Joyous celebrations spontaneously broke out all over America, and indeed many parts of the world, on Saturday as news outlets declared Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential contest. The raucous public festivities of the day were testament to the importance of defeating Donald Trump, a singularly dangerous president whose mixture of demagoguery, incompetence, and corruption was a threat to American democracy. Defeating Trump was absolutely the most important political goal of 2020, and Biden achieved it.
Nor, despite the fact that Biden didn’t win the landslide that polls predicted, should the scale of his victory be gainsaid. True, his Electoral College win was narrow, built on tiny edges in a handful of states. But even on those terms, Biden secured some essential victories, rebuilding the necessary “blue wall” of Rust Belt states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania) and making important inroads in Arizona and Georgia. Beyond the Electoral College, Biden currently has a lead of roughly 4.5 million votes: 75,404,182 (or roughly 50.7 percent of the total), against Trump’s 70,903,094 (47.7 percent). But there are nearly 9 million ballots uncounted, many in heavily Democratic states such as California, Illinois, and New York. When the total count is finished, Biden could approach a lead of nearly 7 million votes (or between 51 and 52 percent). Biden will be only the third Democrat to get more than 51 percent of the vote since the death of Franklin Roosevelt, joining the exclusive company of Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama.
This huge numerical victory is all the more impressive because defeating a sitting president is extremely difficult. Most presidents that run for reelection succeed. In the past century, only five presidents have been defeated in their bid for another term: Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Donald Trump. Of these five elections, Biden is heading toward a better showing than anyone who has defeated a sitting president since Franklin Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover in 1932.
But in one very important way, Biden has done worse than Franklin Roosevelt, whose party had a small majority status in the House of Representatives and a minority status in the Senate. In the 1932 election, this was turned into strong majorities in both houses. Biden, by contrast, has had little or no coattails. Indeed, in the House of Representatives, the Democrats have lost four seats, giving them the thinnest majority in 18 years. In the Senate, they have so far netted one seat, giving them a total of 48. Georgia’s two Senate seats will be decided in a special election in early January, and it is possible the Democrats could win both, which would give them a majority in the Senate. But it is going to be an uphill battle to win those two seats.
Centrist Democrats and their allies among Never Trump Republicans are trying to blame the poor congressional showing on progressive Democrats. The argument is that slogans like “socialism” and “defund the police” scared off centrist voters. House majority whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) warned in the caucus call that if “we are going to run on Medicare for All, defund the police, socialized medicine, we’re not going to win.”
These claims are absurd and a transparent attempt to scapegoat and silence the party’s activist wing. It’s worth recalling that Biden, the party’s standard-bearer, repeatedly expressed disdain for Medicare for All (promising to veto it if it ever passed), socialism (boasting that he had beaten the socialist Bernie Sanders), and the movement to defund the police (advocating more federal funding for the police). Socialism and defunding the police are activist causes, with little or no bearing on congressional Democrats, and explicitly rejected by many.
The poor showing of the congressional Democrats has nothing to with socialism and everything to do with the main message promoted by Biden. He pursued a successful strategy to build an anti-Trump coalition that extended from the militant left to Never Trump conservatives. Biden’s list of supporters ran the gamut from the radical Noam Chomsky to the neoconservative Bill Kristol.
But in building his grand anti-Trump coalition, Biden also undermined congressional Democrats.
Trump and Biden both worked very hard to maximize the number of Republicans who would vote in 2020. Trump pursued this goal by trying to bring in new people to the Republican Party: courting African American and Latino voters by emphasizing the job growth of the pre-Covid world. Biden encouraged a different type of Republican to come out by courting erstwhile Republicans, mainly in the suburbs, who were disenchanted with Trump’s vulgarity.
Biden did everything in his power to give those voters permission to vote for a Democrat. He had Republicans like former Ohio governor John Kasich speak at the Democratic National Convention. Biden touted the endorsement of Cindy McCain, wife of the former Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Biden repeatedly boasted about his own ability to work with Republicans.
In using Republicans to delegitimize Trump, Biden was also in effect legitimizing the Republican Party. His implicit argument was that the only real problem was Trump and that once Trump was out of the way, the two parties could go back to normal cooperation. Biden completely ignored the extent to which the GOP had become Trumpized and major Republicans like Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell had been deeply complicit in Trump’s corruption.
Biden gave voters who leaned Republicans a plausible argument to vote for him. But he also gave those voters, and also many centrists, permission to split the ticket. After all, if the only problem is Trump, why punish the GOP? If Biden knows how to work with Republicans, why not have a divided government?
The real lesson of the election is that if you run a Republican campaign, you will get Republican results. Democrats had better hope that Biden is merely a placeholder president and that in 2024 he’ll be replaced by a Democratic leader who runs a Democratic campaign.