This raises the stakes for intrepid writers in the tradition of Theodore H. White, author of the series, “The Making of the President.” How do you publish a book of behind-the-scenes campaign stories when so many readers have heard them before?
Edward-Isaac Dovere meets the challenge with his deep dive in the 2020 election. Though many of the high points will be familiar to anyone who follows politics, the work offers an engaging fly-on-the-wall narrative of the Democrats who attempted to replace President Donald Trump.
Dovere sought to understand how Democrats were able to rebuild their party after the traumatic 2016 defeat that brought Trump into the White House. Not only did an extremist Republican Party seize control, but Democrats suffered carnage at the state and local levels. When Barack Obama ended his term as president, Democrats were in terrible shape. “ ‘Benign neglect’ is how Obama aides privately described his abandonment of the party while he was in the White House,” Dovere quips. “ ‘Negligence’ might be more accurate.”
Following a brief excursion into the grass-roots mobilizations that erupted after the election, such as the formation of the progressive group Indivisible and the women’s marches across the country, Dovere shifts into campaign mode. “Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats’ Campaigns to Defeat Trump” provides a riveting account of how the unlikeliest candidate, Joe Biden, pulled off an upset against a group of talented rivals in the primaries and then Trump in the November election.
The path to clinch the nomination was difficult. Many Democrats meshed better than Biden did with the changing character of the party. “Battle for the Soul” is filled with turning-point moments when other Democrats almost pulled ahead and when the Biden campaign was nearly broke. Even Obama was dubious that Biden could win.
Certain scenes jump off the page. We learn of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s list of demands from hotels and green rooms. In what could be a scene from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Dovere reports that a staffer was sometimes stationed outside Sanders’s bedroom to open the window if the temperature rose above his preferred 60 degrees. There are moments of contingency, such as when adviser Mike Donilon scrapped the “Joe from Scranton” announcement video at the last minute for Biden’s defining speech about the soul of the nation, or how media coverage of the problematic app in the Iowa caucuses drowned out positive coverage for winner Pete Buttigieg. We are reminded of inane moments, such as when right-wing conspiracy theorists claimed that Biden was wearing a wire up his sleeve during a debate with Trump; it turned out to be the rosary beads of his deceased son, Beau.
In an intriguing chapter, Dovere argues that Mike Bloomberg’s extraordinarily expensive ad buy before Super Tuesday had a huge positive impact for Biden. By undermining the momentum of other Democrats, Bloomberg gave Biden time to recover from his poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Readers will wish that Dovere hadn’t moved so quickly away from the grass roots that coalesced to stop the Trump juggernaut. #MeToo energized the suburban women’s vote. Parkland students forced congressional candidates in 2018 to deal with gun control. #BlackLivesMatter kept attention on racial justice and reignited political engagement in the summer of 2020. Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight was indispensable to turning Georgia blue.
The biggest missing element is Trump himself. To be sure, the former president appears throughout the pages. But not nearly enough. It is impossible to understand the fortunes of the Democratic candidates without emphasizing the chaos and instability that the president wrought on national politics every day, magnified by his toxic Twitter feed. The candidates’ mistakes and gaffes were not nearly as important in driving the primaries as the overall terror that Democratic voters felt about the possibility of a second Trump term. Super Tuesday made it clear that many in the party were risk-averse, given the stakes of an election in which the fate of democracy seemed to hang in the balance. These fears worked against progressives such as Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as well as newcomers like Buttigieg and Julián Castro. Most Democrats simply didn’t want to take any chances. They wanted a safe bet — the elderly White man with tons of experience who polled best in a matchup against the president.
These concerns were magnified with the pandemic. Too often, Dovere downplays the way that the coronavirus devastated not just traditional campaign tactics but all of our lives. Even news about the election was sidelined by daily updates on the virus. By the time of the fall campaign, Democrats were doubly energized to cast their vote. Americans were dying, statewide shutdowns seemed unending, kids were missing school, and the president was peddling elixirs and mocking science.
Ironically, the conditions that pushed Democrats toward the safest possible candidate might have ended up producing a president who is willing to act as boldly as Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Obama. During his first 100 days, Biden vastly expanded the reach of the federal government, even with the GOP lined up against him. Reversing former New York governor Mario Cuomo’s famous phrase, Biden campaigned in prose but is governing in poetry. Though outside the scope of this book, future historians will have to reconcile a Democratic campaign centered on electability with a presidency that, at least so far, is striving for transformation.
Battle for the Soul
Inside the Democrats’ Campaigns to Defeat Trump
By Edward-Isaac Dovere
518 pp. $30