Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
The date is 3rd March 2021. Exactly one year after his strong Super Tuesday showing performed political resuscitation on a previously floundering campaign, President Joe Biden reveals a nation-wide vaccine program. Donald Trump shouts in the background (Twitter suspended his account after he encouraged Civil War, you see) but no one listens. Within months, COVID-19 is gone and Biden’s mind turns to a second question; “What next”?
This wishful thinking on my part is more than simple escapism. The virus will be with us for a long time. If he loses, Donald Trump won’t go quietly. But at some point, Joe Biden or Kamala Harris will have to look beyond Coronavirus. And there are pitfalls.
Few things have the potential to splinter an electoral coalition as much as victory. Few coalitions have been as wide ranging as Joe Biden’s; “Lincoln Voter”, ‘Republicans in name only’ on one side, and a generally younger, more radical wing of the Democrat Party. What these voters have in common is that they are less enamored with Biden as repulsed by Trump. After Trump, whatever happens for Trumpism, the “Democrats will lose their turnout machine”– even if only for a while. If enough of America comes together to reject Trumpism and not just Trump, then Republican Party recalibration would reset the boundaries to some extent; it won’t be ‘America or Trump’ anymore, but Republican or Democrat. Many overplay Trump’s neo-Nazi associations; but if Trump is America’s Hitler (and he is not), then will his defeat also lead to a falling out by Allies of expedience and a political Cold War?
Biden will hope that his crisis management is so effective as to give him the political cover to please enough people enough of the time; but he will have to make unpopular decisions. Biden has deliberately been vague on policy, and instead run on emotions- his empathy, for instance. At its heart the question that might plague Biden is this- “what does the Democrat Party stand for”. At the moment, it is unanimously Anti-Trump. That is not a sustainable platform if Trump loses; even if his children run later.
For all this peril, Biden has some advantages. The first is that Presidents in crises generally garner widespread support- see George W. Bush after 9/11. Trump has squandered this spectacularly; Biden’s strengths are emotional; he won’t do the same. Secondly, Trump will not go quietly- thereby holding together Biden’s coalition.
Lastly, Biden has the advantage of being unassuming. In Lyndon Johnson, he also has a perfect example. The parallels are stark; both Vice Presidents to younger, charismatic, Presidents. Both with considerable Senate experience. Both coming to power (hopefully in Biden’s case) in a national crisis. Johnson served one full term; Biden has even pledged to do the same. Most importantly, however, both were seen as less progressive than their Democratic predecessors. This gave Johnson the chance to make sweeping changes without being threatening. A native Texan, who Malcolm X called “a southern cracker”, Johnson drove the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965- alongside a ‘Great Society’ Agenda which made Medicare and Medicaid law.
Johnson rode a wave of empathy after President Kennedy’s assassination. Trump has repeatedly called Biden “Sleepy Joe”. It could end up being a complimentary sobriquet; if Biden uses his own empathy and harnesses his unassuming image he could forge a consensus around lasting and crucial legislation in a way a genuine figure of the Democratic Left could never have done. If he fails, America will continue to be plagued by partisanship in one form or another. Even without COVID, the stakes are high.