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Larry Donnelly: Joe Biden won, but Democrats don’t get it

Larry Donnelly says while defeating Trump is a welcome victory, Democrats are in danger of storing up problems for the future by isolating the centre-ground.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

TAKING OUT DONALD Trump is a big deal. It is relatively seldom that a sitting President of the United States is denied a second four-year stint in the White House. George HW Bush was the last incumbent to suffer this sorry end in 1992.

Donald Trump is the most controversial president in living memory. And it was arguably his ugly persona and unbecoming behaviour, together with the administration’s mishandling of Covid-19, rather than any of his policies, that sealed his fate.

That key sliver of the electorate who neither love nor loathe the man had enough of him and yearned for a calmer era and a more measured leader.

Enter Joe Biden. After flirting with a few of his rivals for their party’s nomination, Democrats made the wise choice to opt for a senior statesman who may have lost some speed off his fastball, yet retains the respect of an overwhelming majority of Americans. He faces a difficult and unenviable task.

No clear Democratic victory

Significant as it may be – especially in terms of what it has said to the rest of a mystified world – the decision of the US to install Joe Biden as commander-in-chief is only one element of this election.

The scenes of jubilation in city streets after everyone except President Trump and his unthinking adherents realised that he had lost were a justifiable release of tension and expression of hope. Democrats can find little cause for celebration or optimism in the other election results, however.

Although some have pointed to an impressive raw number of votes or other promising indicators, the bottom line remains. Expecting to take over the US Senate, Democrats have failed, barring huge upsets in two upcoming run-offs in Georgia.

Poised to expand their majority in the US House of Representatives, they lost seats. And the outcome was even bleaker locally.

In a postscript, that bible of the American left, The Nation magazine, put it bluntly: “Nowhere was the news worse than at the state legislative level, where despite unprecedented investment by Democratic organisations and outside groups, and expectations that they’d flip from four to eight legislative bodies – or more, in a ‘blue wave’ election – the party lost ground.”

The Nation quotes strategists who cut to the quick in their assessments. “Bloodbath,” “shit show” and “no way to sugar coat it” are some of the descriptions offered.

Progressive activists are endeavouring to reach a defensible conclusion as to why.

They have floated possible explanations. Democrats were responsible to a fault and didn’t engage, as Republicans did to great effect in Florida and elsewhere, in the ground game due to the pandemic.

Their enemies lied and painted them as socialists, communists and anti-law enforcement. The party’s overarching message attempts at mobilisation and social media tactics were poor.

Latino outreach was weak. Joe Biden didn’t pull Democrats further down the ballot over the top with him because there was scant enthusiasm for the 77-year-old personally.

The depth of the disappointment is directly proportionate to the widespread internal buoyancy ahead of 3 November. Democrats saw a president who they regarded euphemistically as a disgrace and who fired up their wealthy supporters to commit monumental sums of money to beat him and put the US on a radically divergent track.

What they believed to be Trump’s blatant misogyny and racism had engendered the #metoo and #BLM movements and would definitely drive participation and translate into votes for the many women and people of colour who were on the ballot.

As such, they needn’t worry unnecessarily about traditional Democratic constituencies or trying to persuade independents and soft Trump voters. A transformative election was in the making.

As wrong as these mainly leftist Democrats were beforehand, their analysis in the aftermath may be even further off the mark. The factors to which they ascribe defeat played a role.

But politics is a tough business and perception has always been more important than truth in campaigns. The question that has been studiously avoided is why were Trump and the Republicans so successful in caricaturing them as extremists?

For one thing, notwithstanding the prevalent journalistic narrative of two Democratic camps at odds – liberals like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez versus moderates such as the Clintons and Biden – swing voters don’t discern a sizable ideological gap between them. There may be differences in emphasis, style and tone, but the two ill-constructed factions really aren’t all that far apart on most issues.

Failing to win the centre

Actual centrist Democrats are an endangered and broadly scorned species. That, not one of the aspirants to be the party’s nominee for president – when asked at a debate about the just re-elected Democratic governor of deep red Louisiana, John Bel Edwards – would extend a welcome and offer congratulations to him spoke volumes.

The governor is pro-life and pro-gun. Yet he has also fought tirelessly for equal pay for women and for enhanced access to quality healthcare.

news-vice-president-pence-meets-with-louisiana-government-officals Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Surely it is better to have a part-time ally than a full-time foe? Why would these putative standard bearers not posit that, while they do not agree with John Bel Edwards on every topic, his triumph proves that Democrats can compete and win in all 50 states when they accommodate deviations from dogma?

Here’s the reason for the silence on that debate stage: The governor is a genuine moderate from Middle America and hence persona non grata in the mindset of the well-heeled donors on the coasts who write the cheques and call the shots.

Whether this proposition is true or not is immaterial. It is what millions of middle of the road voters – disgruntled and former Democrats foremost among them – perceive. In rejecting John Bel Edwards, Joe Biden and Co slighted them, too.

As long as this politically crucial segment of the population feels this way about what ought to be their natural home, the party will underperform, even on its good days. I am convinced that it is nearly that simple.

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Of course, much has been made of the Republicans’ drift to the hard right and Trumpism and the fork in the road imminently confronting the GOP. It has to be profoundly disheartening for those whose conservatism is akin to Ronald Reagan’s.

Conversely, there have been political gains from this largely unanticipated and unintentional realignment. Plus, the re-election of two Republicans who are a long distance away from the ascendant right – Maine Senator Susan Collins and Vermont Governor Phil Scott – suggests that their tent may be more open than the opposition’s at this stage.

I’ll leave it to them to solve their own problems. For now, I am perplexed as to why my Democratic Party seems determined to make lots of us feel unwanted. And I am absolutely flabbergasted by the steadfast refusal to recognise the consequent political costs of doing so in the wake of Election 2020.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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