Jul 9, 2020

Unforced Errors

Biden and Trump undermine their best arguments
Charles Lipson

This week, both presidential candidates made major unforced errors. Both did so fumbling toward the same goals: solidifying support in their party base and revving up the base’s enthusiasm. This focus makes more sense for Biden since the party’s left wing, led by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is deeply skeptical of the former vice president, who has a long track record as a center-left “insider.”

Trump, on the other hand, has no need to convince his base, and it is perplexing why he spends so much time doing so. Polls show that 90 percent of Republicans already support him, most with real enthusiasm. His focus should be on persuading independent voters. That’s where Trump is so vulnerable. Only about one-third of independents currently support him, and his latest mistake only compounds their disillusion.

What Were the Errors?

In Biden’s case, the fumble came when he promised to “transform” America. “We’re going to beat Donald Trump,” he tweeted on July 5. “And when we do, we won’t just rebuild this nation—we’ll transform it.” Now he will be forced to say what that means.

Whatever he says will hurt him, first, because his proposals will break the bank and require a bigger federal government; second, because they require him to explain himself in detail, which is not exactly his strong suit. Making a major policy speech or answering tough questions is often a bridge too far, and he has made every effort to avoid crossing it.

Those problems are serious, but there is an even bigger issue with his statement. Biden’s transformational promise undercuts his most appealing message: that Trump has taken America off the rails and that he, Biden, will restore the country to normalcy. After the tumultuous Trump years, Biden’s best argument is to say, “I will return the nation to the calm, steady progress that characterized the Obama-Biden administration and led America forward. I worked hand-in-hand with President Obama, so I know how to do that.”

His best strategy is to leave his promises as vague as he can get away with, much as Richard Nixon did in 1968, when he vowed to end the Vietnam War with “peace and honor.” No one had any idea what that meant. They read their own hopes into it. Similarly, Biden won’t win the White House with detailed policy proposals. He’ll win, if he does, because people think he’s a likable guy who promises stability, as opposed to Trump, whom many dislike and who has overturned familiar Washington policies, practices, and norms.

In the primaries, Biden seemed to understand his own appeal. He stressed a center-left message, such as supporting revisions and extensions of the Affordable Care Act rather than the wholesale overhaul of healthcare promised by Sanders, Warren, and others. Now, however, he is saying he will support much bigger changes. He will be the president of the Green New Deal, the leader who appointed Ocasio-Cortez to cochair his task force on energy. Goodbye fossil fuels, hello solar—plus all the regulations and government subsidies that go with it.

Trump will use dark, frightening colors to fill in the missing details of Biden’s promised “transformation.” That makes perfect sense since the president’s best path is to make this a one-on-one race, pitting his next four years against Biden’s. He will insist that Biden wants to pursue socialist, big-government, high-tax, onerous-regulatory policies and doesn’t have the backbone to stand up to the progressive wing of his party. Trump’s ads will say that, behind Biden’s smile, he and his family are thoroughly corrupt, the poster children for the Washington Swamp. Biden may tout his working-class Scranton roots, but his family has grown rich, thanks entirely to his government connections in Ukraine, China, and elsewhere. That will be one prong of Trump’s attacks.

Biden’s best response is to make this race about Trump and hope that popular revulsion against the incumbent and Biden’s own support for mainstream Democratic policies will carry him to victory. The trick is to promote those policies without dividing or alienating his party’s activist, left-wing base. His tweet promising “transformation” shows just how difficult that will be.

Making the “return to normalcy” case against Trump is easier. Biden is aided, obviously, by the president’s overexposure, polarizing statements, and erratic tweets, all of which are, and will continue to be, highlighted by the media. Trump’s tweet last weekend, favoring the Confederate flag at NASCAR and attacking the only Black driver, Bubba Wallace, shows the president at his worst. His comments are both wrong and breathtakingly dumb. There is dwindling support for Confederate symbols, and rightly so. Independents hate them. So do educated voters. They see them as emblems of treason and racism, not of benign Southern pride. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) showed a clear understanding of these issues when he discussed NASCAR’s recent ban on Confederate symbols. The auto-racing association, he said, “is trying to grow the sport. I've lived in South Carolina all my life and if you're in business, the Confederate flag is not a good way to grow your business.”

It’s not a good way to grow your electoral support either. Graham knows it, and so should Trump. The president’s tweet plays directly into the Democratic Party theme that he and his fellow Republicans are racists. If people believe that, they will vote for Democrats.

How Can the Candidates Overcome These Errors?

If these unforced errors were rarities, they would pass quickly. Unfortunately for both candidates, they aren’t, and they won’t. They reveal each man’s enduring difficulties. Biden’s problem is that he now appears to be a tottering weathervane, pointing whichever way the wind blows. Voters see his cognitive decline and wonder who will actually govern the country if he is elected. There are good reasons why Biden stays in his basement, avoids press conferences, and invites only softball interviews. He’s harder to find than Waldo and more averse to hard questions than Prince Andrew. And, truth be told, why should he leave the couch when he’s gaining in the polls, thanks to Trump’s troubles?

Trump’s biggest troubles—the pandemic and ensuing economic collapse—are not of his making. But many of his other problems are all his own, particularly his self-defeating impulsiveness.

Amid these troubles, Trump has been handed a huge political opportunity, thanks to riots and destruction in Democratic cities, mindless efforts to defund the police, and visceral anti-Americanism of left-wing activists, including many elected Democrats. Trump has failed to exploit these opportunities, thanks, once again, to his own limitations and self-inflicted errors. These miscues are not oversights or one-time errors. They happen repeatedly, as he steps on his own message and defends the indefensible, such as the Confederate flag. He seems unable to help himself or exert the self-discipline to stop.

For Trump to win, he must minimize these unforced errors, limit his overexposure, and stress three compelling arguments. First, he must argue that, unlike Biden, he will restore rapid economic growth, starting with a new round of tax cuts. That’s his best argument, the one with the widest appeal, and it should be the centerpiece of his campaign. Second, Trump must show that, unlike Biden, he can restore domestic order and pride in America. That means drawing a sharp contrast between his own vision of America and Biden’s vision. The president thinks we are a shining example, exemplified by heroes like those on the Washington Mall and Mount Rushmore. The former vice president, Trump will say, thinks much of American history is a disgrace. “Just look at what his supporters are doing in the streets.” Finally, Trump needs to make the case that he is far better qualified to protect and defend our country from foreign threats, especially China’s growing danger. He should argue that the Obama-Biden administration allowed the US military to decay but that he rebuilt it, not to embark on foreign wars but to deter them. He should add that Biden still doesn’t understand the Chinese threat and actually profits from his family’s ties to Beijing and its communist leaders.

Both candidates have potentially winning messages. Unfortunately, right now, neither one is tightly focused on making them. Each is too busy shooting himself in the foot. Or perhaps the shots are landing, even more painfully, higher up.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. His recent articles for The Bridge include pieces on Biden’s difficulties in picking a running mate and pandemic-related trends. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

Photo credit: Ron Przysucha/State Department

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