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A few months ago, I found an interesting read in an airport bookstore that sought to predict the geopolitics of the 21st century. It was written in 2009 by George Friedman, the CEO of a leading private intelligence company, and it’s already gotten some things wrong — e.g., China did not fragment by 2020 — but it nonetheless contained some provocative ideas.
One is American politics has realigned every half-century or so, and we’re due for another realignment in the next decade. The last realigning president, Friedman writes, was Ronald Reagan, who reversed the social-welfare-expanding agenda of the previous realigning president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who offered a course correction to the rapid industrialization set in motion by Rutherford B. Hayes’ monetary policy, and so on. That means a president elected in 2028 or 2032 will probably set the tone for the rest of my life.
For the sake of my mental health — and democracy — I’m going to hope that Donald Trump isn’t a harbinger of that realignment, but rather the last gasp of a boomer generation being supplanted by socialism-curious millennials and Gen Zs. More pointedly, my hope is that Trump’s presidency proves an ultimately useful shock to the system, something that awoke us to the cancer in our midst.
Defeating him, as I wrote last week, is but the first step to eradicating this malignancy. The next president will also have to begin an arduous process of repairing the institutions Trump and his Republican accomplices have gleefully sledgehammered.
It will be an almost impossible job. Getting it could be even more difficult.
On the one hand, Trump’s approval ratings have been stuck in the low-to-mid-40s, even with record-low unemployment and solid economic growth, two variables that normally augur a glide to a second term. On the other, Trump is not a normal president. He can’t stop himself from being an unlovable narcissist, and his pathological need for the fawning adoration of his base prevents him from expanding his support. He’s a bad politician in a good politician situation, and the media has no idea how to handle him.
This is the context in which the Democratic primary’s cattle call is happening. I won’t pretend to have smart takes on the million-and-a-half people with their eyes on the throne, or tell you I have any insight into what will happen over the next six months.
But the philosophical question that will animate the Democratic primary isn’t a mystery: Is the next president’s job to offer the country a sober, take-a-deep-breath reset — an antidote to Trump’s crazy-making — or to push a bold, even radical agenda?
Within that question lie two others, more practical in nature: Which kind of candidate is more likely to defeat Trump? And which, if elected, is more likely to move his or her agenda through Congress?
Joe Biden’s theory is that he’ll appeal to working-class and suburban white voters in the Midwest, the ones who didn’t like Hillary Clinton but are turned off by Trump’s antics and want a return to bipartisan compromise and general governmental sanity. In office, he’ll move the ball incrementally and competently by negotiating deals with Republicans; in his view, Trump is the problem, and once he’s gone, the Republicans will come to their senses.
The opposite view, espoused by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, is that Democrats win by giving progressive and disaffected voters something to believe in – Medicare for All, the Green New Deal – and giving everyone else an unambiguous choice. And when they win, they’ll have done so with enough of a mandate to muscle their agenda through Congress (and get around or abolish the filibuster).
Of course, there are plenty of candidates who fall between these poles, and most candidates would say they’ll try to both energize the base and appeal to Trump voters — though, especially in a growing economy, this strikes me as more of a rhetorical than realistic solution.
In this dichotomy, however, most of postwar political history would lean toward Biden. Presidential elections with incumbents are referendums on the incumbents. If he’s popular and the economy is good, he wins. If not and it’s not, he doesn’t. The opponent only matters at the margins, so it’s better to go with a safe choice like Biden than a riskier one like Sanders or Warren. That is the essence of Biden’s electability argument.
But in most of postwar political history, an inexperienced, mendacious libertine like Trump would have been unthinkable as president. Times have changed: The GOP has been radicalized, and America has become polarized. There are few actual swing voters. Indeed, Clinton lost not because of Barack Obama supporters who went for Trump, but because of Obama supporters who stayed home. Come 2020, the MAGA base will turn out. Democrats need to match their enthusiasm; to do that, their nominee needs to inspire them.
That’s what Joe Biden misreads about the moment. And it’s not really his fault: For most of his career, the campaign he’s running would have been the right thing to do. It’s just not the right thing to do now. And the presidency Biden wants to have makes a similar miscalculation: The election isn’t about beating Trump. It’s about defeating his nihilistic movement and the once-proud Republican Party that has surrendered to it. So this isn’t a time for bipartisan bonhomie. It’s a time to win, and then it’s a time to act.
Not as payback, but because there are real problems that need solving. The climate isn’t going to stop warming all by itself.
(Jeffrey Billman is the editor of INDY Week, in Durham, North Carolina.)