Ideally, a party in power should run on its accomplishments. In their absence, the next best thing is to terrify voters about the alternative. This is the essence of Terry McAuliffe’s Democratic campaign for the Virginia governorship. McAuliffe, whose fate next week will be seen as a referendum on President Joe Biden, had hoped to run on popular reforms enacted by a Democrat-controlled Washington. Since these have yet to happen — and are being steadily pared down — he is trying to convert the race into a referendum on Donald Trump. In the past few weeks, the word “Biden” has all but vanished from his campaign’s publicity — a better indicator than any poll of the US president’s dimming outlook.
The good news for McAuliffe, and for Democrats in general, is that Trump is giving them every assistance. Little of their Trump fear-mongering is overdone. He shows every sign of running in 2024 and has persuaded most of his fellow Republicans that he was cheated of his rightful victory last November. This is enough to trigger convincing fears about the survival of US democracy and may yet galvanise Democrats to turn out. Glenn Youngkin, McAuliffe’s Republican opponent, has been sufficiently respectful of Trump’s claims to make such an equation plausible.
But it is getting ever harder to spell out what Democrats are for, rather than what they are against. The party hosts a gamut of tendencies from patronage-driven corporatists to democratic socialists — roughly spanning Italy’s traditional Christian Democrats to the Jeremy Corbyn wing of Britain’s Labour party. Given its tiny majorities in both chambers, each Democratic wing has a veto over the contents of Biden’s “build back better” bills, even though so-called moderates are outnumbered by progressives. As a veteran Washington survivor, Biden has always been drawn to wherever the centre of gravity might lie. In today’s cacophony, this means he is constantly shifting with the sands of the negotiations. As president, Biden ought to spell out his red lines, but it is unclear where, if anywhere, they lie.
Partly as a result, Biden has agreed to drop what are arguably his three most popular ideas — 12 weeks of paid parental leave, the expansion of Medicare to cover vision, hearing and dental costs, and tax rises on the rich. The first two, at least, would have helped spur Virginia’s suburban voters to the polls. The larger social spending bill has also been stripped of its strongest green elements, which will demoralise younger liberal voters. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia centrist senator, is trying to purge a modest penalty on methane emissions. If this is building back better, what would dismantling look like?
None of which will enhance Biden’s leverage at the Glasgow summit on global warming this weekend. Biden’s fellow Democrats are sending him half-naked into the negotiating chamber. He can always remind his counterparts what the alternative would be. Unlike Trump, Biden acknowledges the urgency of climate change action and is trying to do something about it. But good intentions will take him only so far. Like America’s voters, foreigners are ultimately looking for results. The further we get into Biden’s presidency, the more bare that cupboard will look.
But there is nothing as scary as Trump this Halloween. Had he faded away, Biden’s political outlook would be far bleaker than it is. Biden might fail to pass his reforms, or they could be so watered down as to register little. He could preside over higher inflation, which would erase most of the wage gains America’s workers are finally seeing. He might even fail to conquer Covid-19 because of his inability to sway a Trumpian hinterland of anti-vaxxers. But if Trump is on the ballot in 2024, the odds would probably still be in Biden’s favour.
Now imagine he was up against a less toxic Republican figure, such as Ron DeSantis, Florida’s youthful governor, or Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador. Either would still incite enmity among grassroots Democrats, not least because they have so cynically toed Trump’s line. But the swayable voter would not have paid as much attention. What they would see by then is an 82-year-old president who promised nice things that largely failed to materialise.
It would be far better if Biden were in a position to deliver something close to the historic changes that he promised. Until then, Trump will remain the most potent weapon that he has.