Democrats’ squabbling vindicates Biden non-campaign

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When Barack Obama won the Presidency in 2008, he and his team were practically canonized by the media. Team Obama were hailed as stars throughout the Washington D.C. firmament. An entire hagiography was built around their genius. Lucrative book contracts and talk shows followed.

For Team Biden, all they hear are crickets. Yet, it is Team Biden that ran the more impressive campaign in a far more difficult environment. 

Team Biden was faced with a volatile political environment, a pandemic restricting their activities, an increasingly diffuse media, an unpredictable opponent, and a less fawning but mostly protective legacy media. Compounding these problems was their own candidate’s limitations. Joe Biden is a small town, retail politician, as one would expect a Senator from Delaware to be. He does not have the charisma of Obama or Trump and his age (77) definitely showed on the campaign trail.

In contrast, Team Obama had a walk in the park in 2008. With practically all of the mainstream news media and Hollywood on their side and a big helping of Clinton fatigue, Obama was able to cruise into the general election to face the rather genteel John McCain. The combination of an unpopular war, and even more unpopular George W. Bush and a collapsing economy made the 2008 election a foregone conclusion. If anything, Obama scored a relatively weak victory given his advantages.

Biden in the basement

In an era where the electorate may have moved permanently to net negative approval for both presidential candidates, Team Biden rushed headlong into the future. Their strategy was to make Biden as vanilla as possible. His platform was just enough to placate the Democratic base.

Team Biden made a bet that he could win simply by not being Trump.

But that strategy would not have worked had they not kept Biden under wraps as much as possible. Joe Biden is a gaffe-making machine. Other presidential candidates have made critical mistakes in the past, but no one is as serially clumsy with his words as Biden. Practically every interview featured some kind of misstep. In his attempts to please whoever the interviewer is, Biden always gets a bit too exuberant and wanders away from his talking points. 

The debates perfectly illustrated Team Biden’s problems with Biden. The first debate was a triumph mostly because Trump refused to shut up, allowing Biden to stick to a few talking points and avoid the inevitable gaffe. The second debate didn’t go nearly as well. The mute button was a godsend for Trump and a mess for Biden — it forced him to do a lot more talking. Sure enough, Biden fumbled his response on the oil industry. Fortunately for the campaign, the candidate recognized his own limitations and was willing to sequester himself and be as scripted as he could manage.

The Democratic ideological minefield

The most under-appreciated moment of the campaign was at the first debate when Biden flat refused to answer whether he would add justices to the Supreme Court. As a political move, it was brazen — and it paid off for Biden. Team Biden saw the polling numbers, the public was opposed to court packing, yet the Democratic base was in favor. Choosing a position would either alienate the moderate voters Biden needed to beat Trump or would incur the unmitigated wrath of the activist left.

Biden opted to punt on the issue, gambling that his base would swallow hard and accept it and that the legacy media’s hatred for Trump would be such that they would meekly refuse to question him further. He won that bet.

The court packing dodge is emblematic of the problems Biden faced in the campaign and will face even more so as president. The Democratic Party has a loud and demanding activist core that is well out of step with the nation as a whole. Exit polls show an ideological split among Americans of 38 percent moderate, 38 percent conservative and only 24 percent liberal. Far more voters name the economy (35 percent) and health care/coronavirus (28 percent) than racial equality (20 percent), a top priority of the activist left. That is not to say voters are unconcerned about racism, only 28 percent believe racism is not much of an issue.

Given the problems of public polling, what really matters is what happens at the ballot box. And on that score, the down ballot Democrats took a beating. With just a few races to be made official, Republicans are likely to gain 10-11 seats. Not since 1892 has either party gained that many seats when their incumbent president has lost. Republicans also gained one governor and two state legislative chambers. The Democrats will gain at least one seat in the Senate, but Republicans were defending 23 seats.

These gains may seem minor, but Democratic expectations were for major gains across the board. FiveThirtyEight predicted a Democratic majority in the Senate, and a five-seat gain in the House. The spending disparity was historic, with Democrats having a bigger advantage than any party has ever had.

Barely a day after the election and the recriminations started for the Democrats. A conference call for Congressional Democrats descended into rancor and finger-pointing over responsibility for the disappointing down-ballot electoral performance. Ideological, geographic and generational differences have exploded.

It is clear from the exit polling and from all the issue polling for the past year that the public is not interested in the political agenda of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and her fellow travelers. It is also clear that running afoul of that vocal segment of the Democratic Party puts a big target on your back.

They have not been celebrated like the Obama campaign, but Team Biden executed the right strategy to win. The keep-away, let-Trump-lose campaign got a flawed candidate over the finish line. Anything else would have risked being drawn too far to the left. And, given the close margin, moving to the left would have meant losing.

The Biden campaign didn’t do much for democracy, but it worked.

Maybe it’s time for Axelrod and Plouffe to stop throwing stones and toss Team Biden a few laurels.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D. is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Dr. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Barack Obama Court packing Democratic Party Donald Trump Joe Biden Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign Joe Biden gaffes John McCain moderate Democrats Progressive wing Radical Left

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