If Joe Biden snatches the White House from Donald Trump in 2020, he will govern as a modern liberal. This week’s Hyde Amendment snafu is proof positive.
But only Mr Biden knows if his beliefs have really changed. It doesn’t matter, because his party has. The famously gaffe-prone Biden would lead a censorious party. Whatever he thinks of the new Trump line on China, it’s clear that the elder statesman — who has considered running in nearly every presidential race since 1980 isn’t going to let his best shot yet — and his last shot — get mired in the details. Joe Biden, architect of the 1994 crime bill, will not reverse Trump’s reform of it. Biden, who cocks a friendly ear to the banks in corporate Delaware, would manage a party that’s trending socialist.
A Biden campaign for the White House is a different matter.
Candidate Trump ran as part-Pat Buchanan, part-Ross Perot. On some days, President Trump governs more like part-Jack Kemp, part-Ted Cruz. The battle for the right is underway — see the internecine sniping between the disciples of David French and Sohrab Ahmari in the conservative press. Trump associates such as Tucker Carlson are openly lamenting that the president may not be ‘capable’ of actually enacting policy. Meanwhile, the old guard is still the party apparatus, which has meant tax cuts over infrastructure, and saber-rattling toward Iran in an attempt to close a failed American chapter in the Middle East.
The Democrats are likewise a layer cake, but in reverse. Biden, unlike Trump, is a veteran pol. While the Republicans are, policy-wise, still Reaganite, it’s the Democrats that have changed, bit by bit, following the shock of defeat in the 2016 election. The left, after controlling the White House for two of the three previous administrations — and having little to show for it — is beset by ennui. Biden holds tight his old running mate, Barack Obama. He calls himself an ‘Obama-Biden’ Democrat. That’s a savvy strategy for a presidential campaign aimed at the center ground, but it could become a problem with Biden’s own party. Some on the left are registering open disappointment with Obama.
The 2020 election looks like the last hurrah for a certain kind of Democrat who switched from Obama to Trump in 2016. Biden is uniquely well-suited to win back that contingent, and judging by open admissions of anxiety from the White House, the president knows it. The left is on the march: in many ways they will set the Democratic agenda no matter who is president. But the 2020 race is already something of a sad story for the Democratic left. Bernie Sanders’s trajectory is opposite from the one he enjoyed this time four years ago. The comeback of Elizabeth Warren, a decaffeinated Sanders, represents a tactical retreat.
Biden will continue, where he can, to run a retrograde campaign. Sure, he’ll reverse and back government abortion funding here, and downplay his crime bill there. The era of post-truth is now blending into the era of post-sincerity. But Biden’s reactionary résumé is also to his advantage.
Biden is the sort of Democrat that the party has all but lost, but will need again in 18 months’ time: middle-class, middle of the country, and middle-of-the-road politically. Biden isn’t the candidate of the base of the Democratic party, who live in America’s growing cities. Notoriously, he took the train to DC. But the easiest way back to Pennsylvania Avenue remains Pennsylvania itself. Rebuild the ‘Blue Wall’ in the upper Midwest, into which the Keystone State is becoming functionally integrated. Headquartered in Philadelphia, Biden 2020 is ‘going after those wistful suburbanites’ outside the city, veteran Pennsylvania politico Charles McElwee tells me. This contingent, McElwee says, would vote for Biden if the election were held today. White House beware: Biden ‘could absolutely win Pennsylvania’.
Seemingly-inevitable societal and demographic changes have not yet reached the point where the left can win the electoral college with the help of Texas, Arizona and Georgia. The Rust Belt is the low-hanging fruit, and winning it back requires a fundamentally different campaign. Which is why I was perplexed this week to read that President Trump, seeing flagging poll data in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, is considering abandoning the territory that gave him power, and is instead weighing a ‘Sun Belt strategy’ of winning Nevada and New Mexico, among other targets. Those who have joked that Trump’s incumbency is in effect the Jeb Bush tenure never felt more vindicated. A Trump campaign official tells me that this Politico article describing the Sunbelt gambit was highlighted to staff as a must-read.
The president’s team is worried that Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton. They’re right to be: he’s not. In many cases, the younger Joe Biden on the tapes that are resurfacing sounds like the modern Trump Republican. Biden made a career as the consummate white, middle-class warrior, serving a constituency that’s now seen consecutive losing decades and in crucial pockets, flipped to Mr Trump in 2016. Biden’s old rhetoric on abortion, for instance, is from a time when Americans were less imperially divided on the subject. His statements on school busing echo suburbanite anxiety about the most radical government measures to cure America’s racial ills. Biden is not a free-marketeer, which is likely why he became a Democrat. But neither is Trump’s new Republican party, whose lodestar, Tucker Carlson, just lavished praise on Elizabeth Warren’s economics. Biden is a strong contender to win the whole thing. And if does so, he will have done so having begun his career before a major political alignment and capping it off after one.
Most presidents and presidential candidates in the modern era have either been rich, or rescued young by the military or elite universities. This, of course, is not most Americans’ story. Nor is it Joe Biden’s. The former VP’s life is not one of combat missions against Japan and North Vietnam, nor top grades at Georgetown and Harvard. No, Biden’s story is one of the middle — middle America, middling education, and mediocre professional mistakes. When he came veep in 2009, he was the poorest United States senator. His life has had tremendous tragedy, but of the domestic variety, not international. In other words: all too relatable.
The solution for Trump is not to retreat from the front that won him the last war. This Sun Belt strategy would, of course, play into Biden’s hands. If Trump were to bank on a Virginia or Nevada, it would be a certain repeat of the Romney failure. Yuppies politely rejected the now-Utah senator for the top job; they’d laugh Trump out of the room. The China angle is most interesting, where Biden appears woefully out of step. No one gutted the industrial Midwest more surely than the masters in Beijing. Emphasize that, and Trump will win eight full years. Run solely as a moderate steward of the economy, and risk Biden eating your lunch as the new middle-class hero. No one believes Donald Trump is a moderate steward of anything — and that’s the point.
For the president, versus Biden, it’s double down, or not at all.