“The deeper problems that plagued [Hillary] Clinton’s run are not necessarily ones unique to Clinton,” I wrote back in 2017, surveying the wreckage of Clinton’s presidential campaign as expertly dissected by Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen in that year’s Shattered. “Her lack of vision, her refusal to shift her centrist policies to the left, her campaign-for-a-campaign’s-sake, the centering of her campaign around an individual rather than a set of principles — these are all factors that could easily be repeated by the next establishment candidate.”
“Voters don’t have to settle for uninspiring neoliberal centrists like Hillary Clinton. Let’s not do it again,” I concluded.
But “do it again” we did. As a frightened Democratic electorate does every time a hard-right extremist is up for reelection on the Republican ticket, voters put on their pundit hats, conjured an apparition of the kind of voter they imagine decides elections, read their minds, and proceeded to hitch their wagon to the least inspiring, most conventional Washington politician on stage, presuming he’d be best placed to win over the phantom they’d created.
So four years after the 2016 debacle, we watched practically the same politician run practically the same campaign against the exact same opponent, only this time with a very different result. Fortunately, Parnes and Allen have produced a very different book, but one that looks to answer the same question as their first: How and why did the election result turn out the way it did? That book is Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency.
Once again, you had a conservative Democrat who had to work with advisors to figure out a “rationale” for running for president, because the actual reason — wanting to be president — isn’t one a candidate can say out loud. The authors recount how Biden latched on early to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville as his raison d’être, one he cited endlessly, even as he publicly reminisced about his work with segregationists — work the white supremacist Daily Stormer praised him for.
Once again, you had a Democrat whose campaign strategy rested entirely on begging for money from the most insidious big money interests. According to Lucky, Biden’s advisors, recognizing he lacked the kind of small-dollar operation built over years by his rivals, early on steered him away from the idea he could reject money from Wall Street and limit donations to $200. So Biden instead spent the lead-up to the campaign going hat in hand to billionaire hedge fund executives and other members of the ultrarich, whom he privately assured “nothing would fundamentally change” with him as president. One UBS executive and bundler was treated to an exclusive sneak preview of Biden’s campaign-to-be behind closed doors early in the process.
And once again, you had a nominee who saw the party’s progressive base as not just a hinderance to his campaign, but as a genuine threat to his way of life. Biden, who had a long, hostile relationship with even liberal activists — the “idiotic groups out there” like the “QSY Group to Save All the Women in the World,” as he once put it — was “first among” the establishment Democrats who “saw the hard left as an obstacle to reclaiming power and a scary bunch who, if given enough authority, would take too much from the haves and give too much to the have-nots,” the book tells us.
It’s easy to list the parallels. But what may be most fascinating, and tell us most about both the Democratic Party and political landscape more generally, is what changed.
The Real Battle of 2020
To understand how Joe Biden won the Democratic primary, you have to first understand that the two major US political parties are not only vehicles for furthering the interests of their (often elite) constituencies, but also for patronage and personal enrichment. As one recent research report determined, “working on the Hill is viewed as an entry-level position for K Street, rather than a stepping stone for a career in public service,” with nearly half of staffers seeing the private sector as their next step, and around half of those planning to go into lobbying.
But it’s not just staffers. A 2016 study that looked at all former members of Congress between 1976 and 2012 found that while less than 10 percent of those who retired in the 1970s sidled into the lobbying industry, the trend shot up over the late 1980s and early 1990s, with party leaders and those with seniority most likely to do so. Nearly two-thirds of the 2017–19 Congress’ retiring members spun out into K Street, with another 7 percent into corporate jobs, and senators who entered the revolving door tended to “vote more moderately” — that is, business-friendly — “during their final two years in Congress,” according to a 2020 study.
Meanwhile, as Daniel Bessner and Amber A’Lee Frost have argued, the Democratic Party is now a “make-work program for progressive apparatchiks,” many of whom make oodles of money even, or especially, when the party is on the back foot. Fear of Trump sent a tidal wave of big- and small-dollar donations into the coffers of Democrats and their favored advocacy groups, money then rerouted into the bank accounts of the galaxy of consulting firms surrounding them. Political ad spending hit a record $6.3 billion over 2016, and the 2020 cycle, with its billionaire vanity runs making it the most expensive in history, blew that out of the water, lining the pockets of not just consultants, but the army of fundraisers, lawyers, and accountants all shoving their way to the trough.
This perverse set of incentives created a party that in 2020 saw its biggest priority not as beating the man they cynically pretended they thought was a fascist, but as stopping Bernie Sanders. Democratic elites were not just ideologically hostile to the Sanders project, but materially threatened by it. After all, they could live and even thrive under another four years of Trump; the previous four years was proof of that. But if Sanders actually managed to take over the party, it was an open question how long it would be before the corporate largesse ran dry.
“Many unnerved Democratic establishment centrists weren’t sure what they would do if it came down to Trump and Sanders in a general election,” write Parnes and Allen. “Founded or not, their fears of losing their party to socialism competed with their fears of Trump winning a second term.”
“This is not going to be the party of Bernie,” Bill Clinton told DNC chair Tom Perez in 2017 about what mattered most in the following four years, we learn. Thirty House Democrats considered backing Mike Bloomberg at the prospect of the “worst-case scenario” of Sanders winning the nomination, the authors write, scared equally that Sanders would lose to Trump and that he would beat him and transform the party. And while Barack Obama was open-minded about the primary contest, we’re told, “he didn’t want Bernie Sanders to win, and he didn’t think Joe Biden would be a good candidate.”
Obama’s feelings about the primary were its worst-kept secret. A conservative who had clashed with Sanders over his attempts to cut social programs while president, Obama had spent the first year of his post-presidency maneuvering against the party’s progressives and cheering on right-wing leaders around the world. Just as importantly, he was the most high-profile example of the Beltway-to-private-riches pipeline, parlaying his presidency into a lucrative global celebrity and pocketing $1.2 million from the financial industry he’d let defraud homeowners without punishment.
Obama’s thinly veiled doubts about Biden’s “ability to carry the ball over the end line without fumbling,” as one-time rival Cory Booker put it, was widely shared. Despite his poll numbers and self-confidence, the former vice president was humiliatingly rebuffed by party elites and top staffers who didn’t believe he could win. As he limped into Iowa, “much of the Democratic Party’s elite … had already given up on him or was in the process of doing so,” the authors report.
Alarmed by the diminished figure they watched make all the wrong headlines in public event after event, various corporate Democrats weighed launching their own eleventh-hour challenges to Sanders: Deval Patrick, John Kerry, even Hillary Clinton. By late February, Biden had posted embarrassing finishes in the first two contests, ran out of money, and, in a detail that would be too on the nose if it were fiction, the power went out at his hotel and the wheels on his bus suffered a mishap.
That Biden would end up the party nominee regardless was the product of several factors out of his control. One was the increasingly panicked Democratic establishment’s desperation to defeat Sanders. “Democratic Leaders Willing to Risk Party Damage to Stop Bernie Sanders,” the New York Times had blared about candidates’ and party bigwigs’ open vow to overturn the democratic process if he won. And other than the unimpressive Bloomberg — who the party backed as a “backstop” to “force a contested convention,” a Biden loyalist told the authors — Biden, by virtue of having been plucked from relative obscurity to be Obama’s running mate twelve years earlier, was the only non-Sanders candidate with any significant non-white support in the states ahead.
The other was a series of accidents and choices that kept Biden’s campaign viable. The Pete Buttigieg campaign’s successful spiking of the influential CNN/Des Moines Register poll just before Iowa — meant to hide the South Bend mayor’s disappointing third-place showing — saved Biden from a potentially fatal headline, while the app-driven chaos of the Iowa result then masked his awful fourth-place showing in the state. South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn — the pharma-funded, lobbyist-funded, and generally corporate-funded Democrat known for his work doing political favors for donors — then gave Biden the endorsement that won him South Carolina, the state that was first given its prominent place in the Democratic contest in the 1980s by conservative officials who hoped it would stop progressive candidates in their tracks.
And of course, there were Obama’s calls to Biden’s rivals that consolidated the field against Sanders, which the authors recount in greater detail than any previous account. Like Mr Magoo stepping on a sewer lid or a construction beam at just the right moment, Biden was propped up and rescued by a series of twists of fate he’d barely noticed, and came out the other side convinced it had all been his doing.
Less discussed is the all-out media campaign, waged primarily on the cable news channels most watched and trusted by the older voters who vote disproportionately in Democratic primaries, to reinforce Trump-fearing liberals’ already internalized belief that a left-wing candidate would be a liability against Trump. This media had itself profited handsomely from both Trump’s presence in the White House, and the record election ad buys it had spurred.
A number of different studies (full disclosure: I conducted one of them) found that news coverage didn’t just tilt positively in favor of Biden in the days, weeks, and months leading up to his South Carolina win, but substantially negatively against Sanders, becoming harsher as he inched closer to winning. As voters told the press again and again — and as polling suggested on the eve of South Carolina — they agreed with Sanders and were ready to back him, but couldn’t shake the nagging anxiety that those other voters would never vote for a socialist.
Also undiscussed is the ruthlessness with which the Biden campaign and Democratic officials forced an end to the primary. At the same time they were urging people to stay home and avoid large gatherings — and a time when it was still widely believed COVID was spread through surfaces rather than respiratory droplets, leading almost everyone to eschew mask-wearing — the campaign and the party ignored criticism and warnings from health officials, and cheerfully misinformed voters that it was safe to turn out to vote in person, while aggressively rejecting widespread calls to delay upcoming primaries.
The DNC went so far as to threaten to cut states’ delegates in half if they did so, all to wrap things up before Biden sabotaged himself, or before the sexual assault allegation against him that the mainstream press assiduously ignored for weeks became widely known. The result was election day chaos, depressed turnout, and several cases and deaths linked directly to the contests.
“Anyone who’s being honest will say the stars aligned for Joe Biden,” one “longtime confidant” is quoted as saying. It was not just luck, however, but party elites’ willingness to sacrifice their own voters’ lives, and even risk defeat against the Right, to maintain their power that did it.
Stuck in the Middle
“COVID is the best thing that ever happened to him,” is the Anita Dunn quote in Lucky that has received the most attention since the book’s release, speaking to both the cynicism of the campaign and the party’s own doubts about Biden as a candidate. But it’s more accurate to say the virus was the best thing that ever happened to the Democratic establishment as a whole.
The party elites’ bet on Biden had been fraught for them, too. The disastrous 2016 result, and the party’s all-in bet on Clinton as the surest thing, had already wounded the party establishment’s legitimacy and undermined the core argument the party had used keep its voters house-trained and block a shift leftward: that only unambitious centrism can win elections. Now they were risking it again, only this time tethered to a candidate who mysteriously disappeared for long stretches of time, seemed tired and meandering in interviews, and couldn’t seem to remember his own policies even when reading them off a sheet of paper. And the operation around him wasn’t much better.
“Biden didn’t have a campaign, and they’re lying to you if they say they did,” one veteran party operative is quoted as saying as Biden transitioned to the general election. In Obama’s thinking, write the authors, “Joe’s campaign wasn’t worthy of the raging seas of a general election against Trump, especially given Joe’s deficiencies as a candidate.” It called to mind Obama’s reported warning not to “underestimate Joe’s ability to fuck things up,” both of them stunning admissions, given the former president’s key role in ensuring it would fall on Biden to not just save the country from Trump, but to steer it through a set of world-historical crises.
Fortunately, as party officials both privately and sometimes publicly acknowledged, the pandemic served as the perfect pretext to keep Biden out of the public eye, while also letting the party rerun its failed 2016 strategy in a lazier form. For the second time, the Democratic nominee would run a campaign mostly devoid of substance and ideas, backed by big money, and focused overwhelmingly on individual character, moral outrage, and the figure of Trump, except now largely from a basement. This time, though, with an out-of-control pandemic eviscerating hundreds, sometimes thousands of American lives per day and economic devastation to match it, the hope was that voters would simply vote Democrat by default.
Of course, we now know the result was shockingly close; closer, as the authors point out, than Trump’s 2016 victory. And despite the campaign’s brave public face, both the candidate and his officials privately knew it. Despite insisting during the primaries that “you’ve got to be able to not just win,” but “bring along a United States Senate, or this becomes moot,” and pitching himself as the man, unlike Sanders, who could do it, Biden had instead presided over a down-ballot drubbing for the party, which lost almost every Senate race, thirteen House seats, and saw its decade-long plan to take over state governments go down in flames.
Worse, despite voters picking Biden for the express reason he could win over imaginary Republicans, exit polls showed Trump winning a bigger share of GOP voters since 2016, while, shockingly, making inroads into a variety of diverse groups meant to make up the Democratic base: African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, LGBTQ Americans, urban residents, and even Muslims.
Why? Parnes and Allen cite the reason offered by Biden, Clyburn, and a host of other conservative Democrats as an excuse in the post-election round of finger-pointing: “defund the police,” the activist demand no Democratic candidate ever actually ran on.
More pivotal was the campaign’s decision not to do in-person door-knocking. While the Trump campaign modeled itself on Obama’s ground game and knocked on a million doors a week, Biden’s campaign manager, with the approval of the candidate himself, moved to entirely virtual canvassing, reportedly dismaying other staffers, organizers, and even key party leaders like Clyburn.
Supposedly done to keep with the party’s warnings about the pandemic’s threat, the decision made little sense when the science showed masks and distancing would make canvassing safe, and contrasted sharply with the Democrats’ aggressive push to hold dangerous in-person primaries when it meant defeating Sanders. “If Biden loses, this will be his not-going-to-Wisconsin,” remarked one Obama aide.
And it arguably was, even in victory. Top officials like the party’s Texas chairman, its Florida delegation, and Dayton, Ohio mayor Nan Whaley all blamed Democrats’ down-ballot underperformance in those key states on the policy, as well as for the party’s loss of support among Latinos. While the few Democrats who disobeyed the order benefited, everywhere else, in states like Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania, feverish GOP outreach and voter registration drives even in those states’ Democratic strongholds brought Republicans big gains, with the resulting gerrymandering set to keep the party out of power for another decade.
“The rural areas were getting a lot of attention from the Republicans,” Lucky quotes one Biden campaign aide in Pennsylvania, where the Scranton native would win by a sliver as Republicans tightened their grip on the state legislature. “They never stopped registering voters and knocking on doors. We weren’t doing anything.”
Maybe most significant was South Carolina, the site of Biden’s first primary win and beginning of his improbable comeback. Held up at the time as an example of Biden’s unique strength as a candidate, and whose surge of older, wealthier, white voters in the primary was tipped to be a good omen for the general election, Biden and the Democrats were instead thumped up and down the ballot thanks to a record turnout engineered by the GOP’s in-person ground game. Clyburn, one of a small handful of victorious Democrats, had delivered the state for Biden against Sanders, but proven irrelevant when it counted for most of the party’s actual voters.
A less explored factor in the result was the Biden campaign’s decision to separate economic issues from the pandemic, and draw a contrast with Trump almost exclusively on the latter. Instead of marrying the two and championing the kind of ideas progressives and socialists had demanded — monthly direct payments, moratoriums on evictions, foreclosures and utility cutoffs, across-the-board debt relief, and Medicare for All — Biden instead siloed them.
As a result, the campaign forced voters to play a zero-sum game of either voting for Biden and Democrats to do the technocratic pandemic control measures Trump had largely refused, or for Trump and Republicans to focus on restarting the economy the pandemic response had derailed. Polling consistently showed the Trump-Biden voting divide was pegged to which of these matters voters put as a higher priority, with a narrow majority of the public happening to side with tackling the virus.
Meanwhile, to the extent most voters knew about the popular economic policies in Biden’s platform, a survey carried out by an Italian political research institute a month out from voting suggested voters didn’t view him as particularly credible on many of them, even if they viewed him as more so than Trump. Those issues included raising the minimum wage, preventing off-shoring of jobs, lowering drug prices, and ensuring universal health care. We’ll never know if a candidate who had spent a lifetime championing such issues may have changed that, which is the point.
At the same time, Biden’s conservatism put Trump to his left on certain key issues. Biden had never embraced an eviction ban while he was running, and one month after putting out a vague and tepid emergency housing package that left it out, Trump — who had already gone further than Obama in his executive actions in response to economic crisis — beat him to it.
And while Trump repeatedly paid lip service to sending out another stimulus check, the first of which was cited by some Latino voters in Texas as their reason for voting for him, Biden never embraced the idea — to the point that Kamala Harris simply stopped talking about her own cash payment plan upon joining the ticket. The popular idea would later figure as the issue that led the party to victory in Georgia, letting them take control of the Senate, a sign of what a missed opportunity it had been.
One survey later found that Biden-Republican ticket-splitters, the key demographic that delivered Biden the presidency while thumping his party down-ballot, disapproved of Trump’s pandemic response while being more friendly toward what they understood his economic approach to be, and tended to agree with progressive views on entitlements, the minimum wage, and taxing the rich.
In a final twist, it was the Left and progressive activists that Biden and the party disdained and viewed as their biggest threat that ultimately put Biden over the line. His crucial victories in Georgia and Arizona were the result of the years of progressive grassroots organizing that had slowly made those states bluer. Meanwhile, his narrow but pivotal win in Michigan couldn’t have happened without the high turnout in Detroit, driven by furious in-person campaigning by grassroots organizers and socialist Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who ignored Biden’s ban on door-knocking.
As Parnes and Allen make clear, despite a relentless post-election narrative emphasizing the supposed strength of Biden’s victory, usually resting on the meaningless statistic that he had won “more votes than any other presidential candidate in US history,” the campaign was well aware of how fragile this really was.
“If President Trump had just acknowledged there was a virus, even midway in August or September, acknowledged this is a fucked-up situation, and pivoted, we would have gotten crushed,” a longtime Biden advisor is quoted. The same could be said for any number of Trump’s other unforced errors documented in the book, from his irresponsible public behavior, to catching the virus, to his erratic first debate performance, to his failure to get a stimulus passed in the closing weeks of the campaign.
Puzzlingly, despite all their reporting to the contrary, the authors conclude that Biden’s detractors had been wrong about him, and suggest the outcome proved his strategy had been the right one all along — a version of Joe Scarborough’s post-election statement that Biden “was the only Democrat capable of threading the needle and getting elected president this year,” and that “a lot of progressive candidates might not have gotten over this line.”
Yet the inescapable takeaway from both Lucky and the campaign it recounts is quite the opposite. The Democratic Party repeated not just the missteps that led it to failure in 2016, but in every presidential election it’s lost over the past four decades: a centrist candidate with little popular enthusiasm; a base driven more by opposition to the incumbent than excitement for a positive vision; and a collection of committee-crafted slogans and soft-focus personality traits in place of bold ideas and a vision for a better world. It took two world historical crises, a uniquely despised incumbent, and a smattering of other extraordinary interventions to overcome all this and eke out the barest of wins in 2020.
The question is, what happens next time? Has the party truly learned any lessons? Or, having rehabilitated the conventional wisdom that already failed so disastrously in 2016, is it content to hope the same bet improbably works out again, happy to put the rest of us up as collateral?