Biden and the Segregationists: Anatomy of a Mistake

Let’s say you are a Democratic candidate for president of the United States. You are attempting to show voters that you can help fix the broken state of governance in Washington. You are intending to use examples of “reaching across the aisle“ and “working with people despite disagreements on other issues.“

You have multiple options; among them are:

  1. Bill Clinton working with Newt Gingrich – yes, that Newt Gingrich – to enact tax reform in 1997.
  2. Clinton working with Bob Dole – his 1996 opponent – and Gingrich to enact trade liberalization in the early the 1990s.
  3. Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill working together to enact tax reform in 1986.
  4. Anything involving two segregationist Democrats, one of whom left office before the oldest Millennial was even born and the other from Jimmy Carter’s home state who lost his seat due to Reagan’s coattails in 1980.

If you picked anything but D, you are smarter than Joe Biden – by a country mile. Unfortunately, if you are reading this column it is quite likely that you are not in fact running for president and Biden is. Even worse, many of those running against him don’t seem to understand just how big Biden’s error was.

There is certainly something tone-deaf about Biden’s use of James Eastland and Herman Talmadge (the Senators in choice D). He has earned all criticism received on that score. However, to quote Joseph Fouche of Napoleonic France: “It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder.”

The “blunder” flows from a misconception about swing voters shared by all three major Democratic candidates: namely, that said swing voters are Obama-Trump voters.

Biden’s strategy appears to be soft-pedaling social justice issues. Elizabeth Warren‘s strategy appears to be hard-pedaling left-wing economics. Bernie Sanders’ strategy appears to be a combination of the two.

Here’s the problem: Obama-Trump voters aren’t swing voters; they are converts. They are not coming back. Bob Dole tried to win back voters who switched to Clinton in 1992; he lost over 30 states. Walter Mondale tried to win back voters who switched to Reagan in 1980; he lost over 40 states.

The actual swing voters in 2020 are the swing voters from 2018 – suburban, college-educated, and far more likely to lean to the center-right on economic and international issues than on social issues. Sanders and Warren act as if these voters don’t exist. Unfortunately, Biden doesn’t apparently think they exist either. Otherwise, he would have remembered – and discussed – when the two major parties resolved differences and found common ground on issues that appeal to current moderates, rather than harken back to days when his own party had a faction that appeals to no one outside of Trump’s base.

That Warren and Sanders are choosing not to appeal to the swing voters of 2020 does not surprise me; they’ve spent their political careers avoiding those voters. Biden, on the other hand, has a history of supporting moderate economic policies, especially on trade and on tax reform. That he is choosing not to use that history is more troubling for the party as a whole.

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