Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson explains why Biden’s “electability” is a myth.
He may be a likable white man, but his performance on the trail doesn’t inspire confidence.
His performance was unnerving. I don’t want Biden to be the nominee for ideological reasons, but polls show him far ahead, and if he’s going to be the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer against Donald Trump, I want him to be a strong one. He didn’t seem strong in South Carolina.
Donald Trump, of course, also speaks in gibberish, but with a bombastic unearned confidence; rather than flailing around for the right figure he makes one up. Biden, by contrast, was just shaky. And while there’s great affection for him on the ground, there’s little excitement. You can see why his campaign has been limiting his public events and why he’s been avoiding the press.
It’s true that ordinary voters don’t seem to care about the gaffes that obsess cable TV commentators. No one I spoke to in Columbia was bothered by Biden waxing nostalgic about his civil relations with segregationist senators; most people hadn’t even heard about it. And his ability to forge personal connections remains impressive. At the fish fry, his remarks were surprisingly short, but he stayed until almost midnight talking to attendees one-on-one on the rope line.
From Australia to Europe, the signs are multiplying that conservative populism is on the rise.
Sometimes political revolutions occur right before our eyes without us quite realizing it. I think that’s what’s been happening over the last few weeks around the world, and the message is clear: The populist “New Right” isn’t going away anytime soon, and the rise of the “New Left” is exaggerated.
Start with Australia, where Prime Minister Scott Morrison won a surprising victory last week. Before the election, polls had almost uniformly indicated that his Liberal-National Coalition would have to step down, but voters were of another mind. With their support of Morrison, an evangelical Christian who has expressed support for President Donald Trump, Australians also showed a relative lack of interest in doing more about climate change. And this result is no fluke of low turnout: Due to compulsory voting, most Australians do turn out for elections.
Or how about the U.K.? The evidence is mounting that the Brexit Party will do very well in this week’s European Parliament elections. Right now that party, which did not exist until recently, is in the lead in national polls with an estimated 34% support. The Tories, the current ruling party, are at only 12%. So the hard Brexit option does not seem to be going away, and the right wing of British politics seems to be moving away from the center.
As for the European Parliament as a whole, by some estimates after this week’s election 35% of the chamber will be filled by anti-establishment parties, albeit of a diverse nature. You have to wonder at what margins the EU will become unworkable or lose legitimacy altogether.
Meanwhile in the U.S., polls show Joe Biden as the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. He is one of the party’s more conservative candidates, and maybe some primary voters value his electability and familiarity over the more left-wing ideas of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. That’s one sign the “hard left” is not in ascendancy in the U.S. Biden’s strategy of running against Trump is another. It’s hard to say how effective that will prove, but it is likely to result in an election about the ideas and policies of Trump, not those of Democratic intellectuals.
Meanwhile, the U.S. economy has remained strong, and Trump’s chances of re-election have been rising in the prediction markets.
One scarcely noticed factor in all of this has been the rising perception of China as a threat to Western interests. The American public is very aware that the U.S. is now in a trade war with China, a conflict that is likely to provoke an increase in nationalism. That is a sentiment that has not historically been very helpful to left-wing movements. China has been one of Trump’s signature causes for years, and he seems to be delighting in having it on center stage.
The Democratic Party is not well-positioned to make China a core issue. Democrats have been criticizing Trump’s tariffs for a while now, and it may be hard for them to adjust their message from “Tariffs Are Bad” to “Tariffs Are Bad But China Tariffs Are OK.” Their lukewarm support for free trade agreements — especially the Trans Pacific Partnership, which could have served as a kind of alternative China trade policy — also complicates matters. The net result is that Republicans will probably be able to use the China issue to their advantage for years to come.
Elsewhere, the world’s largest democracy just wrapped up a lengthy election. The results in India aren’t yet known, but exit polls show that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling coalition — and his philosophy of Hindu nationalism — will continue to be a major influence.
In all of this ferment, I am myself rooting for a resurgence of centrist cosmopolitanism. But I try to be honest about how my ideas are doing in the world. And in the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of evidence that a new political era truly is upon us.
With a field this large, let’s not jump to conclusions.
Biden, like Clinton, is extremely vulnerable to Trumpian forms of faux-populist attack. He is a 36-year veteran of Washington who backed the Iraq War, cultivated close ties with banks and credit card companies and played a leading role in shaping the punitive policies that helped produced mass incarceration. As he did with Clinton, Trump can slam him on these issues and sow division among Democratic voters. It’s how he won in 2016 — targeting black voters with Clinton’s past positions to discourage and demobilize them. It worked. For all the focus on blue-collar whites, Clinton also missed Obama’s benchmarkswith black voters. Had she reached them — or had she come close — she would be president.
It’s possible none of this will touch Biden, for the simple reason that he is a man. And the gender politics that constrained Clinton’s career — that harmed her standing whenever she reached for national office — don’t apply to Biden. Unlike her, he may retain enough of an appeal to blue-collar whites and remain the most formidable challenger to Trump.
There’s another possibility — that those blue-collar voters are gone. That their shift away from the Democratic Party, which began long before 2016, is permanent. And that Biden’s personal appeal isn’t enough to reverse it. Remember, if he wins the nomination, Biden will represent a coalition defined by its racial diversity and gender egalitarianism. If the backlash to those forces is driving the Trump movement, then the candidate who stands for them will face the same reactionary fury, regardless of how well he plays blue-collar identity politics.
Joe Biden will have to juggle this and the larger burden of standing for the past and its failures. Perhaps, despite running two failed campaigns for the presidency, he’s a deft enough politician to handle all of this and make a compelling case against Trump. Perhaps his electability isn’t a mirage. The point is that we don’t know. And with nearly two dozen candidates in the Democratic field, it seems premature to treat Biden as the one with the least risk.