Biden's China gaffe highlights Democrats' difficulty in bucking new status quo

Biden's China gaffe highlights Democrats' difficulty in bucking new status quo
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Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from Trump's 2020 kickoff rally Five takeaways from Trump's 2020 kickoff rally Sanders tears into Trump in response to campaign kickoff rally MORE’s recent jaw-dropper that China is not America’s competition is simultaneously wrong and informative for 2020. The “wrong” is obvious, but the “informative” is more important because it demonstrates how quickly the potential opposition to Trump can shrink. Among the most prominent components of this attrition is the difference between a generic and a real challenger. 

On May 1, Biden stunned everyone from Foggy Bottom to the Middle Kingdom by stating: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on man … they’re not competition for us.” Despite eight years in the previous administration and six terms in the Senate, Biden’s observation runs counter to all evidence — economic, military and foreign policy — as China does to America’s values. China is America’s greatest competitor — it has been since the Soviet Union’s collapse left it the only other superpower.  

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Not only is Biden’s stance wrong — and dangerous — but it did not come from just anyone. Biden is the Democrats’ frontrunner. He is a pillar of the Democratic establishment and possesses more experience than any number of his countless nomination rivals put together. He is the cream of the Democrats’ crop.

Further, Biden’s belief runs counter to Democrats’ presumptive line of defense against a potential Trump trade deal with China: It’s not tough enough, and they would have struck a better one. Not surprisingly, even some Democrats refuted Biden’s erroneous claims.

It would seem unlikely that something so wrong on every level could still yield insight; however, it unintentionally does. If nothing else, Biden’s remark shows the fallacy of assuming that Democratic challengers automatically inherit as supporters, let alone finish with, those who do not currently approve of Trump.  

To understand this, look at two recent polls from Gallup and NBC/WSJ, which recorded Trump’s approval at 46 percent. That 46 percent matches the percentage of 2016’s popular vote that Trump won and could lead to two simplistic mistakes: Trump’s future Democratic opponent could win as much as 54 percent of voters next year, because his support remains capped.  

The first fallacy rests on the assumption that not approving equates to disapproving. Both polls show this is untrue: Gallup recorded disapproval at 50 percent, while NBC/WSJ’s had it at 51 percent.  

Next is the fact that disapproval equals only potential opposition, not reality. This is where Biden’s “misfortune cookie” of a quote comes in.  

Presidential races are run by actual candidates, not generic ones. In reality, real candidates suffer real attrition from the mirage that is “potential opposition.” Biden’s China comments show just one of the ways this will happen.    

Like Biden, real candidates make real mistakes. Real mistakes cost real support. Biden’s error was of the unforced variety. In 2020, unforced mistakes — even if Biden is their nominee — will likely be the least of Democrats’ concerns. 

Forced mistakes are virtually inevitable for Democrats’ nominee. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will have to do so by running left. Running left means running away from the moderates at the center who will determine 2020’s outcome — that is a big mistake, but Democratic voters are demanding it.

To understand Democrats’ danger from running left, even if just to win the nomination, look at 2016 exit polling. Liberals, who are now ascendant in the Democratic Party, made up just 26 percent of 2016 voters. With that as their core, Democrats will need to nearly double it to reach 50 percent. 

In contrast, conservatives were 35 percent of 2016 voters. That means Trump only needs to increase his conservative base by roughly half to reach 50 percent. 

View Democrats’ 2020 dilemma from the perspective of 2016’s 39 percent of voters who described themselves as moderates. From a liberal base, Democrats will need 62 percent of moderates to reach 50 percent of the electorate. From his conservative base, Trump will need just 38 percent. 

That enormous difference is not Trump’s only advantage. In 2016, Trump was the ultimate challenge to the status quo. In 2020, ultimately Trump is the status quo. That means those who are comfortable with where things are — even if they are not necessarily comfortable with Trump as president — can be willing to keep things the way they are. That translates into keeping Trump where he is.  

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There are many reasons why incumbent presidents usually win reelection. Voters who prefer stability — and prosperity greatly aids that — ultimately vote for the incumbent. Presidents also have a far larger ability to control the agenda and with it, obtain media coverage. 

The converse is that these combine to create a challenger attrition, which rapidly saps the seeming strength of implied opposition to the incumbent. In an instant, Biden unwittingly encapsulated Democrats’ 2020 difficulty and the fallacy that Trump will be easy to beat next November. 

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.