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The Biden/Harris ticket should try hard to win
Before trying anything crazy, do the obvious thing of pivoting to the center
Substack is doing a series of Notes AMAs to help build the platform (and have fun), and I’m doing one today at noon Eastern / 9 a.m. Pacific — hope to virtually see you there.
Jon Chait and Josh Barro both think quite similarly to me. When I see Chait writing that it might be time to panic about Biden’s age and have someone mount a primary challenge, and Barro arguing that Biden should address age concerns by dumping Kamala Harris for someone more popular, I sympathize with what they’re saying.
I’ve also been thinking about what my friend Brian Beutler says in his new Substack. He left Crooked Media (the Pod Save America company) to launch a new blog, and his inaugural post touches on some of the themes of mid-aughts politics that I wrote about recently. But Brian makes a pointed observation about 2008 rather than 2006, noting that back then Democrats “didn’t reflexively close ranks around whichever leaders felt most safe—far from it, one of the big reasons Barack Obama challenged Hillary Clinton for the presidency, and was able to win the nomination, is because Nancy Pelosi (who was then House speaker) and Harry Reid (who was then Senate majority leader) encouraged him to run.”
Clinton, of course, was not an incumbent president.
But it was a big deal for party elders to shove aside the person who was “next in line” in favor of someone who wasn’t really that different but just seemed like he’d be a better nominee. The question Chait is asking is, “why not do that again?” and the question Barro is asking is “why not apply that spirit to the bottom of the ticket?”
These are good questions. But my sticking point is that they seem unnecessarily far-fetched. The impediments to mounting a primary challenge to Biden that would actually replace him with someone better are extremely large, which I think is why nobody is eager to do it. And while I sort of agree with Barro that the backlash to ditching Harris wouldn’t be earth-shattering, it would be significant and there are some big downside risks. Before we get to the point of being willing to run those kind of risks, it seems to me there’s lower-hanging fruit. For example, the White House just created the first-ever national task force on gun violence, and they put Harris in charge. Given her background as a prosecutor, it seems like a great role for her. But why not use the word “crime” when talking about it, rather than prog-speak?
Biden can’t change his age, but he can change the perception that he’s too liberal by saying and doing different things.
In general, my view is that politics isn’t rocket science. You try to win elections by addressing your vulnerabilities. The Dobbs decision lifted Democrats in the midterms, which is why Donald Trump is now trying to pivot from “I’m the guy who killed Roe” to a more moderate posture on abortion. Democrats see that clearly as a threat to their election strategy and are pushing back on his gestures of moderation. That’s great.
But they need to take the logic forward and make their own gestures. There’s of course some risk of backlash with any moderation, but it’s an easier and less risky tactic than switching the ticket.
Switching the ticket is hard
To see the basic problem with challenging Biden, I think you need to consider how this would play out in practice. Anyone who threw her hat in the ring would naturally take a lot of shit from the powers that be, and the sheer volume of that shit would be an impediment to winning.
The natural strategy would be to attack him from the left in a way that would get you plaudits from the advocacy groups. The way these groups work is that no matter how much Biden does, they’re always going to ask for more — even if the thing they are asking for is illegal or politically untenable or substantively ill-advised. If you run against Biden by saying you’ll do that stuff, then the groups will pressure Biden to match. The likely output of this process is that Biden wins anyway, but criticisms of his age are widely aired in the press and he’s repositioned himself on issues in ways that make him less appealing to swing voters who liked the fact that he was more moderate than the other major contenders in 2020. A challenge could work out well, but that’s the base case.
The VP idea suffers from the opposite problem.
Barro is right that this would probably be fine and not cause any earth-shattering backlash. At the same time, the potential upside to a new VP is very small. And the downside risks are large — the backlash might be bigger than we think, or Harris might play sore loser and salt the earth. The switch might intensify scrutiny of Biden’s age.
It’s not crazy to put the idea on the table. You try to win elections by addressing your vulnerabilities, and a VP who consistently polls 4-5 behind the president is a vulnerability. But it’s a very risky play. And if you imagine a world in which the president and his senior staff were willing to roll the dice and risk backlash on this scale, I feel like they would first hit upon some much lower-hanging fruit. What if Harris said that the administration wants to restore the Roe standard and is committed to making abortion safe, legal, and rare through comprehensive family planning services and social support? And Biden could talk about how abortion goes against his personal religious faith, so he not only knows but deeply understands that some people feel that way, but he thinks it’s a fundamental abrogation of human freedom to impose a religious ontology like that on the country.
Those are ways of talking about abortion that used to be common for Democrats but that they abandoned over the past 5-15 years under pressure from advocacy groups. An administration willing to run the risk of backlash for the sake of winning re-election would do stuff like that.
Biden’s missing pivot
In the normal rhythm of a presidential administration, you come into office and hit the ground running to enact your agenda. Of course, it turns out that your campaign overpromised relative to what was feasible in congress, and after 18 months in office, your supporters are a little disappointed by this, while moderate swing voters are alienated by some of your ideas. The opposition gains a lot of ground in the midterms, and so, having gotten your ass kicked a little bit, you pivot to emphasizing more bipartisan ideas while your opponents in congress are increasingly led around by their most extreme safe seat members.
If that pivot works, you get re-elected.
Then in your third congress, you try (and often fail) to do some bipartisan stuff, and in your fourth you throw caution to the wind with some politically dicey executive actions that you probably would have avoided if not for term limits.
The Biden Administration very much started off with this pattern, throwing deep with the Build Back Better proposal and coming away with legislation that while significant, was much smaller than that original proposal. The president became unpopular, and seemed to be cruising for a bad midterm. But then Dobbs happened, which created a very unusual backlash to policy overreach by the out party. Republicans also picked a number of terrible candidates for office in key states, often for no good reason — it’s not like there was some objective shortage of qualified GOP elected officials in Georgia and Pennsylvania. This gave Democrats one of the best midterm performances ever, including an expanded senate majority. And I think that’s induced a certain amount of complacency during Year 3 of the Biden Administration.
After all, the president’s approval rating was under water, a majority of people voted for House Republican candidates, and they won the House. As far as midterm backlashes go, it was pretty mild due to the counter-backlash of Dobbs. But the normal incumbent president warning signs were there, and with the possibility of an ambitious legislative agenda dead, I was expecting a fairly traditional pivot.
That didn’t happen. Even though inflation and interest rates continue to be a topic of concern, the White House hasn’t really shifted to an Obama/Clinton message on deficit reduction. Even though American oil and gas production are setting record highs, the White House hasn’t deployed anything resembling the Obama “all of the above” energy rhetoric. Harris doesn’t talk about crime the way she did in her book fifteen years ago.
These, to be clear, are not even issues where the White House would need to meaningfully change which policies its advocating for. I do think there is plenty of room for taking a more compromising, more moderate, more bipartisan approach on the substance of a number of issues.
But you walk before you run and the lack of pivot even on the level of rhetoric is just weird to me. For example, last week they rolled out the creation of a new White House Office on Gun Violence Prevention — which is the libspeak way of talking about what most people might have called “gun crime” or “violent crime.” In terms of what the council actually does, who knows. But talking about “crime” sets you up to sound moderate, and to talk about how the murder rate soared during Donald Trump’s presidency but has fallen under Biden but he now wants to do the hard work to bring us back to where we were during the Obama-era crime low point.
Optimistic Matt vs Pessimistic Matt
When I was thinking about this in an optimistic frame of mind over the weekend after my kid’s soccer team won their game, I reminded myself that the election is over a year away. Maybe the White House is just settling up accounts. They did the Gun Violence Council, they did the climate corps, they did loan forgiveness for defrauded borrowers — they’re basically putting points on the board for their constituent interest groups.
I sometimes look at all that and think “why is this the message heading into an election?” But the fact is we’re not really heading into the election yet, and maybe the plan is to spend 2023 putting deposits in the Bank of Political Capital and then spend 2024 running my dream Ruthless Triangulation Re-election Campaign. Biden’s first SuperPAC is great and perhaps a preview of the real message.
But in my more pessimistic moods, I’m reminded that a number of people who work at high levels in congress have told me that the way they think about things is that the campaign message is what you put in paid ads and things like social media posts are mostly just to drive engagement, fundraising, and list-building. I don’t know how widely shared that opinion is, but if you look at Democrats’ actual behavior, I think a lot of it fits that framework.
I can’t prove it, but this seems like a really bad framework.
Ads are important and they clearly do work to some extent. But people get most of their information about the general structure of politics from the media that they consume, not from the ads that they watch. If you want people to think of you as a super-normie moderate guy, that needs to be the constant focus of your public facing communications strategy, even if that means taking some blowback from the groups. You need to turn to them and say you’re trying to win an election here, and if they want to deliberately sabotage you and put Trump in the White House they can probably pull that off but it seems like a bad idea. And then you need to proceed with fearlessness.
It would take an incredible spirit of fearlessness to address Democrats’ political problems by challenging an incumbent president or kicking the VP off the ticket. But I think those problems probably wouldn’t exist in the first place if the whole team just mustered the smaller amount of fearlessness it would take to run a campaign with Obama levels of willingness to stiff-arm the groups and pander to the electorate by just being like 10 percent less progressive across the board.