One of the persistent pieces of figurative language in politics is the notion of coattails. The term goes back at least to one of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches in Congress in 1848, used then to suggest the covering of politicians at lower tiers by a national leader, but now used to describe the effect that the top of the ticket has in pulling others along to victory, a sense that was first used in 1949. For those who would like to achieve big political results, a presidential nominee who inspires lots of sympathetic voters to come to the polls is an example of tactical perfection if it can be achieved.
How often this can be achieved is a dose of reality, since it is easier to find one’s campaign in Pickett’s Charge rather than the Battle of Cannae, and even when a president sweeps into office with sufficient numbers in the legislative branch to get a big agenda enacted, the following mid-term election is likely to erase that advantage. Obama’s experience in 2008 and 2010 is but the most recent illustration of this lesson, a warning that the American electorate is a fickle body.
Thus we come to this year’s election. In 2018, the Democrats gained control of the House and showed the country why half a loaf is just so much moldy bread. On Twitter, leftist accounts talk of a coming blue wave and have been predicting this outcome since before Trump took office. If we expect to get any measure of a progressive platform into law, control of Congress and the presidency, along with some hope of changing the political balance of the Supreme Court is a prerequisite.
There are two problems here. For one, Joe Biden is not a progressive. His shtick through decades in politics has been to play the working man from Scranton, everyone’s hands-on uncle. But his voting record — in support of war, of corporations, and of prosecutors — lands him in the midst of the Republican Party. His selling points to the establishment and to a core constituent of the Democratic Party is that he was loyal to this country’s first black president and wants to take away a lot of guns from Americans. The latter is one of the reasons that Biden’s appeal to independents will fall flat, as his treatment of an auto worker in Detroit during the primaries shows, and his rejection of Medicare for All and his disdain for the concerns of millennials are the kind of approach that will soften support for him among the leftward elements of the party, especially as Trump circulates campaign advertisements using Biden’s own words.
All of this is to say that even if Joe Biden wins, he will come in alone. Consider the evidence of the last presidential election. Hillary Clinton won, if the popular vote is our metric, but in all down-ballot category except for lieutenant governor races, Republicans made gains, giving them a significant lead across the country in everything but mayoralties. Had she received a majority of the electoral college votes, she would have faced a legislative branch with memories of battling with her husband twenty years previously and plenty of experience in blocking Obama’s goals. And having achieved no gains in state legislatures or governorships, she would have faced the continuing gerrymandering of voting districts against Democrats, along with state resistance against priorities of hers such as gun control.
Democrats are once again trying to sound complacent, to show an attitude that the election is now over because the centrist won the only competition that matters. This is whistling in the dark, evident from the lead that Clinton maintained in the polls throughout 2016. Biden is currently ahead by almost six points, a lead that is three points smaller than Clinton’s was at the same time in her run.
Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight is desperately declaring that it is too early to talk about enthusiasm for a candidate, which is itself a reminder of 2016, but he should consider the reality that Biden is presented as the electable candidate, the chosen one who will unite the party. Now that he is nominee unless someone else can be tagged in to save the day, a candidate with messianic pretensions should have a swarm of fans surrounding him. Needing personalities among the commenting classes to explain away the yawning response to him is not going to work. As of the end of March, Trump’s “very enthusiastic” support — fifty-three percent — and “somewhat enthusiastic” (whatever that might mean) support — thirty-two percent — were solidly ahead of Biden’s numbers — twenty-four and forty-nine percent respectively.
As the president’s bumbling reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic continues, those results may shift, though after almost five years of Trump as a politician, his claims about being able to do anything while maintaining supporters is as established a fact as we find in politics. Biden’s insistence on being safe could not be better calculated to spray a layer of flame retardant on his voters. “Our man is here to do little” does not have the same flash as “Keep America Great,” and even if Biden manages to sneak in to a victory, he is likely to do so with the votes of people who are only concerned with expelling Trump and not with achieving transformations in the country’s social contract. If a new president will not support Medicare for All and worker rights, why bother voting in new members of Congress who would only make life difficult for the boring savior?
Thanks to Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party has given up on the American people, choosing instead to pander to some interest groups while reassuring the wealthy that everything will be okay. This strategy has failed the party over and over, and when it wins them power, it fails the country. Joe Biden’s vanity project may finally succeed, but he will find himself alone among a crowd of Republicans. And given his history, I have to conclude that this would be the best possible situation from his perspective.