Joe Biden launched his campaign with a claim that is, on some level, almost strikingly banal.
“I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time,” the former vice president said in his announcement video. “But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation — who we are — and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”
This core sentiment that Trump is an unusual, and unusually bad, president has fueled everything from a primetime ratings boom for MSNBC to the unprecedented popular mobilization of the original Women’s March. Antipathy to Trump powered Democratic candidates to sweeping victories in the 2018 midterms and is very clearly one of the dominant political sentiments of our time. Yet Biden’s thesis statement about Trump-era politics drew surprisingly widespread criticism from left-of-center opinion leaders.
Mehdi Hasan at the Intercept wrote that “the No. 1 reason why Biden would be an utter disaster both as the Democratic nominee and as president is his belief that Donald Trump is the sole cause of the current political and constitutional crisis in the United States.” But the criticism came from circles broader than the hard left. Frances Wilkinson at Bloomberg deemed Biden to be “running against a myth about Trump,” while Michael Tomasky at the Daily Beast urged Biden’s friends to “grab him by the lapels and inform him that it’s not 1973 anymore and his ‘friends’ in the Republican Party, nice fellas though they may be on a personal level, have changed.”
Peter Beinart at the Atlantic accused him of offering “a deeply unconvincing historical narrative in which Trump lands upon the American political scene from outer space.”
Perhaps most tellingly of all, even former Obama administration colleagues at Crooked Media looked seriously askance at this line.
Jon Favreau, speaking on behalf of himself and his co-hosts of Pod Save America, greeted Biden’s entry into the race with broad compliments and then a specific pointed critique of the aberration concept: “We don’t believe Trump is an aberration; we believe he is the symptom, not the cause, and the Republican Party has become rotten to its core.” His colleague Dan Pfeiffer chimed in to say “there is no question about the inaccuracy of that argument; Trump is not an aberration.”
Just about the nicest thing anyone in pundit-land had to say about the aberration thesis was ex-Republican Max Boot at the Washington Post, who wrote that the former VP is wrong but “Biden is smart to pretend otherwise” — arguing that pretending to see Trump as an aberration is a good way to court swing voters.
The split between Biden and essentially the entire progressive intelligentsia on this point is a sign of the extent to which he really is out of touch with the modern chattering class sensibility about politics. Nevertheless, Biden enjoying an extremely comfortable lead in the polls is a reminder that progressive political obsessives are in crucial ways unrepresentative of the Democratic Party’s voters. Indeed, on some level, the extent to which progressive commentators have gotten so invested in denying that Trump is an aberrant figure when he clearly is says a lot more about them than it does about Biden.
But these objections to Biden’s “aberration strategy” point to widespread doubts in the party about his abilities to govern effectively. Some of that is carping from the left, which simply sees him as too moderate. But a fair amount comes from steadfast members of the party establishment who know from all-too-bitter experience that the next Democratic president will face a wall of massive obstruction and want to hear that the party’s standard-bearer has a plan to deal with it.
Trump is obviously unusual
There is a sense in which the aberrant Trump thesis is undeniably accurate. None of his predecessors in Republican Party leadership engage in wild Trump-style tweeting, and few other people in GOP politics seem nearly as obsessed with cable news coverage. Trump evidently has a personal soft spot for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin that few Republicans share, and his approach to trade policy remains at odds with the bulk of the GOP and the business community.
The Charlottesville situation that Biden centered in his announcement video is, similarly, pretty unique to Trump.
A fictional President Marco Rubio probably would not have been looked up to by white nationalists as a fellow traveler, and he certainly wouldn’t have drawn a moral equivalence between white nationalists and anti-racist counterprotesters.
Trump is also an outlier in the sense that he is not only credibly accused of a range of sexual assaults but was even caught on tape seeming to confess he had done so before. He is very unusual in the scope of his potential financial conflicts of interest in office and unprecedented among modern presidents in terms of the opacity of his financial arrangements.
In general, the fact that Trump is an unusual figure is so obvious that the effort to deny it probably only makes Biden’s critics look willfully obtuse in the eyes of many rank-and-file Democrats. The point, however, is not so much that Trump doesn’t stand out from the pack. It’s that Republicans are broadly complicit in his sins.
Congressional Republicans mostly back Trump
A key thing about Trump’s aberrant behavior is that very little of it would be possible without the solid backing of congressional Republicans.
His efforts to fight House Democrats’ legal valid request for his tax returns, for example, would likely already be over today if the request had been made on a bipartisan basis two years ago. But instead, Republicans repeatedly voted in lockstep against disclosure when they held the House majority and continue to vote against it as the minority party. Congress, similarly, could easily pass laws over Trump’s veto to prevent federal funds from being spent at Mar-a-Lago. And while there should, in principle, be nothing partisan about wanting to understand which foreign governments are lining Trump’s pockets with stays at his hotels, in practice, only Democrats are trying to find this out.
What’s particularly striking about this is that it’s not true that congressional Republicans never stand up to Trump.
When he does stuff they sincerely don’t like — like trying to put Herman Cain on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors — it tends to get shot down. Trump’s not a dictator, he doesn’t hold magical power over the Republican Party, and he is constrained by Congress in the exact same ways as other presidents. But many of the aberrant things he does are things congressional Republicans have chosen not to constrain him on. Instead, they have tried — with a great deal of success — to force Trump to pursue a more traditionally conservative approach to economic policy than the one he campaigned on.
Procedural extremism has been escalating on the right
The extent to which congressional Republicans have selectively sheltered Trump from scrutiny is, in turn, part of a larger pattern that predates Trump of Republicans on Capitol Hill becoming more extreme in their approach to political process issues.
There’s no completely unambiguous starting point for this, and to an extent, the cycle of constitutional hardball has been a tit-for-tat game played by both sides. But as Biden surely remembers from his vice presidency, much of Washington — and certainly many senior members of Barack Obama’s team — were surprised to learn in the winter of 2008-’09 that GOP leadership had no interest in a good-faith negotiation over fiscal stimulus measures. They didn’t see themselves as partners in governing the country.
Instead, as Mitch McConnell said at the time, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Republicans began to use filibuster tactics in unprecedented ways, holding up uncontroversial nominations to eat up precious floor time and refusing to confirm anyone at all to certain posts in an effort to stop agencies from functioning. They weaponized the federal debt ceiling and forced economically damaging austerity budgets on the country only to turn around and embrace budget deficits once Trump was in the White House.
Most of all, they orchestrated a series of Benghazi investigations whose purpose they admitted was to hurt Hillary Clinton’s prospects as a presidential candidate while blocking public disclosure of the ongoing counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
And as Michael Grunwald wrote for Politico in December 2016, it worked:
This strategy of kicking the hell out of Obama all the time, treating him not just as a president from the opposing party but an extreme threat to the American way of life, has been a remarkable political success. It helped Republicans take back the House in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and the White House in 2016. This no-cooperation, no-apologies approach is also on the verge of delivering a conservative majority on the Supreme Court; Republicans violated all kinds of Washington norms when they refused to even pretend to consider any Obama nominee, but they paid no electoral price for it — and probably helped persuade some reluctant Republican voters to back Donald Trump in November by keeping the Court in the balance.
This is all much more inside baseball than congressional Republicans’ specific complicity in Trump’s corruption. But it speaks to why, despite Biden’s basic establishment credibility, many insiders don’t like the aberration theme.
“Trump did not create the Republican Congress,” former Senate Majority leader Harry Reid told Vox’s Ella Nilsen. “The Republican Congress created Trump.”
The feeling among most Democratic leaders is that congressional Republicans are literally responsible for Trump being in office. What’s more, they deeply fear the consequences if the next president takes office while being naive about what he or she is going to be up against.
Joe Biden might be playing politics
As a presidential candidate, Trump promised to deliver a health care system that would cover everybody, with lower premiums and deductibles than what Democrats created with the Affordable Care Act. This sounded terrible to many ideological conservatives but was perhaps appealing to some white working-class voters who felt cross-pressured between agreeing with the GOP on culture and identity issues but more affiliation with Democrats on economics.
It turns out, however, that Trump was just blowing smoke and, as president, has followed congressional Republicans’ lead in seeking to repeal the ACA while replacing it with nothing.
By the same token, Biden might be emphasizing the “Trump as aberration” theme just because he thinks it’s a good campaign line. After all, he was actually there as vice president of the United States when all this stuff went down. He probably noticed that Merrick Garland couldn’t get a vote on the floor of the Senate, and as official steward of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he probably noticed that Republican attacks on the stimulus bill were frequently demagogic and dishonest.
Grunwald, who interviewed Biden extensively for his book on the stimulus, promises that the former VP is not somehow oblivious to reality. In fact, as the guy who was frequently the administration’s point man for cutting deals, he is very much aware of the current state of the GOP.
What I’m saying is this: The notion that Biden was or is naive about the obstructionism of the modern Republican Party is silly. And the notion that good relationships with obstructionist Republicans are totally useless is also silly. 15
— Michael Grunwald (@MikeGrunwald) April 25, 2019
At the same time, even as a purely tactical calculus, the focus on Trump’s aberrant behavior makes some Democrats nervous simply because it’s such a close replay of the message Clinton ran with — and lost with — in 2016.
Clinton’s campaign emphasized Trump’s personal qualities
Hillary Clinton ran on an ambitious policy agenda in 2016, but not only did she struggle to attract media attention for her substantive ideas, her campaign’s paid advertising was nearly unprecedented in the extent to which it ignored policy.
According to a study by the Wesleyan Media Project, only a quarter of Clinton’s ads primarily centered on policy, a much lower number than any previous 21st-century campaign.
Clinton ran her campaign this way because her team thought it was working.
“There was a belief, going into the election, based on internal and every public source of data, that we were on the right track,” a senior Clinton aide told Vox’s Tara Golshan in the immediate wake of the election. “There was no doubt that the race had closed in the final days, but there was no belief that it had closed to the point that Trump would win.”
After she lost, a new conventional wisdom began to take root in Democratic Party circles that her approach had been a mistake. Some of this criticism came from the socialist left, whose idea of what a more issue-oriented campaign should look like meant, in essence, the Bernie Sanders agenda. But many moderate Democrats who disagreed with the substance of the Sanders agenda nonetheless agreed that candidates should do more to emphasize substance.
And in 2018, Democrats did extremely well with campaign tactics that largely emphasized health care in House races and things like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s promise to “fix the damn roads.”
The logic of this, to be clear, isn’t that Trump’s wild and inappropriate behavior is electorally irrelevant. It’s that the media is so saturated with coverage of Trump controversies that there’s relatively little reason for Democrats to spend their own time and energy emphasizing these points. The more important task is to remind people of the idea that Republicans are the party of big business and Democrats are the party for people of modest means. That’s key to doing better with working-class voters of all races and winning elections.
Then again, for now Biden is doing very well in the polls.
People don’t like Trump and they seem to like Joe Biden
The flip side of all this is that Clinton came this close to winning.
And whatever problems she may have had with her message, she had plenty of others too — starting with the email server and the infamous Comey letter. It’s easy to imagine a world in which Comey never sent that letter, Clinton won, and everyone’s sense is that of course she won because the GOP nominated an unfit and unstable candidate.
Biden, for now at least, is doing very well in Democratic Party primary polling and very well in head-to-head polling matchups against Trump.
Trump, meanwhile, has approval ratings that are historically the kind of numbers you expect when the country is mired in recession. Clearly, something about his unusual personality is bothering people, so why not run on that? After all, there are only so many things a political campaign can be about. A strong focus on the economy doesn’t seem to make sense for Democrats given that the economy is in pretty good shape. A focus on racial division plays to the GOP’s strengths in a country where most people are white and where non-college whites, in particular, punch above their numbers in the Electoral College. Many of Biden’s rivals are running on very ambitious policy agendas, but with no path to getting these ideas through the Senate, it can feel like an exercise in futility.
Pointing out that Trump is a weirdo and promising to behave normally instead would not be a very compelling message for a typical primary candidate. But as the former VP and current poll leader, Biden doesn’t need to stand out from the pack. And, of course, if he wins the nomination, people who think the rot in the GOP goes much deeper than Trump are overwhelmingly likely to vote for him anyway. So as a strategy, it makes a fair amount of sense.
But what if Biden wins the election? In theory, his vast experience serving in government should be a huge asset in dealing with the inevitably difficult task of standing up a new administration in the context of nonstop partisan warfare. For that to pay off, he’d have to understand what he’s up against.
The concern among those troubled by Biden’s rhetoric is that his experience may be so extensive that he really believes putting Joe Biden in the White House will magically bring back the less polarized Congress he operated in for the first 10 to 15 years of his career.
Vox · by Matthew Yglesias · May 13, 2019