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The wrong candidate

Like Hillary Clinton in 2016, Joe Biden won’t defeat Donald Trump.

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Start with the problem, or conundrum. In 2016 Joe Biden would have defeated Donald Trump. In 2020 Biden did beat Trump. In 2024 Biden will lose to Trump. Only the second of those is historical fact, but the first is widely accepted, and the last is widely apprehended. Eight years ago, the Democrats invited disaster by choosing the one candidate Hillary Clinton Trump could beat, and if Joe Biden insists on running again in November he will be inviting the same fate.

Both elections reflect unhappily on the sheer perversity of American democracy. Eight years ago, poll after poll showed that a clear majority of Americans didn’t want a choice between Trump and Clinton, and this year poll after poll has shown that most Americans don’t want a choice between Biden and Trump. The difference is that in 2016 many Democrats deluded themselves that their candidate was bound to win because Trump was unelectable. As Roger Altman, Bill Clinton’s Deputy Treasury Secretary, put it in the Financial Times, in September 2016, “The biggest American political question today is not the outcome of the November election. For all practical purposes, that is over and Hillary Clinton will be the next president . . .the fact is that this is decided.”

After Trump won in 2016, it was poignant to observe the Democrats, and indeed the whole of what could be called decent America, the America of the mainstream media, the colleges, the cultural elite, the conventional wisdom. They were shell shocked, bemused and baffled. Like King George the Third in the clerihew, Trump “ought never to have occurred. One can only wonder / At so grotesque a blunder.” They had made a mistake in convincing themselves that a Trump presidency was unthinkable, when what they meant was that it didn’t bear thinking about. Trump’s victory could only be coped with psychologically if it was seen as some terrible natural catastrophe, hurricane or earthquake, rather than a perfectly explicable political event, which was not only foreseeable but foreseen.

In the spring of 2008, I wrote a piece for the Washington Post asking what possible reason there was for Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic candidate, and a number of American friends thanked me. In the event the Democrats nominated Barack Obama (alas not thanks to the power of my pen). My theme was that Clinton had done nothing whatever to deserve the nomination and there was no good reason to suppose thought she would be a successful president. But still Jill Abramson, who was briefly editor of the New York Times, insists on writing about her “distinguished service  … from first lady (of both Arkansas and the United States), to US senator to secretary of state”.

Distinguished compared with whom? Franklin Roosevelt was 27 when he was elected to the New York state legislature, but was not long after whisked away by the newly elected President Woodrow Wilson to be made Assistant Secretary of the Navy, which proved an important role when the US entered the Great War. By 1920, before he was 40, he was important enough to be the running mate of Archibald Cox, the unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate. He was then afflicted by polio, overcame it, won the election for governor of New York in 1928, then won the Democratic nomination in 1932, and you know the rest. John Kennedy was only 43 when he was elected President in 1960 but he had already spent 14 years on Capitol Hill, as a three-term congressman and twice-elected senator.

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By contrast, Clinton was 53 in 2000 when she turned up in New York, a state with which she had a somewhat tenuous connection, expecting to be made senator by acclamation. She had never then run for, let alone held, any elective office, not in any state legislature or the House of Representatives. The only political task with which she had ever been entrusted was her husband’s healthcare reforms, and she made a complete hash of that. Otherwise what “distinguished” her during her husband’s presidency (apart from turning a blind eye to eye to his personal betrayals) was endorsing his policies, from “the end of welfare as we know it” to the “Crime Act”, thanks to which a Black American in his thirties who didn’t finish high school is now more likely to be in prison than in a job, to the repeal of the 1933 Glass–Steagall Act which had separated ordinary commercial banking from merchant or investment banking, a repeal which led to the crash of 2008.

Only the writer Camille Paglia was brave enough to state the obvious truth, that Clinton’s becoming a senator what was a flagrant act of nepotism. Her time in the Senate was then “distinguished” by her support for the Iraq war, which she would privately, bitterly and correctly say was the reason she lost the Democratic nomination to Obama, and so she should have done. Obamas’s own first mistake was to appoint her Secretary of State, in which office she was responsible for the American-led intervention in Libya. “We came, we saw, he died,” Clinton gloatingly said about Colonel Gaddafi. That might be rephrased. She came, she saw, he was sodomised with a metal pole before being beaten to death, whereupon Libya imploded into bloody chaos, to become one of the chief recruiting grounds for violent jihadists as well as the main channel for the tragic human traffic of migrants. Yes, another triumph for liberal interventionism!

After only one term at the State Department she left to prepare her next bid for the presidency. This time, in the spring of 2016, I returned to the subject for a well-known New York liberal newspaper, with a piece which I thought they were going to use, but was spiked. My piece said that Trump might be a monster or a buffoon or both but that he was a real threat, and the Democrats were making a great mistake if they underestimated him.

That might have been acceptable, but I went on to say that the Democrats would be making an even bigger mistake if they nominated Clinton, which was evidently unpalatable. Come November and I felt like a columnist in one of the popular Fleet Street papers of my boyhood, who had a catchphrase: “I told them, but they wouldn’t listen.” It had only remained to retrieve something by betting on Trump. On Election Day his odds with my bookmaker were 4-1, an absurdly long price in a two-horse race, reflecting that widespread belief that he was unelectable.

After he won, Clinton’s dazed and embittered supporters would try to find someone else to blame for her defeat. It might be Jill Stein, who had the temerity to run as candidate of the Green Party (actually, America has too few parties, not too many), or the press which investigated Clinton too closely, or James Comey of the FBI who released his report about Clintons use of a private email shortly before the election; anyone but Hillary herself.       

They say there’s no age more distant than the day before yesterday, and it’s easy to forget the mood of that year. It was precisely because Clinton’s victory was so widely supposed to be a foregone conclusion that many people, from the press to Comey, acted as they did, to show that they could not be accused of having overlooked her weaknesses, which might have allowed Trump the chance to claim that he had been cheated by an establishment which ignored Clinton’s failings.

One failing in particular. After the election Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian columnist, although on this occasion writing for the New York Review of Books, said that the American people had chosen “an unstable bigot, sexual predator and compulsive liar”. One phrase rang a bell. In the New York Observer in February 1998, the late Nicholas Hoffman said that America now had “the first President to be both sexual predator and sexual exhibitionist”, and he continued with a riff I shan’t quote here.

In 2016, the American people had to choose between a Republican candidate who boasted about his revolting attitude to women (“I grab them by the pussy”) and a Democratic candidate who was the first woman ever to be nominated by either historic party. And 53 per cent of white American women voted for Trump, a fact which America liberals find it hard to digest even now. It still hasn’t dawned on some of them that the wrong person to challenge a sexual predator was the wife — and enabler — of another sexual predator, and that very many American women despised Mrs. Clinton for the way she had let her odious husband walk all over her.

This may strike some readers as a gratuitous rehashing of events better forgotten. I had a strong impression visiting America soon after that election that the Democrats had decided that the less said about 2016 the better, while privately recognising that Clinton’s campaign had been a disaster, but one best erased from their memories. They forget what Edmund Burke said in 1770. A previous speaker in the House of Commons had claimed “that retrospect is not wise; and the proper, the only proper subject for enquiry is, not how we got into this difficulty, but how we are to get out of it … to consult our invention, and to reject our experience”. But so far from ignoring what had caused our present difficulties, Burke replied, ”We should take a strict review of those measures, in order to correct the errors if they should be corrigible; or at least to avoid a dull uniformity in mischief, on the unpitied calamity of being repeatedly caught in the same snare.”

A few Americans did address the disaster of 2016. Thomas Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004) and Listen, Liberal (2016), wrote a splendid piece for the Guardian, unfortunately just after the election rather than before: “Why, oh why, did it have to be Hillary Clinton? … she was exactly the wrong candidate for this angry, populist moment. An insider when the country was screaming for an outsider. A technocrat who offered fine-tuning when the country wanted to take a sledgehammer to the machine … She was the Democratic candidate because it was her turn and because a Clinton victory would have moved every Democrat in Washington up a notch,” even though the Democratic apparat knew about “her closeness to the banks, her fondness for war, and her unique vulnerability on the trade issue – each of which Trump exploited to the fullest.”

All this is acutely relevant today, when the Democrats look as though they will be caught in the same snare, as Burke would have said. Joe Biden isn’t Hillary Clinton, but the problem is comparable, mutatis mutandis, or same difference. As Frank said, “If Trump is a fascist, as liberals often said, Democrats should have put in their strongest player to stop him, not a party hack they’d chosen because it was her turn,” words which need only a little rephrasing today. What had been particularly reprehensible — and disastrous — was the way Biden was treated eight years ago. He had loyally served Obama as vice president for the previous eight years, and Obama cold-shouldered him, to the point of humiliating him. And yet, to repeat, as honest observers recognised, Biden would have beaten Trump in 2016.

In the New York Times there is a two-page comment section. To the west or on the left are the somewhat solemn editorials and on the right is the page of comment columns written with varying degrees of acuity or obtusity. In between is an oasis of honesty and sanity, in the form of readers’ letters. “I voted for Hillary Clinton,” said Elliott Jacobson of Wilmington, Delaware, “but had anyone else been the candidate, the Democrats would have won the White House.” And John McMillian of Atlanta added that “many of us who are most enraged by Donald Trump’s presidency would prefer it if Hillary Clinton, along with Bill, would go away. The Clintons have been running the Democratic Party like a fief for 25 years. Hillary should not even have run for president in 2016. She was ethically compromised from the get-go. She’s not good at retail politics, she’s a chronic, shameless dissembler and her campaign was grossly incompetent.”

And now? When I was last in Washington I was told by a friend who knows the White House well that Biden believes he is the only candidate who can beat Trump. This is the notorious syndrome of chief executives, newspaper editors, heads of colleges, who say they would really love to step aside but honestly believe they ought to stay on as there is nobody who could do the job as well. This is particularly absurd in Biden’s case.

A startling new story in the New York Times, “Majority of Biden 2020 Voters Now Say He’s Too Old to Be Effective, Poll Finds” finds “a fundamental shift in how voters who backed Mr. Biden four years ago have come to see him. A striking 61 percent said they thought he was ‘just too old’ to be an effective president.” And they are obviously right. We smile or wince when he stumbles and bumbles, confusing the President of Mexico with the President of Egypt, but it really isn’t funny.

My own final acknowledgement that we couldn’t simply laugh off these gaffes as harmless slips of the tongue was when Biden made his backslapping, Guinness-swilling visit to Ireland last year, and talked about Ray Kearney, the Irish rugby player, who is evidently Biden’s fifth cousin, like so many people in Ireland. He’s a great player, Biden said: “He played a hell of a game when the beat the Black and Tans.” I know Ireland quite well and can assure the president that if there is one thing the Irish can tell, it’s the difference between the Black and Tans and the All Blacks.

Even now the response of the liberal media has been baffling or comical or even bizarre. After the horror which followed Trump’s victory in 2016, there was a long line of journalists in the mainstream American press competing as to who could say most eloquently, or at any rate loudly, what a terrible man Trump is. Now there’s a different competition, among journalists telling us how dreadful the next Trump presidency will be. The January-February issue of that famous magazine the Atlantic Monthly is a classic in this respect:

“If Trump Wins —The staff of The Atlantic on the threat a second term poses to American democracy… America survived the first Trump term, though not without sustaining serious damage. A second term, if there is one, will be much worse. — Jeffrey Goldberg … How Trump Gets Away With It: If reelected, he could use the powers of the presidency to evade justice and punish his enemies — Barton Gellman … Is Journalism Ready?: The press has repeatedly fallen into Donald Trump’s traps. A second term could render it irrelevant — George Packer,” and so on, and on.

Nowhere is there any suggestion that Trump might still be defeated, or any hint of how that could be done, such as by choosing a Democratic candidate who could beat him. It’s like watching a crowded bus driving towards the edge of a cliff, with the driver asleep, all the passengers paralysed with fear, and none of them thinking he might push the driver aside and take over the steering wheel.

Although there’s still much affection for Biden, his support is, in the phrase, a mile wide but an inch deep. Trump’s is the opposite, less broad but much deeper. A large part of the American electorate regard him with loathing and horror, and yet more than a third of Americans now passionately support him, and will go on supporting him whatever he does, which gives him a head start in the election.

As for Biden’s being irreplaceable, the United States is a great nation of 331 million citizens. If the Democrats can’t find a dozen people fit to be president, they should go out of business. My own choice would be Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan, a state Hillary Clinton lost but the which Democrats must win in November, but there are other plausible names.

It’s true that the Democrats are locked in by the singularly foolish American system, whereby a candidate has to declare and then go through the primaries. And a sitting president is very hard to remove, short of impeachment or assassination. Britain’s own political system has many failings, but at least we know how to get rid of leaders who’ve outstayed their welcome. Margaret Thatcher was the first person to lead a party to three consecutive election victories, she held office for 11 years, she changed the country whether one liked her or not. And the Tories ruthlessly dumped her when they thought she had lost her electoral appeal. Tony Blair also led his party to three victories, but in 2006 his colleagues made it clear to him that he must go within a year. And of late the Tories have positively made a habit of deposing prime ministers, three of them in the last five years.

Someone must tell Biden — maybe a colleague, maybe his wife — that he has to soon announce that he won’t be running again, but that he will give his full support to whichever candidate his party chooses. He has many achievements to his credit, which have been eloquently listed by my friend Franklin Foer in his book The Last Politician (2023). But Biden needs to recognise, or be made to recognise, that if he insists on running again, and loses to Trump, then everything that he’s ever achieved, during 36 years in the Senate, eight in the Vice President’s office and four in the White House, will be obliterated and forgotten.

In 2016, we could only guess what a Trump presidency would be like. Now we know. If Biden and the Democrats inflict a second Trump presidency on themselves and the world, they will never be forgiven.

[See also: Oren Cass: “Trump is an inherently time-limited phenomenon”]

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