Watching the acceptance speech at the 1964 convention, where the nominee declared that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," Theodore White exclaimed, "My God, he's going to run as Barry Goldwater!" Observers of Democratic front-runner Joe Biden may be muttering something similar to themselves these days.
If Biden's supporters had harbored any hopes of packaging their candidate as something other than what he is, they have probably been dashed by his fond look back at his productive relationship with proud segregationists like the late senators James O. Eastland and Herman Talmadge. And just in case those hopes somehow survived his original remarks, Biden helpfully doubled down, not only refusing to apologize but saying he expected Senator Cory Booker, his most forceful critic, to apologize to him. It's settled: Biden is going to run as Biden.
Good. Good for Biden, good for the campaign, good for the party — and good for the country.
For starters, it's always good for people to be themselves rather than try to be whoever other people want them to be. Barack Obama has an aloof and professorial temperament. He didn't try to hide it, and he still twice won states like Iowa and Ohio where that is far from the preferred mode for a candidate. Elizabeth Warren is leaning in to her wonkish seriousness, and it not only isn't interfering with her campaign, it's powering her rise. If Biden is going to win, he'll have his best shot by running as Joe Biden.
But there's a strategic rationale for Biden's comments as well. In 2016, Hillary Clinton made an infamous gaffe at a fundraiser, saying that Trump's support fell into two baskets. One held people with legitimate anxieties, economic and otherwise. The other was a "basket of deplorables" excited to finally be able to express their racism, sexism and xenophobia openly by voting for a candidate who did the same.
The left hasn't stopped debating the degree to which that analysis was correct, because in real life people don't come in baskets, and it's not so easy to separate grievances into "legitimate" and biased (not to mention that the exercise itself smacks of precisely the posture of moral superiority that powered the original remark). But there is no question that her comment became a rallying cry for the right, a concise proof that the Democrats don't just disagree with their opponents, but hold them in contempt and seek their destruction. That message is so central to the Trump campaign in 2020 that it almost completely eclipses any debate about the issues.
Biden's comments blunt that message. Because if his reminiscences communicate one thing clearly, it's that Biden is willing to work with people the Democrats find truly deplorable.
The conventional defense is that Biden wanted to express some platitudinous blather about bipartisanship, perhaps simplistic but probably the kind of thing that voters (and wealthy donors especially) like to hear, but that he chose exceptionally poor examples to prove his point. This defense is backwards. The platitudinous blather is entirely pernicious, a way of avoiding a confrontation with what politics is really like under conditions of extreme partisanship. If Biden actually believes it then he's a bigger fool than I take him for, and if he's flattering wealthy fools then he's doing them no favors in nurturing unrealistic expectations. The only way a Biden presidency will be successful is if he wins big enough to have a clear and durable legislative majority to back him up. Personal conviviality will avail him nothing.
But to win big, any Democrat is going to need the votes of those so-called deplorables. For that reason, the only useful thing about his comments was that he chose as examples not people whose views are still controversial, but people whose views are so thoroughly, utterly and rightly deplored by today's Democrats (and, I would guess, by more than a few Republicans) that if they were still living they would be completely beyond the pale. The message can't be missed: no matter how heinous your views, no matter how fervently I disagree with you, I will never consider you untouchable.
Is that the only way for Democrats to win the votes of people who voted for Trump because they thought Hillary Clinton's Democrats held them in contempt? I don't think so. I personally prefer Warren's approach of going into deep red territory to articulate specific plans she has to help their communities. Showing up really is half the battle, and delivering is plausibly the other half. It's very hard to believe that someone who does show up, and does deliver, also holds you in contempt.
If her strategy works, though, and brings along a host of new red state Democrats into Congress, some of those Democrats are going to hold views — perhaps on immigration, perhaps on abortion, perhaps on other issues — that most of the party finds deplorable. To hold their caucus together, the Democrats will have to figure out how to demonstrate that even when they disagree — and when the party platform is on the side of the liberals — dissenters are still part of the conversation, still people the party wants to work with, still people whose constituents they respect. And they will simultaneously have to keep the support of younger voters who are far more inclined than their elders to see anathematization as an effective tool of politics.
The culture war is a disaster for Democrats. That's not because their policy views are unpopular — America has gotten more liberal on a wide range of issues over the past 20 years, gay rights most notably, but also on matters of race, and a reaction to Trump is fueling even further movement leftward. It's because that stance — that politics is a war in which the opposition has to be destroyed — serves the populist right vastly better than it does the liberal left. When the voting is tribal, the red tribe is better positioned for victory. The only way for the Democrats to win is to play a different game.
Biden's allies in the Congressional Black Caucus understand that from long experience. They have his back, and that should be enough to sustain his firewall of older black voters in South Carolina and elsewhere. Cory Booker may have done him a slight favor by appointing himself Biden's Sister Souljah, but he did a bigger favor for Biden's more potent rivals by allowing them to change the conversation. If Biden loses, it won't be because he's soft on deplorables. It'll be because he's soft on everything. The point of making deals is to advance some larger goal that is of paramount importance. What that goal is for Biden remains elusive, and that remains his greatest vulnerability, both in the primaries, and in the general election.