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The Least Objectionable Candidate

Joe Biden - Election Chairs
Thought Leader: David Frum
January 24, 2024
Source: The Atlantic
Written by: David Frum

It was a plausible plan, the political equivalent of stealing a base.

Joe Biden had promised South Carolina Democrats that their state would host the first primary of 2024. The state of New Hampshire declined to step aside. To honor his promise, Biden did not enter the New Hampshire primary.

That decision opened an opportunity for Biden detractors inside and outside the Democratic primary process: If the incumbent president refused to compete, somebody else could enter and appear to win. It would not be much of a victory, but it might be misrepresented to look like one. Maybe it could even force Biden out of the race, as President Lyndon B. Johnson was forced out by a rival’s strong showing in the New Hampshire primary of 1968.

How hard could it be to win a one-dog dog show?

Turns out, harder than it looks. Almost 100,000 people cast ballots in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. Not quite 25,000 chose a Biden alternative. Almost all the rest seem to have written in Biden’s name. (The counting still continued as of 9 a.m. ET.)

A lot of money has been raised and spent this cycle on the hypothesis that a big internal demand among Democrats exists for an alternative to President Biden. The anti-vaccine celebrity Robert F. Kennedy Jr. entered the Democratic contest in March 2023 (then switched to an independent candidacy in October). The gadfly academic Cornel West, seeking to attract Biden voters in the left wing of the Democratic Party, entered as a Green Party candidate before also switching to run as an independent. In the Democratic primary race proper, the spiritualist Marianne Williamson and Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota have tried their luck.

A prospective No Labels ticket now looms—premised on the assumption that millions of centrist Democrats want to join hands with moderate Republicans in equal rejection of both ex-President Trump and President Biden.

Yet, when put to the test in New Hampshire, the proposition met a harsh rejection. It was rejected even though Biden did not campaign in the state at all.

That New Hampshire rejection does not necessarily mean the proposition is doomed for all time. Maybe Phillips was the wrong messenger, too obviously driven by ego and pique, too void of a message more powerful than “We need an alternative. I’m an alternative. Therefore we need me.” The No Labels project has not yet named candidates. Perhaps the possibility of a Joe Manchin candidacy for president or vice president could energize dissident Democrats uninspired by Phillips. (Before I joined The Atlantic, I participated on a pro bono basis as a speaker at some No Labels events from 2010 to 2014.)

But maybe the challenge-promoters are also missing something important. Trump has generated a deep personal bond with members of the (shrunken) Republican Party. Biden has not done that. But that is not the nature of the transaction between Biden and his party. Biden typically opens remarks with the phrase “Here’s the deal”—and that’s exactly what Biden offers: a deal, not a cult.

The Democratic Party is a big, sprawling mess, and has long been that way. In the Trump era, it spans the ideological distance from Bernie Sanders to Cindy McCain. There is no one Democratic “base”: Jim Clyburn’s socially conservative voters are part of that base as much as, or more than, Elizabeth Warren’s ultra-progressives are. Democratic coalitions are typically assembled by highly targeted benefits rather than mobilized by big messages as Republicans often are: $35 insulin, defense of abortion rights, student-loan forgiveness, environmental measures. The current coalition includes intense supporters and intense critics of the state of Israel. Altogether, not an easy horse to ride.

The best rider is one who is able to keep reminding each part of the coalition that it needs to get along with the other parts.

James Poniewozik, the television critic for The New York Times, offered a helpful way to think about Republican and Democratic candidacies in his 2019 book, Audience of One. Trump, Poniewozik argued, was not only an avid consumer of cable-TV programming. Trump himself was a cable-TV program: narrowcast to a small but highly enthusiastic audience. To beat him, Poniewozik suggested, opponents would have to revive the broadcast spirit of old-fashioned network television.

Once upon a time, American households contained large numbers of people and a single TV set. At peak viewing times, the whole family would have to agree on a show. Dad might want an action drama, Mom might want an edgy comedy, one of the kids might want something creative, another might want something scary, but everybody liked nature shows. So that’s what the network aired on a Sunday night. Network executives described their task as inventing “the least objectionable program.” As a candidate for president, Biden may be the “least objectionable” since Dwight Eisenhower (who won reelection in 1956 despite a near-fatal heart attack the year before).

You want “the deal”? Here’s the deal:

Most reelections campaigns are a referendum on the incumbent. Four more years, yes or no? More of the same or something new? The 2024 election is different. Trump insists that everything always be a referendum on him. In 2024, Biden and his party are eager to agree. The anti-Trump coalition is bigger than the pro-Trump coalition: roughly 3 million votes bigger in 2016, 7 million votes bigger in 2020, probably somewhere between those two figures in 2024. The Electoral College was slightly tilted in Trump’s direction, but Biden is more appealing than most Democrats in the Trump-favoring swing states of the Midwest.

Yet Biden’s appeal and its limits may be the wrong place to pay attention. This year’s election is a contest between the constitutional and democratic forces in American society and the anticonstitutional and antidemocratic forces. The candidates are only incidentally the story; the fateful national choice, the deep social forces driving that choice—those are the story. Biden is not really the leader of the constitutional and democratic side of this mighty contest. Biden is the instrument of the constitutional and democratic side.

The Bible tells the story of Gideon, a leader of Israel summoned to defeat the Midianite enemy. Gideon assembled an army of 22,000 men. God told Gideon that his army was too big. Gideon reduced the army to 10,000. Still too big. At last, the number was cut to 300. The Bible explains that if Israel had won with a large force, it would have credited its victory to human hands. With 300 only, Israel understood that the credit was God’s.

Maybe the Democratic voters of New Hampshire were expressing a similar idea: Trump is not going to be beaten by some charismatic newcomer, by some artful strategy. Trump’s going to be beaten by the revulsion of American voters. The message of New Hampshire? The nominee who is needed most is the one who gets in the way least.

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