After Hillary Clinton’s shock defeat to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, the Democratic Party could have been forgiven for wanting a change of direction to stand a better chance next time around. Instead, they have chosen continuity in its purest form: Joe Biden, who is not only ideologically similar to his predecessor, Clinton, but was Vice President to Clinton’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Since they have chosen someone so similar to their unsuccessful 2016 candidate, it is their responsibility to explain why Biden will do any better than Clinton did. These explanations tend to revolve around the premise that Biden has that elusive quality of ‘electability’, which Clinton, and indeed all of Biden’s rivals for the Democratic nomination in 2020, supposedly lacked. Whether it is worth sacrificing ideology for the political Ponzi scheme that is electability is another matter entirely, as it first remains to be established whether Biden is any more electable than Clinton was.
One of the oft-cited factors behind Clinton’s lack of electability is the ‘scandal’ that beset her campaign. There can be little dispute there; regardless of whether or not her email scandal was evidence of corruption, Trump and the media outlets that backed him utilised that controversy to label her a ‘crook’ with such volume and frequency that it became an uncontroversial reason to criticise her. A candidate that did not face these problems would have an advantage over Clinton, certainly, but Joe Biden is not that candidate. Trump has already demonstrated his intention to accuse Biden of corruption due to a ‘scandal’ involving Biden, his son, and the Ukrainian government. Once again, even if Biden is innocent, he will lose voters over this. Even more alarmingly, Biden has countless allegations of sexual misconduct- which he has commented on but conspicuously refused to deny- and one accusation of sexual assault hanging over his head. Trump and his partisan media will, without an ounce of self-awareness, call Biden a corrupt sex pest, and will succeed in creating immense negative PR for him. Biden, unlike Trump, finds himself in the unfortunate position of relying on voters who do care if their president abuses power and women.
Another area that is said to have contributed to Clinton’s failure was her lack of likeability. She was unable to energise previously unenthusiastic voters like Obama and Trump were, and suffered significantly for this. Once again, however, this is just as much an area of weakness for Biden. It is worth noting that his original run for presidency, in 1987, was derailed because he plagiarised an entire speech from then Labour leader Neil Kinnock. This was an incredible display of campaigning incompetence -apart from anything else, why anyone aiming to win an election would want to emulate Neil Kinnock is unfathomable. The last 33 years have not been kind to Joe Biden; during this run for the Democratic nomination, he has called a student a ‘lying, dog-faced pony soldier’, claimed that COVID-19 originated in the ‘Luhan province’, and forgot how many grandchildren he has. To call Biden gaffe-prone would be doing a disservice to gaffes, and this puts him in an even worse position than Clinton was in terms of campaigning ability.
On a similar topic, perhaps the most important reason behind the 2016 result was that Clinton’s campaign was, retrospectively, extremely complacent. In hindsight, her decision to respond to Trump’s slogan of ‘Make America Great Again’ with the claim that ‘America is already great’ was a catastrophic misjudgement of the American mood. This was an electorate that was still feeling the effects of the 2008 financial crash, and that had been inspired by Obama’s message of hope, only to be once again let down by establishment politicians when nothing changed. Not the entire electorate, of course, but the most economically disadvantaged members of it, a sizable group of people. Trump spoke to these people, promising to ‘drain the swamp’ with his radical populist agenda. This was very popular, whereas Clinton’s assurances that the people were wrong, that things were fine, were not.
Instead of learning from this mistake, the Democrats have leant into it as much as possible; if the phrase ‘let’s not rock the boat’ was put into human form, it would very closely resemble Joe Biden. Not only is he a career politician and poster boy for the liberal movement that has dominated the political establishment for the last few decades, he is inextricably associated with the Obama administration, an issue not helped by the fact that he relies on it as a key part of his platform, repeatedly referring to himself as an ‘Obama-Biden Democrat’- and at one rally in Missouri as an ‘O’Biden-Bama Democrat’. Biden embodies the same complacency that led to Clinton’s downfall. Telling voters that everything was actually great from 2008 until 2016 and that we should keep everything the same as it was then is unlikely to be any more popular now than it was in 2016.
Of course, as we learned the hard way four years ago, the American electorate is volatile and unpredictable. Biden may well become president. Even if he does, however, it will not be because of his ‘electability’. Democrats can – rightly- point out that Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 by a significant margin, and, though she probably should have done better, she can nevertheless count herself unlucky not to be president. So perhaps if the Democrats do the exact same thing again, the odds will be in their favour this time, or Trump will have lost himself enough support to tip the balance. This is eminently possible, despite Trump’s extremely inelastic support base and the incumbent advantage that has seen presidents running for re-election in post-war America (excluding the anomaly of 1992) win 4.4% more of the vote than they did in their original victory on his side. For Biden and the Democrats, in short, optimism is possible – though not justified.