Ideally, a ruling party should continue to make achievements. In their absence, the next best thing is to make voters fear the alternative. This is the essence of Terry McAuliffe’s Democratic campaign for governor of Virginia. McAuliffe’s fate next week will be seen as a referendum on President Joe Biden, who had hoped to implement popular reforms through Democratic-controlled Washington. Since these have not happened yet-and are being steadily reduced-he is trying to turn the campaign into a referendum on Donald Trump. In the past few weeks, the word “Biden” has almost disappeared from his campaign propaganda—a better indicator than any poll about the bleak prospects of the US president.
The good news for McAuliffe and general Democrats is that Trump is providing them with all help. They spread Trump’s fears hardly too much. He showed all the signs of the 2024 campaign and persuaded most of his Republicans that he was deceived in his legal victory in November last year. This is enough to raise convincing concerns about the survival of American democracy, and it may also inspire Democrats to come out. McAuliffe’s Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin has fully respected Trump’s statement to make this equation reasonable.
But it is increasingly difficult to clarify what the Democratic Party supports, not what they oppose. The party has various tendencies ranging from sponsorship-driven corporatists to democratic socialists-roughly covering the traditional Christian Democrats in Italy to the Jeremy Corbin faction in the British Labor Party. Given its majority in both houses, each democratic party has the right to veto the content of Biden’s “Rebuild Better” bill, even though the number of so-called moderates has exceeded the number of progressives. As a veteran survivor in Washington, Biden has always been attracted to wherever his center of gravity is. In today’s noise, this means that he is constantly changing in the negotiation. As president, Biden should be clear about his red line, but it is still unclear where, if any, the red line is.
Part of the reason is that Biden agreed to abandon arguably his three most popular ideas-12 weeks of paid parental leave, expanded medical insurance to cover vision, hearing and dental expenses, and tax increases for the wealthy. The first two, at least, will help stimulate voters in suburban Virginia to vote. Larger social spending bills have also been deprived of the most powerful green element, which will demoralize young liberal voters. Centrist Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is trying to remove the appropriate penalty for methane emissions. If the reconstruction is better, what will the demolition look like?
None of this will enhance Biden’s influence at the Global Warming Summit in Glasgow this weekend. Biden’s Democratic colleagues are sending him half-naked into the bargaining hall. He can always remind his colleagues of alternatives. Unlike Trump, Biden recognizes the urgency of climate change action and is trying to act on it. But kindness will only get him to this point. Like American voters, foreigners are ultimately looking for results. The deeper we go into Biden’s presidency, the more empty the cabinet looks.
But nothing is scarier than Trump this Halloween. If he disappears, Biden’s political outlook will be much bleaker than it is now. Biden may not pass his reforms, or they may be watered down to almost no registration. He can host higher inflation, which will erase most of the wage growth that American workers will eventually see. He may not even be able to conquer Covid-19 because he cannot influence Trump’s anti-vaccine hinterland. But if Trump voted in 2024, the possibility of Biden still exists.
Now imagine that he is facing a less toxic Republican figure, such as Ron DeSantis, the young governor of Florida, or former UN ambassador Nicky Haley. Either they will still incite hatred among grassroots Democrats, especially because they follow Trump’s line so cynically. But vacillating voters will not be so concerned. By then they will see an 82-year-old president who promised a lot of good things but basically failed to achieve it.
It would be much better if Biden could deliver on the historic changes he promised. Until then, Trump will remain the most powerful weapon he has.