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VP dilemma: The establishment or the base?

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump
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The job description for a vice president is one word — loyalty. The job of the vice president is to be loyal to the president. The party establishment usually rewards this loyalty by supporting the vice president if he — until now it’s always been a he — later runs for president: Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Gerald Ford in 1976, Walter Mondale in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Al Gore in 2000, Joe Biden in 2020.

But party loyalty is not valued by most voters.

Voters don’t want a president who’s loyal. They want a president who’s independent, who’s his or her own person. Biden won in 2020 because he had something else going for him: He was not Donald Trump.  Democrats and independents who were desperate to stop Trump rallied to Biden because he had the best chance of beating Trump.

Biden’s base is the Democratic Party establishment. He never had much of a popular following. He didn’t do very well in the 1988 or 2008 presidential primaries. Biden came to power because Barack Obama picked him as his running mate in 2008. And Obama (and Biden) won.

What really drove Biden’s crucial Black support in 2020 was not just love for Biden. It was also anger at Trump. No group of voters was more desperate to stop Trump than Blacks. After Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the top-ranking Black and third-ranking Democrat in Congress and a leading member of the party establishment, endorsed Biden three days before the South Carolina Democratic primary, Biden’s Black support surged. It transformed Biden’s campaign, following a series of painful losses (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada). 

Former President Donald Trump was often wrong. But Trump has a base that has stayed with him, even in defeat. In fact, his base refuses to accept his defeat. They’re with him in exile, plotting his triumphant return to power. Trump spent most of his term in office catering to his base and solidifying its loyalty. Trump’s problem is that he doesn’t have much support outside of his base.

Biden is not an ideological champion like Ronald Reagan, and he does not have a strong personal following like Barack Obama. He’s an establishment figure and a problem-solver. He’s in trouble right now because he can’t seem to solve what voters see as the two biggest problems facing the country — inflation and the pandemic. Those are real crises and when the country is facing a crisis, a president is expected to manage it.  Trump was defeated because he tried to downplay the pandemic and refused to treat it as a crisis.

Biden’s policies are popular. His infrastructure program has broad bipartisan support, and his Build Back Better initiative is favorably regarded — even though its prospects now appear to be dim. But those measures don’t seem to have a lot to do with the problems voters are most concerned with. They come across as improvements in the safety net. While such improvements are always welcome, they are not usually the highest priority.

And they stir intense partisan animosity.

Infrastructure spending finances public works — things that people can’t provide for themselves, like good roads and power grids. Social welfare spending helps people with limited means get things that most middle-class people can get for themselves, like food and child care and housing. They are improvements, not crises. Americans of a certain age (like me) are reminded of the 1970s when presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter seemed overwhelmed and ineffectual. Remember Ford’s WIN buttons (for “Whip Inflation Now”)? Or Carter’s “malaise crisis”?

Members of Congress have to understand that they cannot defy the President of the United States with impunity. They must fear him. Biden is generally liked, but he is not particularly feared. You want fear? Look at Donald Trump, who has cowed the entire Republican Party into submission.

Things certainly don’t look good for Democrats in next year’s midterm. The CNBC poll shows voters favoring a Republican-controlled Congress over a Democratic Congress by ten points. A Republican-controlled Congress would reject just about every bill and every nomination that Biden might send them.

If Justice Stephen Breyer, now age 83, decides to retire from the Supreme Court, he should do so by the end of the current term (next June). Then Biden could nominate a new justice who could be confirmed by the Democratic Senate. Biden has promised to name a Black woman to the Court. He could name Vice President Kamala Harris.

That would enable Biden to name a new vice president who would have to be confirmed by the (now Democratic) House and Senate. Biden would be under pressure from Democrats to name another Black running mate. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.)?

If Trump decides not to run, his former Vice President Mike Pence would have a lot of trouble winning the Republican nomination. Why? One word – disloyalty.

Trump has accused Pence of disloyalty for presiding over the confirmation of Biden’s victory in the electoral college. It was the vice president’s constitutional duty, but Trump supporters are not likely to forgive him.

If 2024 is a rerun of 2020, right now Trump is less popular — overall — than Biden. In a Marquette Law School survey, Biden gets a 45 percent favorable rating and Trump 32 percent. More than 70 percent of Americans said they do not want Trump to run for president again. So, Biden could get re-elected in 2024 the same way he got elected in 2020 — by not being Donald Trump.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

Tags 2024 election Al Gore Barack Obama Cory Booker Donald Trump Establishment Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Mike Pence party loyalty Presidency of Joe Biden Problem Solvers Stephen Breyer Trump base trumpism

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