The Biden campaign’s focus, thus far, on their candidate’s basic dignity and Donald Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus epidemic constitutes an epic moral and strategic failure.
Rightly condemning the President’s consistent fantasy world where the virus will go away of its own accord, or be immediately eliminated in a matter of weeks by a vaccine, the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee engage in a political fantasy world of their own where voters can see for themselves that the President is dangerously unfit for office; where all their candidate has to do is appear normal and promise to deliver aggressive policy action on the virus, health care, and the rest of the democratic legislative agenda.
This strategy assumes that the President and his party are doing all that is necessary to cost them the election; it assumes that the vast majority are ready to return to normal and get on with wonky policy discussions about public health and racial healing. As usual, the Democrats underestimate the changes that Trump has wrought in American institutions, culture, and media discourse. In particular, they seem not to understand how thoroughly the Republican party, over the last 40 years has destroyed the Democratic brand, and how Trump has vanquished the sort of Republicans willing to engage in reasonable debate and bipartisanship. At least 40 percent of the country supports a President that has contempt for constitutional limits on his power, uses public office to punish his enemies and enrich his family and friends, and disdains scientific and administrative expertise. Even more support the party that makes his rule possible. And yet, the Democratic party is still playing defense on the charge of extremism. Half the country still believes that the greatest risk of tyranny flows from “mobs” committing acts of vandalism and the “radical socialist” Democratic agenda.
The Democrats have mountains of cash and hundreds of hours of frightening tweets and Trump speeches (demonstrating his ignorance, incompetence, pathetic grandiosity, pettiness, complacency in the face of right wing domestic terrorism, threats to free and fair elections, craven defenses of Russia, his falling in love with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, his use of the Department of Justice to punish political enemies and protect loyalists, and his belief in his unfettered right to power) that could simply be replayed in 30 second spots, with little if any accompanying commentary.
Yet the Democrats continue to offer a 1970’s policy agenda along with soft-lens reassurances that Joe Biden is a really really nice guy.
To make sure I wasn’t simply engaged in panicked cynicism (admittedly a go-to option for me and for many others these days) I reviewed all the Biden TV spots I could find on the web, the DNC website and the Biden website. Of the 20 spots, 10 focused on COVID, 5 were traditional issue spots, and 2 held Trump responsible for the fear, anger, and division in America. If you can figure out how to navigate past the donation page that you will get when trying to access the Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee’s web sites, you will find photos and video clips of Biden with babies, Biden with a lot of African Americans, and Biden sharing warm and loving moments with Kamala Harris.
One problem is that this may fail to attain the most immediate objective of a Biden victory. The anger, fear, racism, and political polarization that Trump has wrought mean that people aren’t paying much attention to practical policy solutions and Trump has had much success convincing people that policy debates involving experts are deep state plots and that what is needed to address problems globally or domestically is to “dominate” those you believe are causing the problem. Kindness and basic decency are really “weakness” and so the idea that Sleepy Joe is a tool for dark and sinister leftists has gained traction. And, the ad campaign doesn’t even address the idea that a Democratic Senate is crucial to our future.
The much larger failure goes beyond the November election. The strategy ignores what should be the top priority: to destroy the Republican party brand for a generation, simply by telling the truth. If the Democrats are going to undo the damage done to countless federal agencies and lead policy shifts on health care, policing, and climate change they will need majorities for the next 8 to 10 years at a minimum (assuming they can overcome the opposition of Trump’s judicial appointees).
But even more important is the moral failure of not centering the campaign on historic levels of personal and political corruption, on blocking Congressional and Inspector General oversight, on contempt for the separation of powers, on Soviet style purges of administrators and political appointees who aren’t willing to lie for the President, on encouraging and promoting white supremacists and dangerous extremists, on failing to protect our electoral process and fomenting voter intimidation, and on using the Department of Justice reward his friends and punish his enemies.
Perhaps 51% of the population and 271 electors understand these dangers without being told about them. Perhaps vague pronouncements about a battle “for the soul of America” are enough for these voters but this is not enough to ensure the survival of American democracy. For that, a much larger majority of Americans must understand just how far off the rails we have gone, that the slide into more authoritarian government is a real threat, and that it is America’s civic culture that is being relentlessly attacked.
Americans need an inspirational message about the country’s founding principles and its strivings to fully apply those principles and the gory details about the Republican party’s embrace of propaganda, extremism, racism, and lawlessness. By neglecting the latter for the former and recycling the same brand that has been torn to shreds in the previous decades they are failing themselves and the country. Even if the current approach is strategically smart for winning in November the idea that the Democrats should “first win” and then work on the larger agenda ignores the fact that now is the time when the American public is listening. As soon as he is elected Biden and the Democrats will inherit massive challenges, a Republican party dominated by extremists with whom no compromise is possible, and a right wing media ecosystem pumping out disinformation and personal and political attacks.
All of which is to say that there are two viruses wreaking havoc on America: COVID 19 and Trumpism. Both will outlast the election, whoever wins, but by centering the campaign on COVID 19 the Democrats have chosen to focus on the virus that is more likely to be defeated, or at least kept at a level we can live and work with, by medical science. President Biden can help at the margins but the time that the Presidency could have made a huge difference is past. The Democrats have chosen the virus that can most successfully be portrayed as beyond Donald Trump’s control, a virus that if it is brought under control, may restore confidence in medical science but is unlikely to earn President Biden political capital.
The failure to confront the virus that is Trumpism–the toxic mix of racism, resentment, deep state conspiracy theories, disinformation, and contempt for democratic institutions– will be with us long after COVID 19. The Democrats have six weeks left to take it seriously.