As Donald Trump readies himself for re-election, the sense of nervousness among his opposition is palpable. It’s an odd state of affairs when you consider the broad spectrum that opposition covers. It doesn’t just include Democrats, from progressive to centrist, but also disaffected old-style Republicans, and a great many independents as well. Yet despite this collection, there is good reason for the anti-Trump camp to be concerned about 2020.
As the incumbent, Trump has a built-in advantage, and one that is hard to overcome. In the 19th century, it was not uncommon for incumbents to lose their re-election bids; it happened eight times. But since then, only five incumbents have lost, if we exclude Gerald Ford who was never elected in the first place. Between Herbert Hoover in 1932 and Jimmy Carter in 1980, no incumbent lost and since then, only George H.W. Bush joined the dubious list.
That hardly spells four more years of Trump, but it does speak of the great advantage an incumbent enjoys. He rarely faces a serious challenge in the primaries, has full control of his party’s electoral machine, and obviously enjoys enormous name recognition. In Trump’s case, he also has four years of pleasing much of his base. All the evidence indicates that he has lost virtually none of the support that formed the foundation of his cult following in 2016.
On the Democratic side, there is certainly no ideal candidate, at least at this point. One can make an argument for or against pretty much any of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination. But there is one point on which most of the anti-Trump crowd agrees: everyone must support whoever emerges from the primary against Trump, even if you must hold your nose while doing it.
A wide spectrum of activists, pundits, and candidates have echoed that sentiment, and there has been no significant dissent from that line, a stark contrast with 2016, when strong anti-Hillary Clinton sentiment led many to declare they would not vote for her under any circumstances. Based on virtually every analysis of the voting results, a distressing number of people followed through on that promise, whether they voted for Trump or merely stayed home.
Hillary Clinton still won the popular vote by some three million votes, but that is cold comfort. And it can be distracting, since the electoral victory Trump pulled out can easily happen again if something doesn’t change. It is not likely to be Trump’s performance that alters things. He has governed largely as he campaigned. He has stuck to some of his campaign promises and where he lied, he has conned his followers, just as he did in 2015–16. The economy has good numbers, and if the gains there have gone largely to the ultra-rich, many, though not all, of Trump’s supporters have still felt them. And he still has his own private propaganda outlet on FOX, even if they have backed away from that role ever so slightly.
The misogyny that worked against Clinton will surely hurt any of the women running in 2020 as well. Few can possibly doubt that misinformation campaigns, whether from the GRU or the RNC or both, will work their deceptive influence again as well. All this works against every Democrat.
So, let me state this clearly: it is imperative that all of us who loathe everything Trump stands for vote for whomever the Democratic nominee is. This is not the time for third party games, and certainly not for ideological purity. If 2018 is an indication, 2020 should see a high voter turnout, and if that is the case, Trump is in a bad spot. He narrowly won the so-called “swing states” in 2016, and larger turnout always favors Democrats. That’s because Republicans and right-wing independents vote, while liberals, progressives, and leftists are not so consistent.
Having, I hope, made it clear that we must all vote for whomever opposes Trump, it is just as imperative to burst an illusory bubble that has dominated commentary on this election since long before the candidate in question even declared. That pernicious and extremely dangerous myth is the notion that former Vice President Joe Biden is the “safe pick,” and should therefore get our support, even if we consider him far too conservative.
Not only is Biden far from a safe pick, I contend that out of all the major candidates, he is the one that is by far the most likely to lose to Trump in November 2020. This has nothing to do with my personal distaste for Biden’s political and policy stances, which I freely confess are there. But if I thought he was really the guy most likely to beat Trump, I’d happily toss all that to the wind and support him with everything I’ve got, then work to get a more progressive person in 2024. But that is not the case.
There are several factors that lead me to this conclusion.
Biden is not particularly good at this
Some people may recall warmly the debate between Biden and Paul Ryan in 2012, where Biden cleaned Ryan’s clock. But that was not a typical Biden performance. He was far less successful against Sarah Palin in 2008. And we saw him utterly botch the first debate of this primary season when, by his own admission, he was not prepared for Kamala Harris’ question about busing. That was an issue that was in the air well before the debate and an obvious place for others to question him. How could he have been unprepared? And, after responding appallingly with a states’ rights argument he made matters worse by refusing to back off his response for weeks.
The Harris incident is much more typical of Biden as a campaigner. His gruff demeanor can be useful, but he has been known to alienate high profile individual donors with it, and he has said himself that he does not like fundraising, which is a pretty big deal these days, especially given the depths of Trump’s overstuffed war chest.
Worse, as a leading candidate in 1988, he torpedoed his own campaign with a foolish plagiarism scandal, one which impacted his credibility so much that he would not run again until 2008. He didn’t fare much better in that year, first sticking his foot in his mouth by telling a group of Indian-Americans, “In Delaware, the largest growth in population is Indian Americans — moving from India. You cannot go to a 7–11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.”
It didn’t get better from there. He said of then-Senator Barack Obama, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy, … I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” After his disastrous performance in the opening caucuses, he folded his tent, but Obama recognized Biden’s appeal to working-class voters and brought him into his campaign, eventually naming him his running mate.
None of this is to argue that Biden is a racist. I don’t make that case, and I don’t believe it. I do, however, argue that these incidents prove that Biden is, as a friend of mine put it, “your basic old white guy,” meaning he is a well-meaning white guy from a generation that dealt with these issues differently and at a different depth than today, where his white and male privilege is more at issue. But what is important is that these incidents show that Biden simply isn’t particularly good at thinking on his feet in public appearances. That is a weakness that Donald Trump is certain to exploit. Trump has a virtual bullet-proof vest from his followers who love it when he says offensive things. But Trump will be quick to call a Democrat racist or employ some other bit of projection and it is imperative that his opponent not risk being hurt by it. Biden has proven, far more than any other Democratic candidate that he is not adept at that, and the incident with Harris shows he has not improved with age.
Biden Won’t Bring in the Voters Clinton Lost
Biden’s gruff manner and old-style approach to liberalism very much threatens to dampen enthusiasm among progressive and younger Democratic voters. Bernie Sanders has a similar problem in reaching the Black community, especially older voters, because of his 1960s-style approach of conflating racial and class issues. But most Biden supporters would argue that this weakness will turn to a strength in his appeal to so-called “swing voters,” especially in the battleground states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
But that contention doesn’t withstand scrutiny. First, there is reason to believe that a Democrat could turn some other states that Trump won in 2016. Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona, and most notably, Texas, are states that could conceivably flip in 2020. But even if that doesn’t happen, the battleground states can certainly turn around, as Trump won there by very tiny margins.
The thinking for Biden is that his moderate, centrist politics and his brand of less “politically correct” liberalism will be the key in those states. That is an assumption based on the idea that the Democrats need to sway more conservative voters. But let’s ask ourselves, did Hillary Clinton lose those voters in 2016 because they thought she was too liberal?
On the contrary, most saw Clinton as a DC insider, a representative of the hated “swamp” in Washington, and a favored candidate of Goldman-Sachs. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that this drove some to the ostensible “billionaire,” Trump. Goldman-Sachs, two Jewish names representing a faceless finance industry might have made a difference there, but that is a subject for another essay). In terms of her policy and image, it was not Clinton’s liberalism that drove voters from her, but her conservatism.
Biden would have a similar difficulty. Granted, he has a more personable, “grandpa Joe” image, while Clinton came off as too polished and professional in this regard. But let’s bear in mind that Biden has not and may very well get through the primary race without anyone ever confronting him with his career-long devotion to the finance industry. Over the course of his career, the two biggest sectors that have contributed to his campaigns have been lawyers and lobbyists and the finance sector, according to OpenSecrets.org. Does anyone believe that Trump, having seen what such associations did to Clinton, won’t do the same to Biden? This is a massive vulnerability that his fellow Democrats may not exploit, but Trump surely will.
Moreover, higher voter turnout, as stated earlier, always favors Democrats. It is precisely the candidates that are seen as safe because they are moderate and centrist that do poorly. Candidates like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, Mike Dukakis, were all plain, safe candidates. Bill Clinton may not have been the most radical candidate in 1992 (that was clearly Jesse Jackson), but he, like Barack Obama after him, ran as an agent of change, even though he would govern very much as a moderate. Jimmy Carter, like Obama and Clinton, promised something new and different. So did Ronald Reagan, and he appealed to very much the same sort of voter we are talking about here.
Safety doesn’t motivate those voters. But someone who does things in a new and different way rouses them. That’s why the voters Hillary Clinton left so uninspired who did go to the polls went over to Trump. He was not the Beltway insider, the guy with DC machine.
Many of those people might be so sickened by what they put into office that they can’t wait until November 2020 to vote against Trump. But we need not worry about those folks. The ones on the fence are the concern, and they are not going to go to Biden in droves. History shows that, and Clinton’s own loss is the latest example.
In 2018, we saw a few progressive candidates (it was more than just “the squad”) enter Congress, but it is true that the bulk of the Blue Wave, such as it was, consisted mostly of moderate-to-liberal Democrats. That is one of the misleading factors making people think Biden is “safe.” He’s not. He is the most vulnerable of all the leading candidates.
One can make a case against all the leading candidates, but none are as clear as the one against Biden. It’s not because he is “too moderate.” If she mounts a comeback, I would argue that Amy Klobuchar is a perfectly viable candidate against Trump. She is a far better campaigner and speaker than Biden and is not nearly as prone to idiotic and harmful gaffes as he is, but she is politically close to him.
Bernie Sanders has the obvious risk of carrying the “socialist” label. Elizabeth Warren faces many of the same misogynistic problems as Hillary Clinton did, as well as her image as an “elite east coast-type.” Kamala Harris has problems with the progressive wing of the Democratic party. Pete Buttigieg has already suffered setbacks and would have to also confront homophobia on the campaign trail. Cory Booker, Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang, Beto O’Rourke, Jay Inslee, and the rest of the overcrowded field all have their issues.
But no one is so suited to fail with both progressives and moderates as Biden. None of the others is as bad a campaigner as he is, as he has proven yet again. I don’t suggest that this in any way disqualifies Biden. He is the best-known and he is a former vice president for a popular president. If that’s why you like him, or if you simply favor his policies, please support him. And if he wins, I hope we can all agree to throw everything we have behind him and hold our differences until after we banish this racist disaster of a narcissist from the White House.
But if you’re supporting Biden only because you think he has the best chance or is the “safe” pick, you couldn’t be more wrong, and that notion is the most likely path to the unthinkable: four more years of Donald Trump’s racism, stupidity, nastiness, and ineptitude. We can’t afford it.