It is not his age but his history that bedevils Biden, and not style but substance that weighs on his candidacy. Biden got the big things wrong repeatedly over the last 40 years. In what he has since called a “big mistake,” he championed the infamous 1994 crime bill that contributed to the unconscionable mass incarceration that particularly ravaged the African American community. As Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, he left Anita Hill to fend for herself during the Clarence Thomas hearings. He defended President Bill Clinton’s repeal of Aid to Mothers of Dependent Children. He consistently backed pro-corporate trade treaties — from the North American Free Trade Agreement to letting China into the World Trade Organization — that savaged America’s manufacturing workers. He voted for the invasion of Iraq, surely the greatest foreign policy debacle since Vietnam. (He now claims he was duped by then-President George W. Bush.) And he was all in for Wall Street deregulation that helped lead to the worst recession since the Great Depression, then served in the administration that bailed out the banks, put no major banker in jail for what the FBI called an epidemic of fraud and left homeowners adrift.
Biden’s basic pitch is as the candidate of restoration. He paints Trump as an aberration and promises a return to normalcy. He boasts about the recovery under Obama and chafes at the populist rhetoric against bankers and corporate CEOs. But as Greenberg details in his new book “RIP GOP: How the New America Is Dooming the Republicans,” this isn’t where most voters are — and it certainly isn’t where the core constituents of the Democratic majority coalition are.
Greenberg, who made his name as Clinton’s pollster in 1992, offers a bracing tonic for citizens about Trump’s poisonous politics. As the 2018 election demonstrated, Trump’s strategy rouses his base; Greenberg notes he has the unbending support of 40 percent of voters. But that same strategy mobilizes his opposition as well. The Democratic base — particularly what Greenberg describes as the rising U.S. electorate — millennials, women (particularly single women), people of color — are appalled by and ardently and increasingly opposed to Trump.
They were central to the record turnout in the off-year elections in 2018, and Greenberg’s polling shows them even more engaged headed into 2020. Moreover, a quarter of the Republican Party base is more moderate than the extreme tea party screeds that Trump echoes. In his book, Greenberg reports that in 2018, among moderate Republicans — one-fourth of the Republican Party — “just 69 percent voted Republican, 12 percent defected to the Democrats, and 19 percent stayed home.”
The new majority in the United States, he argues, embraces diversity, sees immigrants as strengthening the country, rejects the social reaction that Trump Republicans trumpet and demands expansive government addressing real challenges that Trump Republicans deny, such as climate change.
The likely result in the upcoming election, Greenberg predicts, is a “second blue wave on at least the scale of the first in 2018 and finally will crash and shatter the Republican Party.”
Greenberg indicts Hillary Clinton’s “campaign malpractice” for her loss in 2016. She didn’t want to criticize the Obama recovery and seemed oblivious to the damage done to working people by the financial wilding and the purblind trade policies. She joined Obama in praising a recovery that most Americans were not experiencing. If Clinton had only put a populist focus on the economy in the waning days of the election, Greenberg argues, she would have won. Then again, in an age when voters are understandably cynical about politicians — and when Trump routinely scorns their corruption — credibility matters. Given her history — her husband’s embrace of corporate trade and financial deregulation, her coziness to Wall Street — Clinton would have a hard time credibly presenting herself as a populist tribune.
Unique among leading Democratic contenders, Biden suffers the same problems. His record — which Trump will surely bring up — gets in the way of his rhetoric. And like Clinton, he is unlikely to admit Obama’s flaws for those voters who don’t just want to return to the past.
For months, pundits have been warning about the Democratic candidates going too far to the left — embracing bolder reforms and a bolder, more aggressive agenda. Greenberg’s book is a necessary corrective, demonstrating that Trump’s own tea party extremism is forging a powerful majority coalition intent of ousting him from office and removing those standing in the way of addressing the challenges this country faces. Greenberg implies virtually any of the leading Democratic contenders can beat Trump and beat him badly. Ironically, the weakest of these might well be Biden, burdened with defending a series of votes and positions that have not worked for most Americans. Democrats win big if they nominate a candidate credible as an agent of change, willing to take an economy rigged by the few. Biden is about to discover that once they take a good look, Democrats will find it hard to see him in that role.