that has faithfully voted blue. Joe Biden showed Democrats how to do this. Will we follow as a party?