Underrating Biden is one industry that has continued to thrive during the pandemic. His well-known imperfections are recited as an orthodox journalistic litany. To the annoyance of his aides and loyalists, his ability to nail down the Democratic presidential nomination so early and with so little money or organization is just taken for granted.
The Overrating Trump industry also continues to boom. The trauma created by his unexpected electoral college victory in 2016 never went away. In the marketplace of punditry, it’s always safest to invest in the idea that Trump has some trick up his sleeve.
But it’s time to consider the idea that underestimating your strength can be as counterproductive as exaggerating it. Candidates whose campaigns are motivated primarily by a fear of defeat can kick away opportunities to win transformative victories.
Ronald Reagan understood this, and his 1980 landslide pushed American politics to the right for more than a generation. Those on the progressive side of American politics — the left and center-left alike — need to set aside their anxieties long enough to see that 2020 could be a turning point in the other direction.
Consider, first, that Trump and the Republican Party are being forced to play on the opposition’s turf. Reagan’s triumph was foreshadowed by the eagerness of liberals to sound conservative. Now, those who call themselves conservative are having to sound like liberals, though they’ll never admit it. This forces them to muddle their own arguments and play defense on issue after issue.
Even before Senate Republicans had unveiled their police reform bill on Wednesday, Democrats were already saying it fell well short of the steps required in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks.
The Democrats are right, but even the modest provisions against chokeholds and no-knock warrants outlined in the proposal put forward by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) go far beyond anything that the GOP has entertained before. A sweeping change in public opinion has forced Republicans out of their comfort zones.
Similarly, Trump’s own speech on police issues on Tuesday was an incoherent mess, signaled by his need to flat out lie about what then-President Barack Obama tried to do about brutal law enforcement practices. Trump married weak-tea police reforms with his old divisive law-and-order rhetoric. His defense of cops, by the way, comes with ill grace from someone who called officers of the law investigating him “dishonest slime bags.”
Oh, yes, and the sharp economic downturn has pushed Republicans, who thrive on anti-government, the-market-is-always-right rhetoric, to spend trillions to keep the country afloat. They know that the country knows how the pandemic and the downturn have exposed deep injustices in how our economy works.
In the meantime, Biden is simply not “staying in his basement.” He has offered policy-laden critiques of Trump’s handling of covid-19, the economy and the policing issue. Later this month, those familiar with his thinking say, he’ll offer a plan for big investments in job creation. They will focus on strengthening the nation’s domestic industrial base, clean energy and caregiving to children, the elderly and the disabled.
In other words, Biden is not acting as if he thinks the election is already won, and he’s not averse to big proposals. As one Biden insider notes, the former vice president’s agenda — on health care, education, climate change and policing, for example — is “much more progressive” than the programs offered by Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
This doesn’t mean he’s moved “too far left.” On the contrary, the ideas he has plucked from the progressive portfolio are vote-winners, not vote-losers. Lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60 is very popular with voters between the ages of 60 and 65. Free public college for students from families with incomes under $125,000 a year is popular, too.
Okay, here’s the obligatory caveat: Even Biden’s strongest supporters acknowledge that some of his swing state leads are too close for comfort.
But after 2016, overconfidence will never be the major problem. One of the most debilitating aspects of Trump’s rise is the extent to which it has undercut the confidence of many liberals and moderates in the common sense of a majority of the electorate. This attitude is anti-democratic and self-defeating. Understanding, as Reagan did, the potential to ignite a large coalition for change is the precondition for bringing it to life.