Joe Biden And The Political Cost Of The Accidental President
On An Institutionally Broken Party And Its Leader
Joe Biden seems, from everything we’ve ever heard from anyone who ever worked with him, a thoroughly decent man, and I cheered for his election in 2020 as hard as any. The legislative record Democrats will manage with him will be impressive, and the effect of a Democratic President and Senate on the courts cannot be understated. I say all of this to make one thing very clear - he has been a net good for America, and I am incredibly grateful he managed to win. With all that said, we need to be crystal clear about one thing.
Biden’s an Accidental President leading an institutionally broken political party, the former largely informs the latter, and the loss in Virginia, and the near-loss in New Jersey, sit squarely at his feet.
I’ve said before that had I been American and a voter in the 2020 Primaries I would have voted for Sanders, but that was on the basis that I thought Biden would only slightly outrun Bernie, and that Biden had a big enough lead to not sweat the details. Given that was wrong, and Biden only won Wisconsin by less than 1% and the Senate seat now held by Jon Ossoff was horrendously close to avoiding a runoff all together, I’m glad Biden was the nominee. I don’t necessarily think any of the other candidates - Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Liz Warren, or anyone else - could have won either, so it is pretty clear he was necessary. That said, the campaign he ran, both in the primaries and the General, was not good in any way, but we have retconned it was because he won.
Was Joe Biden’s Iowa and New Hampshire strategy of “go to these places all the time and get shellacked” actually a good one? No, of course not, and the revisionism that “well, we knew these states were bad for us” is just that - it was crap. Biden ran a horrendous campaign in the primary, with horrible debate performances and useless ground games in the first three states. Biden won because all of the other prospective nominees ran worse campaigns, tactically - from Warren appealing solely to educated Times readers and then making up frankly absurd claims that Bernie Sanders was a sexist, to Sanders declaring war on the Democratic establishment, to Harris being unable to withstand any scrutiny after the first debate moment, to none of the other candidates having anything resembling a path to getting Black votes, Biden ran a shit campaign that didn’t end up mattering because South Carolina and Jim Clyburn bailed him out.
Far from some amazing triumph in the battle for ideas, Biden was the unity candidate because he wasn’t everybody else. He was the only one left after a while who was in any way plausible to Black voters, in large part because of the uselessness of Sanders’ Black outreach. I understand the limits to my expertise here as a white Canadian, but Black outreach isn’t just about a platform of ideas, but a cultural understanding - just as understanding the role of a Black church requires understanding it as a community, and not just a religious institution. Sanders (and Buttigieg too, when he actually tried for Black votes) tried to make a logical argument to a group of voters who value trust over words. They might have liked the lofty promises of Sanders, but they trusted Biden, and that’s who they made the nominee. Had Sanders tried to make an argument more about cultural understanding and less about lecturing to Black voters why he’s right, he might have gotten somewhere. Alas, he didn’t, and Biden won the primary because of it.
Okay, so he won the primary by default, but he beat an incumbent President - that’s impressive, right? Well, no, because he won by accident. Obviously we can’t be in the war room of the Biden campaign, but we do know where Biden and Harris went, and we have the outward facing decisions about what they thought to go off, and the record is decidedly unimpressive. Remember, they went to Ohio 5 times, a state with neither a path to being the 270th electoral college vote or a Senate seat, including a trip on the final day, and they went to Florida 13 times - again, a state without a Senate seat. How many times did Biden or Harris go to, say, North Carolina, Georgia, Maine, and Iowa combined, four states with 5 Senate seats up last year? 12 times - 7 trips to North Carolina, 4 to Georgia, and 1 to Iowa. Where was Obama the final weekend? Miami, which I mean had to have helped, right? Oh, no, silly me, of course not, it swung wildly right - and even did so against the 2018 results.
The campaign was throwing darts and making insane strategic decisions that are completely indefensible, because there was literally no reason to go to Ohio. Like, Florida I can kind of defend, in that Florida had only voted 0.4% to the right of Wisconsin in 2016, and there was (kind of) a case that Democrats could suck in the Rust Belt, win Florida and one of Michigan and Arizona, and get to 270 that way. 2018 and the general drift right of Florida Hispanics from 2016 should have been some evidence that that path was closed, but I can’t say it was totally indefensible. Texas, which they threw a dart at in the final week, was also never going to be a tipping point state, but Texas did have a Senate seat up, and more importantly, a State House perceived as potentially vulnerable, had the night gone better in Texas. Had we flipped the Texas State House, the Congressional Map being signed into law would be much more friendly to us, and that would have been a huge victory moving forward. Ohio had nothing going for it, but it got valuable time - including a trip one day out. Why? Fuck if I know, because it’s indefensible.
I called Biden an Accidental President, and he won by accident. His campaign was plenty happy to claim it had been their strategic brilliance which won them the race, but they were throwing darts more wildly than my pool shooting when I was drunk at the UOttawa student bar. If they had any clue the election was going to be close they would have had Obama doing rallies in Milwaukee and Madison, not Miami-Dade. They had no idea, but they got to run against the guy whose incompetence was killing people and who had a 7% net-negative rating per the Fox/AP exits, so they won. Winners get to write their narratives, but they won without useful coattails, not getting Sara Gideon even remotely close to office in Maine and having districts that voted for him by up to 10% in some cases elect Republicans. Democrats lost House seats that would be awfully useful to have now, another sign that the campaign had no idea what it was doing - because, you’d think if they knew the landslide wasn’t coming they’d have told Cheri Bustos, right? Well, they didn’t, because she dropped $1M on Brian Fitzpatrick in suburban Philly in the final week, only for him to win his Biden +6 district by *checks notes* 13%. Shore up Joe Cunningham? Nah, he’s fine, let’s spend more on beating Bob Goode and Lauren Boebert combined than we spend on one of our most marginal members, brilliant. You want all the examples? I wrote it all up when she retired.
Okay, but we won Georgia, and the specials have mostly been fine, right? Well, Biden’s approvals have been in a form of free fall for months now - a slow fall, sure, but we’ve all been waiting for Biden’s approvals to recover, and they haven’t, in large part because Biden hasn’t done anything. Yes, his powers over Congressional timing are limited, but blaming it all on Congressional dithering is the point - he’s sat on his ass as his approvals burned. Where was the media offensive, with interviews with all the networks about the benefits of what he was trying to fight for? Where was any form of executive action on guns, or immigration, or fucking anything? Where was the setpiece speech and media tour around the appointees to the bench he’s made, or any form of big event designed to highlight the Texas abortion bill and how he’s going to fight like hell for women’s rights? His approvals are still shit and if anything trending down, and he’s just taken out a Democratic Governor because of it.
Yes, Terry McAuliffe ran a shit campaign, but two things need to be remembered - New Jersey saw a large swing as well, and a large part of the reason the Virginia GOP got the airspace to hammer their message every day was the lack of news from Biden. If Biden had been making news, had been doing things, news directors would have had to either reduce or eliminate coverage of CRT or whatever the fuck else the GOP wanted to talk about. Media strategy is part of a politician’s job, and bitching that the media covers what your opponents say when they’re the only ones making any news is both insane from a real world perspective but also hilariously naive.
You want to talk about an institutionally broken party - why was Jaime Harrison made DNC Chair? The answer is he’s Clyburn’s protege and after losing to Graham by 10%, he was unemployed. There was no track record to make us think he was prepared for this in any way, and his signal boosting Rachel fucking Bitecofer told all of us that know shit from a hole in the ground that he was dangerously unqualified, but here we are, with him having summarily failed his first task. In a redistricting year where House maps aren’t finalized in most states, DNC Chairs have exactly two jobs - help your Senate leader with recruitment, and win Virginia and New Jersey. Well, we didn’t, so, great job there.
Even beyond the Harrison of it all, why did the Democratic establishment so early on decide it would be TMac again? There’s no evidence he did worse than a “generic” Democrat, given the intensely tight margins between the three statewide races, but why was it him? He was perceived to be electable, but he lost, so the question of why he was basically handed the nomination has to matter. (I’ll allow smarter people who didn’t just get the election wrong to argue about whether anyone else would have won or done better - plainly, I see the case that anyone else loses by 5%, and I see the case that he was a drag on the ticket. I don’t know which view is right.)
Again, I love the Biden legislative record, and am looking forward to it being further strengthened, but there is a feeling of almost intentional ignorance around this conversation. Bidenworld are given the benefit of the doubt because they were written off in the Primary and they won, and because they won a General. Who fucking cares. Plainly, this White House’s political advisors and the apparatuses of the Democratic Party aren’t fit for purpose anymore, and they need to be cleaned out immediately. If it’s Biden’s advisors who are advising this laissez-faire approach to his political operation, they need to go, and if it’s him insisting on it, then they need to stand up to their boss and insist it changes. It is, plainly, responsible for creating a political environment so bad as to make losing New Jersey a possibility for part of Tuesday night.
I’m happy he’s going to sign the Infrastructure deal soon, and he has transformed America already, and ideally will continue to do so. But Biden also has to take responsibility for what happens for the next four years in Virginia, because for the next four years, his failures have a living, breathing embodiment - or, actually, 54 of them, because of the statewide GOP sweep and the fact the GOP got 51 House Of Delegates seats. Had Biden managed to get his approvals in a better spot, Virginia wouldn’t be knocking on the door of a potential GOP trifecta in two years.
Had Biden been willing to actually try something, and it hadn’t worked, I don’t think I’d be as singularly frustrated these days, but he hasn’t done shit for months. He leaves the White House for events rarely, he never gives interviews, he steadfastly refuses to make news, and suddenly we’re supposed to be surprised his approvals haven’t gotten any better? It’s insanity. The willingness, if not the eagerness, of his staff and supporters to blame the media for not reporting what is in the Build Back Better package is laughable, because a whole lot more people would know what policies you’re pushing for if you gave a fucking interview, but this basic truth seems to elude the grasps of the White House.
Biden’s on track to have been the most legislatively successful Democratic President since LBJ and to get absolutely smacked for daring to pass popular policies. He is an Accidental President presiding over an institutionally political party, and while he has a year to change that fundamental truth, nothing in the history of Bidenworld since he announced in 2019 suggests anything will.
I hope to God I’m wrong, but if I’m not, the GOP will win the Senate next year. And if that happens, all the blame will lie at the feet of the accidental occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.