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Joe Biden should ditch his ‘threat to democracy’ strategy

Fire and fury. Credit: Getty

June 25, 2024 - 5:00pm

America has a fever, and the only prescription is more catastrophising — at least that’s what Joe Biden’s campaign seems to believe ahead of Thursday’s CNN debate with Donald Trump.

In an opinion piece for the New York Times today, former Democratic presidential candidate and Trump opponent Hillary Clinton refers to the Republican nominee as “a convicted criminal out for revenge” and quotes prior criticism of him as a “threat to democracy”. The White House incumbent has already adopted this approach as an attack line, and late last week Axios reported on the Biden team’s apparent plan to focus its campaign on Trump as a grave threat to democracy.

Mike Donilon — one of the President’s key political advisors — holds that the January 6 Capitol riot will play a role in the 2024 election similar to that of September 11 in the 2004 election. As Donilon puts it: “I think the biggest images in people’s minds are going to be of January 6.”

As a political matter, the parallel is troubled, and this gambit might rely on a fundamental misunderstanding of the challenges facing the Biden campaign. The rally-round-the-flag effect caused by an attack by an external actor (Al-Qaeda) sent George W. Bush’s approval rating to the moon. While his popularity did slowly drift earthwards, Bush’s approval rating was still averaging in the high 40s by June 2004. He was ahead of John Kerry, his Democratic opponent, by a few points in polling averages.

Things stand very differently with Biden. His approval rating hovers well under 40%. Though there has been some tightening in recent days, he is still behind Trump in polling averages. Bush was simply in a much stronger position in the summer of 2004 than Biden is today and, even then, only 120,000 votes in Ohio kept Kerry from the White House.

To some extent, this strategy can be attributed to the way that the Washington establishment has anointed Biden as its tribune against populism — Clinton called him “one of the most empathetic leaders we’ve ever had” in today’s article. With over 50 years in Washington, Biden is attuned to the mores of the Beltway at a near-molecular level. This is a city deeply invested in the performative abhorrence of Trump and all his works (as the stubs of Anthony Fauci prayer candles attest). For poly-degreed Washingtonians, “vote for me to stop Donald Trump” is a self-recommending electoral message.

In 2022, Biden was able to leverage hyper-engaged voters to have a historically strong midterm performance. Yet polling evidence indicates that perhaps his biggest vulnerability at this point is with less-engaged voters — the kind who might not turn out for a midterm but could make their way to the polls for a presidential election.

A message of democratic catastrophism might be unpersuasive for such voters. As Nate Cohn recently observed in the New York Times, these less-engaged voters (who can be the tipping point in close states) are “motivated by pocketbook issues, more desiring of fundamental changes to the political system, and far less concerned about democracy as an issue in the election”. Cohn illustrates that Biden still leads Trump among voters who voted in the 2022 midterms, but he falls behind as the electorate expands and trails his rival among all voters.

A Quinnipiac poll from May exemplifies the risks for Biden of not expanding his message. Young voters, independents, and Hispanics all prioritised the economy as an issue over “preserving democracy”. By blowout margins, all of these groups thought that Trump would do a better job on the economy than Biden (voters under 35 favoured Trump on the economy by almost a 40-point margin). On questions of democracy, voters do not show such a lean toward Biden — independents give him only a single-point advantage (46% vs 45%) on the issue.

It’s therefore not surprising that some progressives are urging the White House to start to lay out an economic message in order to show how it could address the concerns of those voters — by talking about taxes or social programmes or manufacturing initiatives or something other than denunciations of Trump.

There’s a deeper paradox within a Biden effort to make “democracy preservation” the centrepiece of his campaign. If the President really believed that Trump was an existential, imminent threat to American democracy, he would have long ago pivoted to the centre on many identity issues, which are a drag on his numbers and splinter the anti-Trump coalition. The breakdown at the border, for instance, has long been an obvious danger to his reelection bid, but Biden for years refused to take action to address it.

Instead of seeing Trump as a reason to moderate, progressive activists instead often used him as an excuse to avoid moderation: It’s our way or the end of Our Democracy. Catastrophism’s cowbell clang is an extension of that strategy.


Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.

fredbauerblog

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Ryan Scarrow
Ryan Scarrow
25 days ago

God I wish we had two different nominees. Imagine Newsom vs Haley or DeSantis vs Whitmer, so that instead of two geriatric senile men yelling about who’s the bigger criminal we could have honest to God debates about trade, immigration, AI, education, etc. I realize people here probably hate most of those names I just mentioned, but at least they’re eloquent and able to speak clearly and forcefully so that both sides of these issues are properly argued in front of the American people. That’s how the republic should function, and I have to hope that someday it will again.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
25 days ago
Reply to  Ryan Scarrow

The Dems should kiss the ground Trump walks on. He’s the only candidate that Biden could possibly beat.

Ryan Scarrow
Ryan Scarrow
25 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Oh I agree, if the GOP nominated anybody else this wouldn’t even be close, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy for America. I want two parties putting their best arguments and candidates forward, no matter what

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
25 days ago
Reply to  Ryan Scarrow

Agreed

El Uro
El Uro
25 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

If Biden beats Trump, America is finished

B. Timothy S.
B. Timothy S.
25 days ago
Reply to  Ryan Scarrow

I’d honestly take Trump over any of the people you mentioned.

El Uro
El Uro
25 days ago
Reply to  Ryan Scarrow

God I wish we had two different nominees – But you propose two the same nominees. This is exactly what happened now in Britain, Tories and Labours are the same urine just in different bottles.

0 01
0 01
25 days ago
Reply to  Ryan Scarrow

Unfortunately, despite how bad the current crop of senior leaders in American politics, The younger generation doesn’t really inspire a lot of confidence and are even less impressive. They come off more like wannabe celebrities or social media influencers than actual statesmen.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
25 days ago

When did Biden show empathy to anybody other than his family?
It took him more than a year to visit East Palestine after the disaster there.
A bridge in Baltimore collapsed March 26, and Biden visited on April 5.

b blimbax
b blimbax
25 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

He would have visited earlier, on April 1, but his schedule was very busy that day.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
25 days ago
Reply to  b blimbax

Amusing!

b blimbax
b blimbax
25 days ago

Hillary Clinton calls Trump “a convicted criminal out for revenge”.
One could as easily say that Hillary Clinton is “an unindicted criminal out for revenge.”

Peter B
Peter B
25 days ago
Reply to  b blimbax

I was about to say something similar. Her lack of self-awareness is astonishing. Another reason nothing she writes in newspaper articles should be ignored.
I’ve seen her remarkable success in commodities trading while Bill was governor of Arkansas described as statistically almost impossible without privileged information.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
25 days ago
Reply to  b blimbax

Twelve Democrats voted to convict a Republican. No surprises there, but that doesn’t make Trump a criminal. Those same Dems would have let a fellow Dem walk. Apparently, Democrats don’t “commit” crimes, it seems …. 😉

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
25 days ago

What else do they got? Biden can’t run in his track record. The economy’s is a mess, foreign affairs is a mess, the border is a mess. That leaves scaremongering, with the help of the regime media.

William Woods
William Woods
25 days ago

There should be a constitutional amendment which prevents people over the age of 75 from serving as president. Would help to prevent the Brezhnev era disaster that the US is walking into. Hopefully this comes to fruition one day. Interesting to see just how chaotic Thursday’s debate will be…

Will K
Will K
25 days ago

Since accusing a fellow citizen of being “a threat to Democracy” is undemocratic, it is not surprising that this message is unconvincing.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
25 days ago

Clinton makes him sound like a Batman supervillain, like the Penguin or something.
‘A desperate renegade from the law, scourge of everything good and holy, driven by his insane lust for power and insurmountable desire to take over the world!’
Ofc both are only engaging in an unseemly t*t for tat

0 01
0 01
25 days ago

Biden or Trump, it doesn’t really matter. Under both of them nothing is going to change in any way meaningful. Whether it be Biden barely competent mediocrity or Trump’s chaotic impulsive purposefulness. Neither of them really have no interest in fixing anything important let alone take down the corrupt and dysfunctional political system. Biden says that there’s nothing wrong with it and pretends there’s nothing wrong, Trump calls out the problems, but doesn’t make any meaningful effort probably the problems. Both of them are just offering different rehashes of the same social political formula that’s been around since the 1960s and often double down on it. Even Trump does this despite his rebellious pretentions, he offers more regulation, More interventions the economy, More spending as well as more patronange to the favor groups within American society despite dressing up as something new or innovating. Biden does the exact same thing under the guise of business as usual. Both candidates are nothing more than clueless, age boomers elites who are Well pass their prime who are obsessed with maintaining relevance and are disconnected from reality.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
24 days ago

“Catastrophism’s cowbell clang” !!!!
That’s the kinda’ word stuff that keeps me coming back to UnHerd.

Will K
Will K
23 days ago

It’s illogical that Mr Biden considers a fellow citizen’s different opinions to be a threat to Democracy.