At a campaign event in New Hampshire earlier this year, Jill Biden encapsulated the spirit of her husband’s 2020 presidential run in an appeal to what one might call “common-sense” politics: “Your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, health care than Joe is, but you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election… [Y]our bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.”
Jill is far from the only one with this line of thinking. Much has been made of democratic frontrunner Joe Biden’s “electability,” an elusive quality around which he has centered nearly his entire campaign. Though the Democratic primary thus far has been a highly ideological contest between the party’s upstart progressive wing and its centrist helm, for Biden, debates over Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are little more than sound and fury that divert focus from the real threat that looms over the race. The ultimate goal is to oust President Donald Trump, and Biden believes that he alone has the electability to deliver.
Were this a “normal” election cycle, it would be hard to conceive of a more obvious shoo-in candidate than Biden: recent vice president to former president Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president and a liberal icon; a long history of bipartisan cooperation and public service; and a longstanding reputation as affable (if somewhat bumbling) “Uncle Joe.” After forty-seven years in national politics, Biden has learned to deftly straddle the line between man of the people, often stressing his middle-class origins in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Washington insider, balancing authenticity and experience in a way few other politicians have been able to.
Though any election with Trump as sitting president can hardly be described as “normal,” there is a case to be made that our anomalous political situation strengthens Biden’s initial appeal. After four years of children in cages, emboldened white supremacists, and a self-destructive scorched earth policy towards the climate and our foreign allies, Americans are anxious to change course. Biden recognizes America’s angst, and has positioned himself accordingly as the safest choice, the surest bet to remove Trump from office should he withstand impeachment.
Discussions about electability are often simultaneously discussions about cultural politics, usually centered around coveted Midwestern swing voters and what is or is not culturally palatable to them. Racist and sexist assumptions inevitably rear their ugly heads—the New York Times’ deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman was demoted for a tweet suggesting that Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, two women of color on the left flank of the Democratic Party, were too alienating for a Midwest assumed to be uniformly white and conservative. Ideology, too, plays a role, as pundits have cast both Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as too radical to appeal to the center, narratives on which Republicans will inevitably capitalize should the senators become the Democrats’ standard-bearers. When the stakes are this high, “socialist” experimentation à la Sanders seems like little more than recklessness.
Upon second glance, though, Biden’s electability argument quickly falls apart. For starters, take the notion that cursory perceptions of electability matter at all in the age of Trump. By all measures, Trump was and is perhaps the most “unelectable” candidate in recent memory. He began his 2016 campaign by branding Mexican immigrants as rapists, and it ended with tapes of him bragging about sexually assaulting women. Yet Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state and first lady running as the seasoned, levelheaded foil to her petulant, anachronistic opponent, is not the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Granted, Clinton did win the popular vote, and our archaic eighteenth century electoral system ultimately kept her from the presidency—Russian interference may have also had an impact, though it is difficult to say with certainty to what extent. She failed, however, to replicate Obama’s 2008 landslide and could not reach the key constituencies in swing states that brought him to victory. Though she may have appeared to be the “safest” choice, Clinton was by no means the most electable choice; the hallmarks of a safe candidate do not always translate into electoral success. If superficial appearances do not inevitably determine who will assume the nation’s highest office, as Clinton’s failed bid seems to indicate, then the decisive factor must be the political content of a candidate’s campaign.
The Biden campaign has a skewed conception of what it means for a candidate to be electable at this critical juncture in American history. In centering the election on defeating Trump and restoring “America’s soul,” he promises a Harding-esque return to normalcy that eerily echoes his opponent’s goal of “making America great again.” The difference lies in the era of supposed American greatness. Whereas Trump seems to fixate on the 1950s, when both the American middle class and Jim Crow thrived, Biden seeks to roll the clock back to an idealized version of the Obama era, when D.C. retained a veneer of liberal Aaron Sorkin glamour.
Though he lacks the former president’s rhetorical prowess, Biden has chosen to characterize his campaign as a continuation of Obama’s, a strategy that is not without its advantages. Nostalgia for the immediate pre-Trump past will mobilize a nontrivial number of voters, especially politically aloof Democrats who were captivated by Obama’s promises of hope and change and object to Trump’s crassness—though it is unclear whether these are the swing voters that an electability strategy targets. Nor should the real achievements of the Obama presidency, like the Iran nuclear deal, the Affordable Care Act, and the expansion of LGBTQ+ rights, among others, be flippantly written off.
Returning to the Obama era, however, also means returning to unsustainable conditions that were decidedly difficult for large portions of the country. These were the years of the Wall Street financial crash, when the opportunity for deep reform of the financial system was passed up in favor of bailouts, and the livelihoods of American workers became even more precarious; the years when ICE deported more undocumented immigrants than it has so far under Trump; the years when a fundamentally unjust criminal justice system repeatedly failed black Americans. The appearance of normalcy in the Obama years often masked a much darker reality that allowed a figure like Trump to rise to power.
Like Clinton before him, Biden seemingly fails to understand that a tepid continuation of the neoliberal state of affairs is uninspiring and, in fact, an unelectable message that will enable the populist right to capitalize on feelings of alienation, hopelessness, and racial tension. His campaign has followed Clinton’s model of framing the election as a purely aesthetic choice between two people, a “battle for America’s soul” only tenuously connected to voters’ material concerns. A vote for Biden is a vote against Trump and his coarse politics, but not for any meaningful reform to the political and economic institutions that disadvantage all but the wealthiest Americans. In short, Biden’s electability premise is a vote in the negative rather than the positive.
Going into the 2020 rematch against Trump, Democrats must reconsider who counts as an electable candidate and what counts as electable politics. Faced with dizzying income inequality and the prospects of climate disaster, milquetoast centrism is woefully inadequate to ensure the turnout needed to win. If it is serious about defeating Trump in 2020, the Democratic Party will need to offer voters a progressive alternative to the status quo that has failed so many. Policies that “electable” candidates like Biden have derided as pie in the sky fantasies—most notably Medicare for All—may in fact be more effective at reaching voters in Ohio and Michigan than moderate solutions tailored to a projected vision of Middle America.
Perhaps the one silver lining of the Trump presidency is its stimulating effect on the opposition. The sheer shock of Trump debasing our political norms and institutions has unleashed a wave of grassroots protests on myriad issues, a wave that any prospective Democratic candidate will have to harness to emerge victorious in the general election. Biden’s belief that it is possible to close the Pandora’s box that Trump has opened and simply return to “business as usual” makes him possibly the riskiest candidate in the running for the nomination. Biden is selling himself as supremely electable, but he is far from the safest choice—and the stakes in 2020 are too high to repeat the mistakes of 2016.
The image featured with this article is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 License. The original was taken by Gage Skidmore and can be found here.
Dave Marques is a fourth-year political science major interested in American and European politics. He spent his third year studying in Berlin, Germany, where he worked as a translator for a local history app and a communications intern for the European Council on Foreign Relations . In his free time he enjoys traveling and learning foreign languages.