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Why hasn’t Biden reached out to Never Trumpers?

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appear before the House Armed Services Committee in July 2020. (Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

The easiest genre of political punditry is explaining why something that seems like it should have happened … didn’t.

Politics at the national level is conducted by professionals, after all. Not always smart professionals, but smart enough that when a seemingly obvious course of action isn’t taken there’s usually a coherent reason. All the pundit needs to do is find it.

Take Ron DeSantis’ strategy of trying to out-populist Donald Trump instead of wooing traditional conservatives in this year’s Republican primary. In hindsight it seems nutty that he focused on fishing for votes in a big lake of cultists rather than a smaller lake where the fish were more likely to bite. But I (and maybe I alone) have always found that comprehensible: DeSantis reasoned correctly that one can’t win the GOP nomination without making significant headway with Trump fans, so he focused his energy there. If the cult was unwilling to budge, there was no point bothering to court the rump conservative minority.

In politics even the bad ideas are, in fact, ideas. To find examples of a candidate sabotaging himself or herself for wholly illogical reasons, you’re usually stuck with Trump or one of his similarly crankish disciples.

Usually, but not always.

Last week Politico published a piece titled “Why Hasn’t Biden Called Chris Christie?” Reporter Jonathan Martin phoned around to prominent anti-Trump Republicans and discovered that the president, usually so chatty with friend and foe, hasn’t reached out to anyone. Not to George W. Bush, Mike Pence, or Paul Ryan. Not to any current or aspiring officeholders either:

The same goes for former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who, like Christie, flirted with a No Labels run. Asked in January if Biden ever contacted him, perhaps about an ambassadorship, Hogan said no. As if to drive home the point, Hogan, whose wife is Korean American, happened to mention that he has a nickname in South Korea that translates to “son-in-law.” About two months later, Hogan announced his candidacy, as a Republican, for the Senate.

I reached out to every current Republican lawmaker who has refused to commit to Trump in the general election. Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Mitt Romney (Utah), Todd Young (Indiana), Bill Cassidy (Louisiana) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) all said the same: they’ve not heard from Biden.

“It is surprising,” Collins told me. “It’s especially surprising because President Biden does understand the Senate, he has personal relationships with some of us.”

Normally this is where the smirking pundit would clear his throat and offer, with faux authoritativeness, a half-dozen possible explanations for why Biden hasn’t approached the many esteemed RINOs of the American right for cross-party endorsements.

But I admit, this one is darned close to being inexplicable. Even liberals like Van Jones called the dearth of outreach “political malpractice.

Is there any way to defend it?

To be clear, the Biden campaign is interested in courting anti-Trump Republican voters.

My colleague David Drucker reported last week that campaign officials have been in touch with at least one group representing conservatives who supported Nikki Haley in the GOP primary. Biden himself issued a statement on the day she ended her candidacy inviting her supporters to cross over for him in November. “Donald Trump made it clear he doesn’t want Nikki Haley’s supporters,” the president said. “I want to be clear: There is a place for them in my campaign.”

In case there’s any doubt that he meant it, he’s begun putting his ad money where his mouth is.

The White House wants Haley’s voters!

They’re just … not willing to offer them anything to get them.

The executive director of the group I mentioned told Drucker he’s already warned the campaign about that. “It was very clear Biden’s people are focused on persuading people like us,” he said. “His best chance to persuade others is probably to move to the center on social and fiscal matters.” 

That would be excellent advice in a world where Joe Biden was popular within his own party. With Democrats locked down, the president would be free to spend political capital on wooing moderates. Perhaps he’d very belatedly take action to tighten up the border, or at least give up on his cockamamie idea to have the U.S. military build a pier in Gaza in the middle of a hot war.

But in the world we live in, Biden’s job approval is stuck at 40 percent. That’s due in no small part to lingering dissatisfaction among progressives, particularly young progressives, that intensified after the White House backed Israel in its offensive against Hamas. That dissatisfaction could feasibly intensify further. And so I ask you to put yourself in his shoes: How would you expect those progressives to react if you suddenly launched a charm offensive aimed at very hawkish pro-life conservatives like Nikki Haley and Chris Christie?

The left wants to see some contrition and atonement from Biden for having disappointed them. If instead he semi-officially kisses them off by pivoting toward the center-right, the resentment it would cause among his base might cripple his progressive support in November. To win, the president would need to somehow replace all of the left-wing votes he loses with votes from wayward conservatives and traditional Republicans.

Which isn’t going to happen. Let’s be real.

It will be easier to convince a hard-left voter to support Biden reluctantly for the sake of keeping Trump out of power than it will be to convince a center-right voter who’s presumably voted for Trump once or twice before. Consider the case of Republican fundraiser Eric Levine, who backed Haley in the primary this year and vowed after January 6 never again to support Donald Trump. As of last week, he’s—ta da—supporting Trump because, in his words, “the cancer of the Social Justice agenda continues to metastasize.”

Other mega-rich GOP donors have also begun clambering back aboard the Trump train. Many rank-and-file Republican voters who supported Haley in the primary will talk themselves into doing so as well, needless to say. As such, hugging prominent conservatives whom the left has despised for years might be futile for Biden at best and counterproductive at worst, earning him few votes while costing him many.

For the same reason, there’s nothing policy-wise that he can offer Haley and Christie to woo them except on matters where they’re already aligned with most Democrats, like support for Ukraine. Imagine the reaction among progressives, for instance, if he rescinded his grand bribe to college grads because he thought doing so might impress Mike Pence or Paul Ryan. Meeting anti-Trump Republicans in the middle “on social and fiscal matters” would amount to trading gettable left-wing votes for largely ungettable right-wing ones, and you can do that math as easily as I can.

Ironically, then, Biden may be re-running his own version of DeSantis’ strategy from the Republican primary. The governor of Florida courted the right-wing base believing that traditional conservatives would come around to him organically due to their antipathy to Trump, not needing much convincing. The president is doing the same thing by courting his own left-wing base in the expectation that traditional conservatives will choose not to hand the country over to a coup-plotting civic arsonist when the moment of truth arrives. Biden doesn’t need to promise the RINOs anything; patriotism will lead them to do the right thing!

I’m not as confident as he is. As one of my editors put it this morning, “everyone who decides whom to vote for based on ‘norms’ either works here or has freelanced for us.” (Or subscribes, of course.) A campaign that isn’t willing to offer the center-right anything on policy besides another round of aid for Kyiv is destined to leave many anti-Trump Republican votes on the table.

That’s the best I can do to explain why not calling Chris Christie is the right move. Not very persuasive, is it?

There are many reasons Joe Biden should want prominent Republicans speaking on his behalf at the Democratic convention, especially Republicans who worked for the Trump administration.

An alliance with them right now might be risky, coming at a moment when progressives are watching the White House closely for gestures of ideological rapprochement. But as November approaches, the left’s priorities will shift from their misgivings about Biden’s first term to their misgivings about Trump’s second. Cross-party endorsements for the sake of building an anti-Trump coalition will be increasingly tolerated, or even welcome.

Some are predictable: Liz Cheney, for instance, seems destined to support the president. But others are unexpected and potentially more valuable:

We might plausibly see multiple former Trump officials, some at the Cabinet level, address the Democratic convention this summer to warn the country about trusting their old boss with a second term. Mike Pence is too stalwart a conservative to ever support a Democrat but I can imagine Esper, Mark Milley, James Mattis, John Kelly, or others potentially coaxed into doing so. 

Having Cheney or Christie speak would be gratifying but each has probably already done as much damage to Trump as they can do, realistically. They’ve made the case against him for years in the national media, one as a member of Congress and the other as a presidential candidate, and their standing on the right has suffered accordingly. To make an impression on casual voters, Team Biden will want less overtly political figures presenting the civic case against Trump—defense officials, ideally.

They’ve already done it in print. Why not on camera? If populists are going to caterwaul endlessly about “the uniparty,” might as well give ‘em something to cry about.

The benefits are numerous, most obviously the sense of “permission” to cross the aisle those endorsements would grant to many millions of right-leaning voters who can’t shake the nagging feeling that reelecting Donald Trump would be insane. We live in an era of intensely tribal partisanship; to convince disaffected Republicans that it’s OK not to vote for their nominee for once, figures on their own side with some degree of authority will need to affirm that the nagging doubts they’re experiencing are well founded.

Endorsements from so-called RINOs could also help shift the focus of the election from Biden to Trump. Consider this arresting data point:

There’s functionally no difference in how Americans viewed Trump a month before the last election and how they view him eight months before the next one. Opinions about him are so diamond-hard that a coup attempt, an insurrection, an impeachment, and four criminal cases have moved the needle basically not at all. The reason he’s leading in the polls now isn’t because voters have sweetened on him, it’s because they’ve soured on Biden. The election is a referendum on the incumbent, as presidential elections tend to be.

The White House desperately needs to change that. There’s nothing it can say at this point to make Americans like Biden more but there are certainly things it can say to warn undecideds how hair-raising another Trump term would be. Hearing it from the mouths of anti-Trump Republicans might hit home in a way that hearing it from partisan Democrats won’t.

And not just undecided right-leaning voters. If Biden’s core problem at the moment is getting his own base motivated to turn out for him, he needs whatever help he can get to re-center Trump as the villain in the progressive narrative. According to the Associated Press, “only” four in 10 Americans are “fearful” about another Trump presidency, not much higher than the three in 10 who say the same of another Biden term. Again, figures like Esper might be more persuasive on that point than garden-variety Democrats. He’s seen Trump operate; he has no partisan incentive to exaggerate the threat; if he’s worried enough about a second Trump term to vote reluctantly for Joe Biden, leftists might reason that they should be too.

As a Never Trumper, I have other reasons for wanting to see the president line up endorsements from anti-Trump Republicans apart from the effect doing so might have on his reelection prospects.

The more of those endorsements there are, the more it’ll mean that the Republican “hostage crisis” is finally over. Reaganites who endorse Biden will be signaling to the country that traditional conservatism is incompatible with Trumpy populism, enough so as to prefer a senescent liberal Democrat as president when given the choice. Going forward, populists will either need to meet Reaganites halfway for the sake of maintaining a coalition, which would start with ditching Donald Trump as their lord and master, or break ties with Reaganites permanently and send them packing to start some new classically liberal party.

Both options would be better than the status quo.

Endorsements from anti-Trump Republicans would also be morally useful, just in case the fallen people of this declining country opt to ignore the warnings and reelect Trump anyway. If it happens, there should be no excuses afterward that Americans didn’t realize what they were voting for. Having veterans of his first administration warn them in advance, in high-profile public appearances, should deny them the ability to plead ignorance later. If we’re going to swan-dive into the abyss, we should do so admitting that our eyes are fully open.

“But wait,” you might say, “how is Biden supposed to earn these Republican endorsements if he can’t or won’t appeal to conservatives on policy?”

The answer: By counting on Trump to alienate conservatives on policy, which will neutralize policy differences as a reason to strongly prefer the Republican over the Democrat.

In a normal campaign, it would be silly for one party’s nominee to reach out to prominent figures in the other alleging that they’ll like his party’s policies better on balance than they will those of their own party.

But in a campaign like this one, which is playing out amid a realignment in American politics, it’s debatable.

The difference between Reagan conservatives and MAGA populists on foreign policy isn’t an isolated dispute over a single theater of warfare, like Ukraine. It’s an enormous gulf over the extent to which the Pax Americana should continue, with every ominous consequence that might entail. Even Republican support for Israel isn’t quite the sure thing that it’s traditionally been and, if I were to guess, will be much diminished among the populist vanguard five years from now.

Democrats want the Pax Americana to continue, the Trumpist leadership does not. Is that not enough of a policy difference to get Nikki Haley motivated?

With professionals moving left and the working class right, I also wouldn’t bet heavily on the GOP still being the party of free markets circa 2029. Leading populist lights in and around the Republican Party have some interesting ideas about how enterprise should serve “the common good” as they define it. If we end up with a ticket of 77-year-old Donald Trump and J.D. Vance, how strongly should dogmatic conservatives prefer a Vance presidency’s economic policy to Biden’s?

Except for immigration and a few totemic culture war issues like gun rights, there’s really no telling which way Donald Trump’s party will go on policy in the near future. Everything is negotiable in the search for votes apart from his core nationalist hobby horses; a conservative ideologue like Paul Ryan seems destined to be disappointed by what he gets on policy in the near term from the GOP if he continues to validate the populist project by mindlessly pulling the lever for Trump.

That’s Biden’s pitch to the RINOs, no policy pledges necessary. You can go on enabling the Bircher-fication of the American right by reliably rewarding it with your vote or you can draw a line in the sand until it loses enough elections to sober up out of desperation.

And if all else fails, the point about “norms” that my editor half-jokingly derided is more potent than he suggested. If Liz Cheney, Chris Christie, Mark Esper, and other Republicans show up to the Democratic convention this summer, fundamentally it won’t be because they’re worried that Trump will pull out of NATO if he’s reelected. (Although they are worried about that, no doubt.) It’ll be because they were mortified by his behavior in office, especially after the 2020 election, and can’t fathom giving him a second chance to wreak havoc on the constitutional order.

If voters care less about that than they do the prospects of another Trump tax cut, say, a summer of scolding by Joe Biden and a bunch of Republican surrogates probably won’t convince them otherwise. A country that’s given up caring about “norms” will come to ruin eventually, later if not sooner. 

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.