Now what? After four years of manias and catastrophizing, with constant warnings about the “existential threat” posed by Donald Trump, the monster is dead. Trump, the democratic Saddam, has lost, and his metaphorical statue will soon be dragged out of the White House, to the cheers of nearly every pundit in the land.
From there, the hard part begins. We know who Joe Biden is, but what is the Democratic Party in the post-Trump era? At the national level anyway, a combination of good and bad luck has allowed the party to avoid defining itself for nearly two decades.
For the past two presidential election cycles, the Democrats campaigned as the party of not-Trump. In the two cycles before that, the Democrats mostly ran on the skill and personal dynamism of Barack Obama. They won three of those four elections. But anyone looking back at the chronology will quickly realize that the accident of those two unique personalities, both media supernovas — the brilliantly marketable Obama and the monster-pig shipwreck act that was Trump — allowed the Democrats to delay confounding internal dilemmas.
The 2008 primary campaign is mostly forgotten now, but the referendum on the party mainstream’s stance on the Iraq War was extraordinary in its bitterness. Hillary Clinton had voted for the war, as had the previous Democratic candidate, John Kerry, who stressed his military credentials and opened his convention with a video showing him with John McCain. Democrats in 2004 seemed to want to market themselves as Republican-lite, and unsurprisingly lost when voters chose the real thing.
The conceit of the first Obama campaign was a rebrand of a party that was going nowhere fast as the not-quite-as-for-war opposition to George W. Bush. Obama became a star running as an economic populist and anti-interventionist, someone willing to smash party conventions. Obama’s “change” slogan and all those gazillions of Shepard Fairey posters were as much about a symbolic withdrawal from the Democrats’ own recent militarist tradition as they were about beating George W. Bush.
The ecstasy shown in the Chicago night in November 2008 wasn’t just that it felt like historical demons were being purged through the election of the first black president. It was also the sense that Obama was taking the party to a new place, building a government in his own intelligent, humane image.
Then he took office. Obama’s three major acts as president were absolute continuity with Bush’s financial bailouts, a similar continuation (and in some cases expansion) of the War on Terror, and a new, hard-won health care program. The crash response inspired the Occupy movement, while Obamacare was flawed enough that it inspired a new movement on the party’s left flank. Bernie Sanders was to Obama what Obama had been to Hillary. Sanders spent 2016 and 2020 running on an implied critique of the Obama years, with Medicare for All a central plank.
The failure of Obama to live up to the progressive hype didn’t prevent him from winning a second term, but it might have inspired a down-ballot collapse. Democrats famously lost about 1,000 seats nationwide during his presidency, suffering historic defeats in state legislatures and governorships across the country.
Obama’s personal magnetism concealed the fact that something was not quite working with the party’s overall message. The emergence of Trump as a new archenemy drove that controversy further underground. Watching Trump campaign in 2016, it seemed clear that the Democrats’ decision to nominate Hillary Clinton, a politician with ties to Wall Street, the Iraq War, and (through her husband) NAFTA, created an opening Trump was anxious to exploit, even if insincerely.
Rather than address those potential issues, Democrats ran more or less entirely on Trump’s negatives. In 2016, Clinton spent nearly a billion dollars on advertising, about twice what Trump spent. One study even showed that 90 percent of Clinton’s anti-Trump ads were based on personality. They rarely mentioned policy. Then the Dems lost and spent the next four years insisting that (choose one) racism/Russia/the media was the reason, not any long-developing issue with voters that might have arisen over a decade of war and widening inequality.
The implicit promise of the 2020 campaign of Obama’s former vice president was a return to the happy before-time of the pre-Trump era. Vox compared Biden’s launch to Warren G. Harding’s “Return to Normalcy” campaign in 1920, which was essentially a referendum on Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations plan. Harding promised “not heroics, but healing . . . not surgery, but serenity,” and won the White House. Biden used similar language, preaching “unity” and chiding candidates who believed winning required being “angrier,” a seeming reference to both Trump and Sanders.
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By voting in yet another ex-senator with a pro-Iraq, pro-NAFTA vote, the party is essentially turning the clock back not to 2012 or 2008, but more like 2004. Biden ran not so much on a return to normalcy but a return to pre-Obama norms and an end to fist-shaking rhetoric. But the party’s poor down-ballot performance in 2020 already has the Pelosi wing blaming progressives and tempering expectations.
A return to norms had tremendous appeal so long as Hurricane Trump was in office. But Biden inherits a country besotted with severe structural and economic problems, a country whose Democratic base overwhelmingly supports changes like debt forgiveness and Medicare for All, and whose rural and suburban population was angry enough to elect Donald Trump once, almost twice. If the Democrats don’t remember how much failing to deliver real change cost them before, if they don’t soon find an identity more ambitious than not being Trump, they will find themselves right back where they were four years ago — vulnerable to revolts on both sides.