7 min read

The Chernomyrdin Candidacy

Democrats wanted better, and it turned out as always
The Chernomyrdin Candidacy

There are still votes to count and plenty to suggest Biden’s right in the hunt with a solid shot, even if this ends up being an electoral squeaker that should have been a romp. But Democrats butchered their shot at winning the senate and similarly anything approaching a ‘moral mandate’ to govern. Biden’s address at Warm Springs, Georgia a week before the election — a clumsy invocation of FDR’s presidency — was built on a half truth:

“This place, Warm Springs, is a reminder that though broken, each of us can be healed. That as a people and a country, we can overcome a devastating virus. That we can heal a suffering world. That yes, we can restore our soul and save our country.”

Biden neglected to mention that FDR’s polio was never healed no matter how much time he spent swimming and swinging his legs at Warm Springs, and his campaign platform — oft touted as the most progressive of any candidate in US history — was decidedly not the most progressive, not properly befitting of FDR’s legacy, and not coupled with “the vision thing” a good candidate needs to make promises of action seem credible. A nation can heal, yes. But that requires unity founded on common purpose that goes beyond a return to civility no one can believe in. Despite the large polling leads, leads that I thought at least signified a cushion, it’s still difficult to elaborate what it is Biden actually wants to transform. Yes, there was a platform, but a platform has to be embodied by a credible messenger. When your campaign raises over $200 million from donations of $100,000 or more, go as far as to say that “nothing would fundamentally change” to rich donors, and have a candidate with a history of being in with the insurance industry and big banks in the middle of an economic crisis decimating the country, you need to do a bit more to prove to the average voter that you aren’t just a different shade of crooked. You can be fundamentally decent and still take that donor money and refuse to take a real stand on issues the country’s desperate to change.

There was never any compelling evidence that Biden has chops as a campaigner. He dropped out of the presidential race in 1987 three months in due to a boneheaded plagiarism scandal, pulled less than 1% in the Iowa caucus in 2008 before dropping out, and only pulled out a W this time after House rep Jim Clyburn endorsed him and leaned heavy on his relationships with black political leaders and communities in South Carolina.

Well, Josh, you’re empirically wrong because you thought that soft polling numbers driven by the people willing to respond to callers in the first place were going to capture the insane dynamics of a high turnout race with a lot of idiosyncratic factors that defy modeling. The election, as far as we can tell, was framed by the Biden campaign as a referendum on COVID-19 and character. Character was never going to move later-deciding voters en masse since we all know who Trump is. COVID-19 is clearly a massive disaster in terms of the response, but the waters were far muddier than the Biden campaign seems to have wagered. Setting aside the completely incompetent public health response, mask wearing really wasn’t a big partisan dividing line. By October, over 70% of the public were onboard with wearing masks in public — this NatGeo poll had 66% of Republican voters expressing support. The stunning inadequacy of the Trump administration’s health measures wasn’t just managed via media echo chambers, but also by the reality that no one has the virus under control in the West. The real issue to drive home the difference was failures over stimulus talks and making people whole during a crisis. The initial bill reduced poverty on the net in the country — terrible I know — and probably helped Trump a bit. But it was running out when the election entered the home stretch.

Unfortunately, the Democrats lost the high ground when Speaker Pelosi refused to look at McConnell’s series of skinny bills and let the Republicans take credit for tagging farm aid onto a government spending bill agreement. Had she moved, Schumer would have followed suit and, more importantly, the Democrats could feasibly campaign on what they’d want to add onto the bill and how they’d want to help Americans beyond what the Republicans were offering. Instead, they held up vital help to secure agreements on a testing system and decrying worker protections and the right to claim liability against businesses which, while completely necessary and legitimate policy debates, are entirely moot if one no longer has a job and doesn’t see any that can pay the bills lying around. The last month could have spent making an affirmative case, but by building a strategy around a disappearing act to put the spotlight on Trump does not achieve that. Nor does refusing to knock on doors until the 11th hour and thus reconfirm people’s sense that the party is not that invested in their lives. I don’t care about polling showing people’s comfort level with canvassers. You work around safety limitations so that when the late deciders think on it, they know you actually have a stake in their community and care. It’s the same problem that cost Labour in many constituencies in the December general election in the UK: Tories, at least up north, canvassed more places that had never been canvassed and reached a lot of apathetic voters instead of focusing on the voters they knew would reliably turn out.

Of the paths now available, it’s likeliest coming down to Biden winning Wisconsin and Michigan. I’ll inevitably have more to say when that clarifies but importantly, looks like Democrats aren’t taking the Senate no matter what. That’s terrible news for stimulus, terrible news for energy transition policies driven by fiscal spending, and terrible for the country. One of the most aggravating experiences as a Democrat abroad in the UK is just how much the party’s internal discourse, its messaging, its policy orientation, and its face shown to other countries is shaped by California and New York donors, thinkers, writers, politicians, and political operators. The fact of the matter is that lived experience, anecdotes, social circles, and prior ideologies and assumptions shape how policy or policy-facing wonks and special interests build what they think are sound platforms for the national party. I’m a ways left of Rahm Emanuel, but the guy knows how to win elections and nailed the problem this election has reconfirmed for the Democratic Party as an institution, even if this fire wasn’t necessarily well directed:

“Sometimes all these people who talk about who they’re trying to fight for don’t even know them. They swirl their white wine, their Chablis, and they sit around and nibble little crackers and brie and they talk about what you have to do. And they’ve never been in the neighborhoods and communities.”

We can rag on the Electoral College — an antiquated institution that needs to be replaced — but you win by the same rules as the other guys. There is no intrinsic reason rural voters or suburbanites or urbanites have to vote a certain way. For all the lazy and spurious references to an FDR presidency for Biden, people forget that Democrats used to have a stranglehold on rural counties in places like Texas. It wasn’t the Civil Rights movement that killed that. It was a generation of Republican operators like Karl Rove who seized on the Democratic Party’s retreat into coastal bastions after Carter’s loss in 1980. The party steadily lost touch with union memberships across the Rust Belt and in rural areas, which then declined because of Reaganism and the appreciation of the US dollar, and ceased to make even a piddling effort to recapture those connections. Clinton got lucky with Ross Perot in 92’. When the party goes about trying to legislate national changes without thinking through their local effects, these gaps are exposed. Look at how union members in Ohio went for Trump over Biden. It’s a matter of credibility and trust. Having to clarify whether or not the party is actually against fracking because its own left flank can’t shut the hell up in crunch time and its candidate can’t be bothered to spend enough time in front of the national cameras since he wants the spotlight on Trump is proof positive of that. The DNC seems to think that copying Newt Gingrich’s injunction to make every race part of a national referendum makes sense today. It doesn’t with the type of surgical targeting necessary at the county level to rebuild a governing coalition.

That anyone thought Kamala Harris was going to bring in votes should have asked which votes it was they were bringing in. A California Democratic Senator who was an Attorney General in a year rife with riots about police brutality and inequality, promised to the base to be a progressive and, conversely, to independents and Republicans to not be a socialist was useless. The anti-Trump vote was baked in along with higher turnout because of this election’s salience, the party lost ground with minorities in key battleground states, and only people online or into “narratives” seemed enthused. Democrats have mastered the art of only talking to themselves. Harris lagged her approval rating among Democrats with black democratic voters by 20% in one of the only polls we saw early on and left the primaries two months before Iowa polling under 2% nationally with a net approval of -13. The more people saw her, the less they liked her. It’s why she kept such a low profile when it mattered, save from safe crowds and events that didn’t make national coverage.

Win or lose, Biden’s proven that American politics has become a lot more late Soviet and early post-Soviet. Our guy was a gaffe machine who’s chief advantage was laying low and being inoffensive and “decent.” Sadly, no one gives a damn about decency when they have no idea if they can expect real help when they need to put food on the table or send their kids to school. We wanted better, but he was what we got. My gut says he wins it with Wisconsin and Michigan. It won’t be because he deserves to. It’ll be the consolation prize for losing the senate and not giving any serious thought as to how Democrats can win in places like West Virginia, Kentucky, or Montana. There is no return to civility in politics. If Trump blew that up, trying to impeach him in an ill-thought act of emotional gratification guaranteed it. I hope things are cleared up this evening. This has been a disastrous run. Sanders and the left wing of the party would have lost by even bigger margins because of their gross strategic negligence and incompetence. Clinton’s party won out over Obama’s party, and we’re all paying the price now.


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