In late August, Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff under President Barack Obama as well as onetime mayor of Chicago, declared, “This will be the year of the Biden Republican.” Emanuel was describing the hope that the Democratic Party would convert enough hardcore partisans to fundamentally realign American politics. Just as Reagan Democrats helped the Republicans dominate American politics in the 1980s, so Biden Republicans could help usher in a new era. To that end, much of the Democratic National Convention was tailored to please Republicans more than Democrats, with plenty of speeches by past and present Republicans like Colin Powell, Michael Bloomberg, John Kasich, and Cindy McCain. Progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were marginalized. This stood in contrast to the Republican convention, which was aimed not at outreach but at bolstering the party’s Trumpist identity, with all the adult children of the president speaking.
In both campaigns, Trump was the center of attention. The Republicans sold themselves as the party of proud Trumpists, while the Democrats offered themselves as the party for all those who hated Trump, including Republicans.
Enough time has gone by since the convention that we can safely say that the Republican message was more successful. On August 17, the first day of the DNC, Joe Biden had a 8.4 percent lead in FiveThirtyEight’s aggregation of the polls. By September 15, this had narrowed to a 7 percent lead. The narrowing of the poll is slight, and Biden retains an enviable position. But the narrowing, measured in many polls, is real and speaks to the relative success of the rival political messages.
Trump is succeeding in consolidating Republican support behind him, while the Democratic pitch to Republican voters hasn’t gained any traction. Republicans who are skeptical of Trump are returning to the fold, while Democrats aren’t winning new converts.
A Washington Post op-ed by Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, illuminates why Biden’s message isn’t pulling in the voters he’s seeking. Pletka, a longtime foreign policy hawk who was one of the major intellectual supporters of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, is exactly the type of national security hard-liner that Biden is trying to recruit. She admits to being wary of Trump both for his erratic governing style and also his occasional straying from Republican orthodoxy, mainly on trade and military commitments in the Middle East. “I don’t need a bumper sticker or a lawn sign to convey my distaste for Trump—his odious tweets, his chronic mendacity and general crudeness,” she notes.
Having said that, Pletka is even more wary of Joe Biden, because she thinks he’ll be a puppet of the left wing of the Democratic Party.
In a remarkable paragraph, Pletka spells out her nightmare scenario:
I fear that former vice president Joe Biden would be a figurehead president, incapable of focus or leadership, who would run a teleprompter presidency with the words drafted by his party’s hard-left ideologues. I fear that a Congress with Democrats controlling both houses—almost certainly ensured by a Biden victory in November—would begin an assault on the institutions of government that preserve the nation’s small “d” democracy. That could include the abolition of the filibuster, creating an executive-legislative monolith of unlimited political power; an increase in the number of Supreme Court seats to ensure a liberal supermajority; passage of devastating economic measures such as the Green New Deal; nationalized health care; the dismantling of U.S. borders and the introduction of socialist-inspired measures that will wreck an economy still recovering from the pandemic shutdown.
Pletka’s worries seem so divorced from reality that it’s hard to see them as anything other than bad-faith rationalization. From a progressive point of view, it would be wonderful if her nightmares came true, but they remain the stuff of fantasy. There’s nothing in Biden’s past that would indicate he’d govern as a hard leftist. Aside from Biden, the leaders of the current Democratic Party, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, are all resolute centrists. Biden has specifically rejected some of the polices Pletka ascribed to him, notably nationalized health care and the “dismantling of U.S. borders.”
Yet as lurid and unreal as Pletka’s ideas of Biden are, they are widely shared among Republicans. Commenting on Pletka’s article, National Review writer Dan McLaughlin noted, “I cannot even count the number of people from whom I have heard this exact argument, in conversations & private emails.” The idea of Biden as a Trojan horse for the left is a standard Republican talking point.
It’s tempting enough to mock the motivated reasoning and blame-shifting of these arguments, as Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri splendidly did in a parody of Pletka’s op-ed:
Believe me when I tell you that the LAST THING I could POSSIBLY want would be to vote for Donald Trump. That’s why I am so stunned that you have taken it upon yourself to go to such lengths to FORCE me to vote for him! You sick, sick monster! I don’t even like him, not even one little bit. So I hope you’re happy with what YOU are making me do, which comes to me as a total surprise and is definitely not a foregone conclusion in any way.
But behind the bad faith of Pletka’s argument lies an unstated but stark truth: Partisan Republicans and Democrats have ideological commitments that override personal feelings about a candidate. Trump might embarrass Pletka with his ugly tweets, but he’s largely governed as a standard Republican. Even in foreign policy, his occasional anti-interventionist statement is more a matter of rhetoric than policy. In actual policy terms, he’s delivered what any senior fellow at a right-wing think tank would want: tax cuts for the rich, a roll back of environmental regulations, a judiciary filled with Federalist Society alumni, and a massive increase in military spending.
Given that Trump has given Republicans what they want, they would be foolish to go for even so centrist a Democrat as Biden. A nasty tweet is easily forgotten, while policy victories can last for decades.
Pletka’s op-ed explains why Trump’s attempt to consolidate his base makes sense. Given the smaller size of the Republican base, this strategy might still fail. The Republicans have a chance only if the base consolidates and enough Democrats are discouraged and stay home, as happened in 2016.
The danger of Biden’s strategy is that in trying to win over people like Pletka, the Democrats demobilize their own base. Writing in Jacobin, David Sirota notes, “Biden is still ahead overall, but his margin is smaller than it appears, and the race in key battleground states remains tight, even as the Trump economy craters and the Trump-intensified pandemic persists. Meanwhile, there appears to be a significant enthusiasm gap between both candidates’ voters.”
Sirota cites a recent Fox News poll showing that 59 percent of Trump voters are enthusiastic about their candidate as compared to 43 percent of Biden supporters. This enthusiasm gap is exactly what one would expect given Trump’s focus on energizing his base and Biden’s efforts to appeal to people who fundamentally reject Democratic Party policies.
In the language of the oil industry, Biden Republicans are a dry well. The Democrats can keep drilling and drilling, but there’s only a dribble of voters to be gained from this patch of land. They would be better advised to start motivating the voters they already have.