Did Democrats just inadvertently throw Trump a lifeline for reelection? More worrisome, did their convention presage a Biden administration without a mandate to address the stark challenges of this time?
Democrats left their often-moving virtual convention last week confident that they’d consolidated Biden’s lead and roused their coalition. Throughout the major speeches, their critique of Trump focused on his lack of character and competence. Former president Barack Obama warned of the threat he poses to democracy itself. The Democrats as a whole chose not to highlight how Trump had betrayed the very working people who were crucial to his victory in 2016. They emphasized Biden’s decency and empathy and his ability to reach across the aisle. But they offered neither a compelling explanation for why we’re in the mess we are in nor a clear sense about how Biden plans to get us out of it.
The convention successfully displayed the emerging Democratic coalition linking the suburban middle class, particularly women, with people of color and the young. Trump’s catastrophic failure to manage the pandemic got deserved attention. The other issues touched upon—racial justice, immigration, guns, climate, child care—were chosen for their appeal to elements of the coalition.
This strategic choice—in essence, a replay of Hillary Clinton’s strategy in 2016—is worrisome as campaign strategy and even more troubling if it indicates the direction Biden will follow if elected.
Exposing Trump’s con of his working-class voters wouldn’t have been hard. His tax cuts larded the pockets of the rich and corporations, while workers never saw the raises that were promised. His trade policies left manufacturing in a recession even before the pandemic, while his tax bill actually rewarded corporations that moved jobs abroad. He and the Republican Senate are blocking continued support for the 28 million people still on unemployment. He continues to try to repeal Obamacare without offering an alternative. Yet deaths of despair, the opioid epidemic, the continued shuttering of factories got little attention at the Democratic convention. The national security establishment figures that helped mire us in endless wars abroad were arrayed in support of Biden, while Trump’s failed promise to end those wars went unnoticed.
Democrats did not offer a clear argument about why this economy does not work for most Americans—a reality that long precedes Trump—and what Biden proposes to do about it. Biden did mention raising the minimum wage, touched on the importance of unions, and linked the green investment agenda to jobs. But the focus was on Trump’s malevolence, on decency against anger, unity against division, diversity against prejudice.
This strategic choice reflects the campaign’s strategy: The presidential campaign apparently won’t reach out to the white working class, particularly men. Democrats will focus on turning out the vote of the people of color and the young and making inroads in the suburbs, particularly among women. This slights the very voters—the Obama-Trump voters in the key states of the Midwest—who cost Hillary Clinton the election in 2016.
Electorally, in the short term, this may not matter. Hillary won the popular vote four years ago when Democrats were complacent, and Trump was considered an amusement. Now Democrats are aroused and Trump is a menace. His bungling of the pandemic and the chaos now around school openings have driven his approval down to new lows.
But it does give Trump an opening. His virtual convention, in which he will be “the talent in chief” and appear every night, will inevitably display his bile and his guile. He will play the race card, pitching law and order against lawlessness in the cities. He’ll offer a stage to wingnuts like the St. Louis couple who brandished guns against peaceful protesters passing their home. He’ll savage Biden personally—for alleged mental decline, corruption, as “stone cold crazy” and a ”puppet of the radical left” who wants to “abolish the suburbs.”
But the focus of his attack is likely to be on policy—scouring Biden for his support for mass incarceration, his championing of ruinous trade deals, his vote for the Iraq War. On the day Biden spoke to the nation, Trump went to Scranton, Penn., Biden’s birthplace, to tell supporters, “Joe Biden is no friend of Pennsylvania. He’s actually…your worst nightmare. Biden supported every single globalist attack on Pennsylvania workers, NAFTA, China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, which built China into a power, [the Trans-Pacific Partnership], Korea, the horrible, ridiculous Paris climate accord, which stripped our nation of its energy, and the so-called Clean Power Plan.”
He’ll campaign as the insurgent, not the incumbent, fighting for the little guy against the elite establishment, the deep state, the swamp.
He’ll sell a mythical pre-pandemic economy and promise a miraculous post-pandemic recovery. The strategic decision of Democrats to ignore his con of working people gives Trump an open field to be the populist in the race.
Even if Biden goes on to win, the Democratic default has worrisome implications. Without a mandate, Biden will have more trouble building a majority for systemic change. His calls for unity and bipartisan cooperation will empower the deep pockets, the entrenched interests, and the conservative wing of the party.
In the long run, betrayed by Trump and neglected by Democrats, the white working class will be left without a party. The appeal to people of color on the basis of identity rather than economic interest is likely to have a limited shelf life. Democrats may well find that the failure to ground their coalition and their agenda in the broad working class will make it impossible to build a broad majority for the fundamental changes we need.