Which raises a set of questions Democrats will have to answer as we approach the first votes of the primaries, a little over a month away. Can Biden actually do that? Can any Democrat? And should the possibility of converting some Republican voters be so important that it stands atop all other considerations in picking a nominee?
As Katie Glueck of the New York Times reports, on the ground in Iowa Biden’s appeal to other people dominates everyone’s thinking about him:
As they jostle to take pictures with the former vice president and listen to him preach about national unity, they are often thinking about someone else — a dad, a neighbor or a colleague. They consider the political leanings of people close to them who are uncomfortable with the most liberal presidential contenders, but who hate the chaos of the Trump era and are receptive to the kind of centrist, seasoned candidacy Mr. Biden offers.
This is not a question that emerges out of nowhere; at one Biden event after another, an ally gets up onstage and tells the assembled voters that what they think of the former vice president is less important than what Republicans might think. “I have a lot of family, a lot of friends, I have people in this audience today that are Republicans,” one Biden surrogate says. “They will vote for Joe Biden and that’s how he wins this next election.” At one point, Biden’s own wife told voters that “maybe you have to swallow a little bit” and vote for him even if you like another candidate better, because he’ll win over independents and Republicans.
That might be true. But it’s a proposition that should be treated with skepticism. Particularly since right now almost everyone saying that Republicans will vote for Biden is a Democrat.
That Times article does quote a Republican, former senator Chuck Hagel, saying that members of his party have “said to me, ‘If Biden is the nominee, I will vote for Biden, I will not vote for any of the other Democrats.’” But it’s revealing to hear this from Hagel, a voice from another age. A moderate of the kind virtually extinct in today’s GOP, Hagel was appointed to President Barack Obama’s Cabinet as part of Obama’s futile attempt to show the opposition that he was bipartisan and therefore they should approach him with an open mind.
To be sure, there are some number of Republicans who are dissatisfied enough with President Trump to be open to voting for a Democrat. But there were also a good number of Republicans in 2016 who said the same thing, and in the end it didn’t happen. They were pulled back to vote for Trump by the power of partisan loyalty: Even though it was not some kind of mystery who Trump was, 92 percent of Republicans voted for him. That was virtually unchanged from 2012, when 93 percent of Republicans voted for Mitt Romney.
While Biden’s potential appeal to your Republican uncle is often described as a product of Biden’s ideological moderation, there is no reason to assume that voters will make their decision based on some finely tuned understanding of ideology. There’s a temptation among those who pay a lot of attention to politics to believe that the average voter thinks the same way they do, but that has never been true, particularly in presidential elections.
It’s also important to remember that whoever the Democratic nominee is, those Republican voters will be absolutely bombarded with messages meant to enforce party loyalty, coming not just from Trump but also from every Republican they respect and admire. Joe Biden is a villain, a liar, a crook, they’ll be told, and he’d turn America into a socialist hellscape. A vote for him would be a betrayal of your party, your country, and everything you hold dear.
It’s hard to know how Biden will stand up to that assault, because he has never been tested in that way. The attacks to which he has been subjected so far in this campaign, not to mention in his career to this point, are but a fraction of what he would face if he became the party’s nominee. And we know that his Republican friends in the Senate will not vouch for his goodwill. Quite the contrary; they have shown that they will do everything in their power to destroy him on Trump’s behalf.
Any Democratic nominee will face a similar version of the right’s campaign of vilification, not to mention a news media that is likely to rerun the “But Her Emails” debacle of 2016, elevating some small weakness or misstep in the Democrat’s history into a Watergate-level scandal. The most skilled candidates, like Obama and Bill Clinton, were able to overcome what was thrown at them, and it’s perfectly reasonable to ask which candidate is best able to withstand the assault.
Biden might be that candidate, but looking over his career I see reason for skepticism. Many Democrats are supporting him at the moment because of how they think Republicans will react to him at the end of what will be an utterly brutal general-election campaign. At that point, there will be no hypothetical or imagined open-minded Republicans, only real ones. Counting on them to vote for a Democrat isn’t a safe choice. It’s a gamble — one that might pay off, but not one with any guarantees.