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Gambling on Democracy
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Gambling on Democracy

The Biden campaign bets it all on outrage over January 6.

President Joe Biden delivers a primetime speech on "the continued battle for the soul of the nation" at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 1, 2022. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Axios published a scoop Wednesday about the misgivings a certain presidential candidate’s advisers are having about his strategy. “Even for those close to the center” of power, the story alleged, “there is a hesitance to raise skepticism or doubt about the current path, for fear of being viewed as disloyal.”

I know what you’re thinking, reading that. But you’re wrong.

The candidate in question isn’t the man whose party now operates as a cult in which personal loyalty to him is the supreme virtue. The candidate described by Axios is Joe Biden, whose inner circle remains intent on making “Jan. 6, political violence, democracy and Donald Trump’s character” central themes of their campaign.

The main advocate for that approach internally is Biden crony Mike Donilon. Turning the election into a referendum on the “soul of the nation” worked in 2020, Donilon has reportedly reasoned, so why wouldn’t it work again? Elsewhere he’s compared the relevance of January 6 in this campaign to the importance of 9/11 in the 2004 campaign, believing that Democrats lost that year because they failed to grasp what the race was “about.” He’s determined not to make the same mistake again.

Per Axios, Donilon is apparently also prone to saying that “Joe Biden is a great president, and great presidents get reelected,” an opinion not shared by the vast majority of American voters. No wonder his colleagues on Team Joe worry that he doesn’t have his finger on the pulse of the electorate.

They should.

We’re now almost three weeks removed from Donald Trump’s criminal conviction in Manhattan, plenty of time for the public to process the verdict and to have it influence their presidential vote. According to the national polling, it hasn’t: Trump has gone from leading by 0.9 points on May 30, the day he was found guilty, to leading by 0.8 points now. In the battleground states that will decide the election, he’s actually gained two-tenths of a point on Biden over that same stretch in the RealClearPolitics average.

If the sudden prospect of electing the first president who is a convicted felon hasn’t put Americans off Trump, why would Joe Biden, Mike Donilon, or anyone else think that reminding them of his coup plot and the insurrection it led to will do so?

On the other hand, how can one run against Donald Trump and not make his authoritarian ambitions the centerpiece of the campaign? He’s not shy about expressing those ambitions; should he win in November, the next four years will in fact be defined by his attempts to subvert the constitutional order. The right’s hostility to Western liberalism is the elephant in the room of this election. How can the president resist making a spectacle of it?

I think his and Donilon’s strategy of making the race about democracy is simultaneously weak and quite possibly the strongest one available to them.

If you don’t think protecting democracy should be Team Biden’s central argument, what should it be?

The economy? C’mon.

Certainly, we’ll hear from the White House before November about America’s stupendous job growth since 2021 and the stimulus supplied by Biden initiatives like the infrastructure bill. And if the campaign is smart, it’ll deploy sympathetic economists like Larry Summers to explain why Trump’s protectionist agenda is “a prescription for the mother of all stagflations.”

But the reason Summers’ opinion carries special weight is because he predicted three years ago that Democrats passing another round of COVID relief would result in inflation—and was roundly ignored by his party. That’s Biden’s economic problem in a nutshell: Why should any voter trust him more than Trump when the cost of living soared under his administration but did not under Trump’s?

By wide margins, poll after poll shows that Americans trust the Republican to handle the economy more than they do the incumbent. Inflation has darkened public perceptions of the economy’s health so starkly that the White House ended up quietly dropping the term “Bidenomics” last year, fearing that it would become a byword for soaring prices rather than for rising employment and GDP.

I’m skeptical that Democrats can talk voters into greater economic optimism in the next four months after dismally failing to do so over the past three years. Perhaps they could if Biden’s opponent were unknown and untested, but Trump is a former president with an economic record of his own. Good luck getting voters to believe his program will be more inflationary than Biden’s when they’ve already lived through both and seen otherwise.

Economic comparisons aren’t going to win Biden the election, so what should he focus on instead?

Immigration policy? Please. The less said about that, the better.

Ukraine? He’s been solid on the war, but Americans don’t let foreign policy dictate their votes unless U.S. troops are in the field. 

Abortion? Democrats will get some mileage out of the backlash to Roe’s demise on Election Day but I doubt that the issue is potent enough to drive presidential preferences, especially with Trump straining to moderate on it. Pro-choice Republicans may have little difficulty reconciling support for abortion rights on their state ballot initiatives with support for a second Trump presidency.

If none of those issues can provide Biden with a trump card (no pun intended) in the election, what’s left except trying to make it a referendum on democracy and January 6?

Remember, this race will be decided by the vast number of “double haters” who hold unfavorable opinions of both candidates. Among the president’s own supporters, more than half say they’re voting for him mainly to oppose Trump; just 27 percent say they’re voting for him because they like him. The winner in November will have prevailed not by persuading Americans to like him more than the other guy but by persuading them to hate him a little bit less.

The Donilon strategy recognizes that. Sure, Joe Biden gave us inflation, a border crisis, and an era of high international tensions, it concedes—but he didn’t plot a coup, or rile up a mob to attack Congress, or commit any crimes, or make “retribution” a higher priority for his second term than serving the American people.

The least unfit candidate will win. January 6 is Democrats’ strongest argument that Grandpa Joe, for all his flaws, remains less unfit than Trump.

There’s another case for the Donilon strategy. Namely, it’s worked before. And I don’t just mean in 2020.

Five days before the 2022 midterms Biden delivered a speech warning Americans that, with so many Trump-backed post-liberal populist Republicans running for major offices, “democracy is on the ballot.” He called on voters to ask themselves this question when considering a candidate: “Will that person accept the legitimate will of the American people and the people voting in his district or her district? Will that person accept the outcome of the election, win or lose?”

Some pundits called the address “head-scratching” in light of polling that showed the economy, not democracy, dominating when voters were asked what the most important issue in the election was. Yet five days later Republicans ended up underperforming badly in a midterm in which the out-party typically cleans up. One Trump-endorsed MAGA acolyte after another fell short in key races, holding the GOP to modest gains in the House and helping Democrats gain a seat in the Senate.

“The polling shows that democracy ended up a top issue of concern for voters in 2022,” Biden advisers reminded Axios this week. For swing voters, fear of what a Trumpy Congress might do to undermine American elections may have been decisive.

Go figure, then, that Donilon might see merit in revisiting the subject now that the coup-plotter-in-chief himself is on the ballot. In fact, protecting democracy appears to carry special weight with the huge bloc of senior citizens whom Democrats are courting this year, with more than a third in one recent poll listing it as the most urgent issue facing the country. Seniors are famous for turning out at a high rate in elections; if Biden convinces them that this race is a choice between American politics as they remember it and American politics as Trump would like it to be, they just might drag the president over the finish line.

Really, you can’t go wrong attacking Trump for being unfit for office. Across eight years and three presidential cycles, never once has he reached as high as 48 percent in the head-to-head polling average at RealClearPolitics—and that’s despite having had the advantage of running against two freakishly unpopular Democrats in Hillary Clinton and 2024 Joe Biden. A durable majority of Americans refuses to support a figure as loathsome as Trump even when his opponents are objectively terrible.

So January 6 really might be the strongest hand the president has to play. Which is different from saying that it’s a strong hand.

Even if we agree that Democratic chatter about the “soul of the nation” was a key ingredient in their victories in 2020 and 2022, there’s reason to fear it’ll matter less this year.

The 2020 comparison is frankly inapt because Biden had no presidential record to speak of at the time. The choice before voters was between a “safe,” familiar generic Democrat and a madman who had failed to contain a pandemic. Since then, that generic Democrat has saddled them with inflation not seen since the early 1980s and migrant crossings at the border not seen since … ever. He’s four years older too, and appears confused at times in his public appearances at an unnervingly regular rate.

Intangibles like the “soul of the nation” are good arguments for ousting an already unpopular president, as Trump was four years ago. They’re not as stirring as reasons to keep an unpopular president, especially when that president’s term has generated real kitchen-table pain.

The 2022 comparison is also troubled. Typically, if a president is unpopular, his party will lose big in midterm elections. That happened in 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018—but not in 2022 for Biden, and Democrats have argued over why ever since. Maybe the “democracy” talk really did save them. Or maybe, as the White House prefers to believe, the public likes the president more than his job approval numbers would indicate.

My theory is different. I think Biden’s age and infirmity have, ironically, insulated Democrats down ballot from his unpopularity to an unusual degree because many voters view the country as “functionally leaderless” right now. When the White House fails on policy, it’s easy for voters to assume that it’s due to Biden being elderly and incompetent, no longer fully in control of events. When they do that, they’re not blaming his ideology; the problem as they see it is specific to him, and so younger Democrats don’t share the usual blame for his failures.

That may explain how we’ve ended up with Biden reliably trailing in presidential polling while Democratic candidates reliably lead in key Senate races.

But it also poses a problem for the White House. If I’m right that voters aren’t holding Biden’s failures against other members of his party, hand-wringing about the “soul of the nation” might be enough to rescue Democrats in a midterm. When Biden himself is on the ballot, though, and the full weight of his apparent infirmity is pressing on voters, it might plausibly not be enough.

I wonder, frankly, if returning yet again to the well of “protecting democracy” will be treated by weary Americans as evidence that a very old president has run out of ideas and lacks any affirmative argument for his own reelection. He’s had two years to “fix” inflation and hasn’t; he’s had three years to do something about the border and hasn’t. All he can think to do to convince them to prefer him to Trump, it might seem, is to jump up and down and shout “January 6!” 

To me, that’s more than enough reason never to trust Trump with power again. But to those who haven’t yet been moved by it despite having heard about it every day since January 7, 2021, it will probably be unpersuasive. The insurrection is completely “priced in” to Trump’s political stock.

To find a demographic that hasn’t formed a firm opinion about it one way or another, you’d have to look to very young voters. And if you do, you might be disappointed: As we saw recently, young Americans might not view coup plots as electorally disqualifying. In the country they’ve grown up in, coup attempts are standard operating procedure.

In the 2016 and 2020 cycles, Trump never made it as high as even 46 percent in head-to-head polling with Clinton and Biden. This year, post-impeachments, post-indictments, and post-insurrection, he’s come within a whisker at times of 48 percent. Reflect on that and tell me how much political juice is left in reminding Americans what a disgrace he is.

Maybe just enough. Ultimately, the best argument for the Donilon strategy is shame.

The insurrection is priced into Trump’s stock, as I’ve said. Everyone’s heard about it ad nauseam. Warning Americans that “democracy is on the ballot” won’t educate anyone about anything.

But insofar as the matter is front and center this fall, it might shame a meaningful few into reconsidering their vote.

Most Trump supporters are unreachable, but millions will go into the booth in November intending to vote for him yet nagged by their intuition that doing so would be grossly irresponsible. Traditional conservatives, “Nikki Haley Republicans,” centrists who bear Biden a grudge over inflation or some other policy failure—they know that absolving Trump for January 6 by reelecting him would be an indefensible betrayal of America’s civic tradition.

They know it, but knowing it and letting themselves be persuaded by it are two different things. The mind has a remarkable ability to rationalize and compartmentalize indefensible behavior, especially when it’s otherwise preoccupied. Between now and November 5, Trump is going to fire off an armory’s worth of demagogic nonsense to preoccupy the American mind.

Given Biden’s record, I’m not sure there’s a more effective response available to Democrats than to rhetorically look voters who are leaning toward Trump in the eye and say, “You know what’s at stake. You’re not really going to do this, are you?”

Are we?

For me, the great virtue of the Donilon strategy is that it’ll leave America with no excuses if Trump wins. An election framed around the economy or immigration that ends in Republican victory will let denialists about the country’s decline insist that things would have been different if only Biden had taken a different approach. “He should have emphasized the coup attempt and January 6,” they’ll say. “Surely Americans wouldn’t have reelected Trump if the election had been about that.”

I’m not sure of that at all, personally. I’d like to test the proposition. And if Trump is returned to power, I’d find comfort in knowing that we maximized our collective shame by approaching the race as a referendum on the constitutional order—and chose the other option. If we do this, let’s be clear-eyed about it. No excuses. Trump 2024: Maximum Shame.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.