Why the parties can't decide
Slouching toward Biden-Trump
We take time off for federal holidays here at Slow Boring, but we also don’t want to deprive the world of content so we normally un-paywall a classic paid post.
I’m of course partial to my own prior post about Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideas and legacy and the interview/MLK profile my grandfather did shortly before King’s assassination. But in addition to being a holiday, we are now on the eve of the Iowa Caucus and the official kickoff of the 2024 primary season. It’s a weird one, with many people apparently incredulous that Trump is going to be the Republican nominee and many other people incredulous that Democrats are set to renominate an unpopular incumbent. Back in September, I explained why this is happening leverage some insights from a book a couple of my friends wrote that’s coming out later this year.
The basic situation is I think a little different from how it’s frequently portrayed. It’s not that “the Democrats” and “the Republicans” are making bad strategic choices, it’s that they genuinely can’t make strategic choices. Which in many ways is more alarming.
Joe Biden is old, which for some time has bothered voters in ways that I find irrational. Nonetheless, I am a believer in giving the people what they want. And since what they seem to want is a broadly Biden-like candidate between the ages of 45-65, that’s what I think the Democratic Party should give them. But how would that happen?
That was my reaction when I read Nate Silver’s commentary on the latest Biden polling, which ended with the remark that “Democrats can’t say they weren’t warned.”
The implication is that there is some group of people — “Democrats” — who were warned and who failed to take timely action.
But the truth is that influential actors in the Democratic Party not only were warned that Biden’s age was an electoral liability, they believed the warnings. The issue is that the warnings weren’t actionable. And you have something very similar on the Republican side: Donald Trump has a lot of baggage that makes it relatively hard for him to beat Joe Biden. I’ve sometimes heard people make the exaggerated claim that any non-Biden Democrat would beat Trump and any non-Trump Republican would beat Biden. That’s not true. But it is true that if you randomly drew the name of an incumbent governor from a hat, that person would probably be a stronger general election nominee than whomever his or her party is set to nominate.
We don’t have Phil Scott versus Jon Bel Edwards because those guys are genuinely too moderate for the preferences of their respective parties. But why not Mike DeWine versus Gretchen Whitmer? Is it because you and I and Nate Silver are smart and the people running American politics are idiots?
A much better explanation is suggested in a book coming out next spring, “The Hollow Parties.” It was written by two friends of mine, and I got to read in draft form.
The book itself is a fascinating history of the two parties, but the hollowness thesis speaks particularly to the present.
If you decide after delving into the data that you need to warn “Democrats” about something and you give them a call, it turns out there’s nobody picking up the phone. Of course, the DNC and RNC do exist and they have staffers in the building who will literally pick up the phone. But the party committees don’t amount to anything. Neither do the quadrennial national conventions. Neither do the state parties. We have a lot of partisanship, but that’s largely negative partisanship, not affective affiliation with the party you usually vote for. The parties barely exist as institutions, but beyond that, even to the extent that they exist as a loose constellation of related entities, those entities lack social legitimacy and can’t steer events.
That presents itself most obviously in the spectacle of willfully nominated unpopular presidential contenders. But it arguably has more dire implications in terms of the difficulties it creates for setting priorities and making political decisions — if the public’s desires and interests can’t be constructively channeled through political parties, then we’re more likely to ping pong between stasis and demagoguery.
Democracy needs political parties, and the United States of America doesn’t really have them.
The weak nominees
Imagine a scenario in which the House Democratic caucus gets to vote behind closed doors in a secret ballot with the following two options:
Joe Biden is renominated unopposed.
Joe Biden voluntarily steps aside and is swiftly replaced by Josh Shapiro.
I think it’s pretty clear that Shapiro would win that ballot. And so would Whitmer. Or Roy Cooper. But so would plenty of other people whose names aren’t even in the mix. Nobody is going to launch a “draft Catherine Cortez Masto” movement because she has zero national profile (I do this professionally and I wouldn’t recognize her on the street), but I think she offers a similar ideological profile and would be a stronger candidate.
But that’s not a mechanism that exists. For Biden to not be the nominee, a specific person would need to run against him.
So why doesn’t that happen? One possibility is that nobody in elite Democratic Party politics heard the news that Joe Biden’s age is an electoral liability. Another, more plausible, idea is that ambitious professional politicians took a look at the situation, considered a run, and decided that the odds against them were too steep. I bet some of them even put polls in the field. But beating an incumbent president in a primary would be really hard. That’s especially true because “his age is an electoral liability,” though true, is an awfully weak rationale for a presidential campaign.
You could run against Biden from the left, but that would undermine the electability rationale and you’d lose.
You could run against Biden from the right, but most primary voters wouldn’t agree with you and you’d lose.
You could run against Biden by saying age isn’t just an electoral liability, he’s actually senile and unfit to serve, but most Democrats don’t believe that (it’s not true) and you’d lose.
Of course, nothing ventured nothing gained. But if you dipped your toes into the water, people would tell you “don’t run, you’re overwhelmingly likely to lose and the impact of your campaign is going to be to help Trump.” Obviously if Biden loses, everyone will look back and say this was a costly error. But that’s pure ex post thinking. Viewed ex ante, the expected outcome of challenging Biden isn’t just that you light your own career on fire, it’s that to the extent your campaign gains traction, it massively helps Trump win. Critically, nothing about this analysis requires you to be blind to Biden’s very real age-related political weakness. The problem is that structurally speaking, it’s hard to get the outcome “someone who is like Biden but younger,” even if almost everyone broadly agrees that would be better.
You can, after all, just look over to the GOP side where “someone who is like Trump but not a criminal and a scumbag” seems like an obviously good idea to almost everyone.
But even though this idea could easily capture a smoke-filled room of GOP operatives, donors, and elected officials, it can’t gain traction in the real world. To just say Trump’s baggage is an electoral liability isn’t compelling to Republicans. To say that Trump’s scumbaggery is disqualifying on the merits renders you anathema to Republicans. So you end up with Ron DeSantis’ strategy of mounting an ideological critique of Trump from the right, which does get you some traction, but surrenders the electability point and ultimately fails. All that’s happened is a lot of donor money has been set on fire to mildly help Biden. And if GOP elites tried harder to shake the Trump monkey off their back, all they’d really do is damage Trump’s general election prospects more.
Exception that proves the rule
I’m mildly obsessed with the phrase “the exception that proves the rule,” which does not mean that the existence of an exception proves that a rule is true, but that examining the best exception to a proposed rule helps you define the limits of that rule.
After the 2020 South Carolina primary, we did see a very strong effort by Democratic Party elites to steer primary voters to Joe Biden. This was kinda, sorta the mechanism described in “The Party Decides,” but in a collapsed, death-rattle form. For starters, Bernie Sanders was unusually unacceptable to the party establishment in the sense that he failed to make even token gestures to appeasing his opponents. Back when he was riding high, I urged him to try to conciliate establishmentarians, but he’s a cranky dude and he wouldn’t make outreach phone calls or even officially join the Democratic Party.
But beyond that, the Biden wagon-circling came extraordinarily late in the game.
Not only did Sanders beat him in fundraising, so did Elizabeth Warren and the former mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana. For a while, Kamala Harris had him beat. Barack Obama did not spend the winter of 2019-2020 endorsing and campaigning for his former running mate. Pod Save America was not touting Biden. Among Democratic elites, there was a view that you should get to Biden’s left (Pete, Harris) or way to his left (Warren, Bernie). There were some savvy electability options like Steve Bullock and Amy Klobuchar, but nobody cared what savvy people thought.
There was a block of Democrats who had fond Obama/Biden memories, and there was a smaller block who wanted to go in a different ideological direction. The idea of “broadly like Joe Biden, but not literally Joe Biden” was analytically smart in 2020, just the way it’s analytically smart in 2024. But there’s no forum in which a decision like that can be made. You can write it on a blog or say it at a happy hour or on a podcast, but you can’t actually do it.
What’s more, when the party finally did rally around Biden, that was taken by the Bernie camp as a form of quasi-cheating. Going back to the controversies over superdelegates in 2008, we see that the idea of party elites taking an active role in the nomination is seen as broadly illegitimate. Informal coordination is logistically difficult, but also understood to be a kind of dirty pool, a form of “rigging” the system. For a while, though, the exigencies of fundraising and the ties between media gatekeepers and establishment politicians did let political elite steer nominations. But the internet blew that all up, the media landscape is too competitive, and the very idea of party politics is too discredited for partisan elites to make decisions that receive deference.
Democracy without parties
One problem with this is that in the name of empowering the people, we have denied the people something they were previously accustomed to: a choice between two appealing presidential contenders.
As I’ve noted before, despite the myth that Mitt Romney was subject to some kind of unprecedented campaign of character assassination, he was viewed favorably by 55 percent of the electorate on the eve of Election Day. John Kerry was at 57-40 when he lost. Bush the elder was at 59-40 when he was beaten by Bill Clinton. Clinton won with a famously low share of the popular vote, but his favorable rating was an overwhelmingly positive 64-33. A lot of people have the view that widespread disgust with the two major party nominees should lead to a third party contender, but the evidence of the 1992 race indicates the reverse. Both Bush and his Democratic opponent were seen as okay by lots of people, which left them open to voting for a third candidate who matched their views even more precisely.
The point is, it’s only recently, as the system has become increasingly democratic, that the nominees have gotten increasingly unpopular.
It sounds kind of paradoxical, but it follows pretty straightforwardly from the fact that we’re not letting political professionals do their jobs. We have lots of columnists doing takes like “Hey! Trump is a criminal and Biden is old! Voters don’t like that!” as if leading Democrats and Republicans are unaware of this information. The issue is that they can’t do anything about it. The voters are like a child whose parents don’t enforce a bedtime — he is superficially getting what he wants, but in practice, he’s cranky and upset all the time. Most people don’t actually want to sift through the ranks of random governors and senators, identify which ones suit the moment, go volunteer for their campaigns, give them money, etc. What they want is strong parties to do that work and present them with appealing nominees. Instead, everyone is miserable, and it risks discrediting democracy.
Even worse, though, is the actual governance. For instrumental political reasons, I wish Biden were younger. But I can’t for the life of me identify any bad decisions that have been made that are attributable to the president’s age.
Mostly, it seems to me like he’s doing a good job. To the extent that I have a serious criticism, though, it’s that the Biden-era Democratic Party has not done a good job of setting priorities. Instead, it has a tendency to try to advance on all fronts, then let Joe Manchin or John Roberts sort it out. That’s not an optimal way to get things done, but it’s also not idiosyncratic to Biden. Going back to 2009-2010, it wasn’t Barack Obama personally who decided to prioritize health care, it was a broad party decision — that’s why it worked. But that’s also to say that the Obama-era party was more capable of making a decision.
You didn’t have unanimity among members of congress about legislative sequencing, but everyone agreed that a choice had to be made and when the choice was made, it stuck. That doesn’t work without functioning, vital political parties that are seen as legitimate actors by society. But if you can’t have bargaining among political elites mediated by a party structure as a means of setting priorities, then what you need is some kind of demagogue or strongman. That’s no way to run a country, but neither is an endless process of already-famous candidates and unfocused legislative agendas. What a democracy needs is proper political parties that can do proper political work.