Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: White House whitewash

The boring truth about the 2020 race

“There is no upside, no silver lining, no encouraging trend hidden somewhere in this survey.” That was the verdict of Quinnipiac University analyst Tim Malloy on any cheering smidge of hope for Donald Trump in his organisation’s most recent poll, which gives Joe Biden a whopping 15-point lead.

Other polls also reveal a one-sided race. According to an NBC/WSJ survey, 50 per cent of Americans strongly disapprove of the President and 50 per cent say there is no chance they will vote for him. The psephological news is unremittingly bad for the President.

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg framed Trump’s troubles more anecdotally, but no less starkly, when she said on Twitter: “Wild that there’s a coalition in American politics stretching from Angela Davis to Bill Kristol.”

There isn’t much an unrepentant communist and an unrepentant neoconservative will agree on. The urgent need to replace Donald Trump is one of them. The Biden coalition is so wide because it isn’t very deep. It is less a meaningful alliance, more a temporary truce.

The Biden campaign appears to understand this, steering a policy course calibrated to offer just enough to the Democratic Party’s progressive left wing without alienating those in the middle. Take the arrival this week of Biden’s $2 trillion climate change plan. The proposal — drawn up with input from the Sanders wing of the party — would mean a more aggressive and expensive push for zero emissions than Biden committed to during the primary. But it also falls short of the Green New Deal hopes of prominent progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. To the chagrin of many on the left, the former Vice-President won’t ban fracking; he wants more nuclear power, not less; and he has put some stock in carbon capture technology, which many environmentalists see as an unhelpfully optimistic distraction.

To be sure, these are business-friendly (and in the case of fracking, swing state voter-friendly) exceptions to a leftwards shift. Understandably, the President’s team is keen to emphasise their opponent’s direction of travel. “Joe Biden kills American jobs to appease the radical left,” read the headline of one missive from the Trump campaign this week.

The blows have so far failed to land in part because of the carefully plotted course Biden is navigating. But it is so easy for the former Vice-President to evade these attacks exactly because his candidacy — and the race — are defined by his opponent’s shortcomings as commander-in-chief and almost nothing else. The left and right wings of the Biden coalition don’t agree on substantive policy, but they don’t claim to — or need to. 

In the Wall Street Journal, Kimberley Strassel blames her colleagues in the press for downplaying the contrasts between Biden and Trump on policy: “The media will attempt to deep-six as much of the substance as it can and to ignore Mr Biden’s radical agenda. Mr Trump’s job is to make that evasion impossible — by using his pulpit to focus relentlessly on the choices in this election, as well as a second-term agenda centered on opportunity, jobs and economic growth.”

Strassel might be right about the kind of second term Trump needs to promise voters if he is to stand a chance, and it is also happens to be true that Biden looks set to run on a policy platform further to the left than any other Democratic candidate this century. But it’s absurd to blame CNN and the New York Times for the absence of deep, serious debate over, say, solar power.

More than 130,000 Americans have died in a pandemic the President can barely hide his lack of interest in grappling with. More than a million Americans have filed for unemployment every week for the last 17 weeks. Americans are stuck in a public health and economic crisis that is the source of personal trauma, economic insecurity and crippling uncertainty. Maybe they’ve been whipped up into an anti-Trump frenzy by liberal MSNBC anchors, or maybe they look around and wonder if America can’t do better. Yes, there are reasonable objections to Joe Biden’s proposals, but, given the grim backdrop, they are entirely beside the point.

There will always be mileage in the contrarian talking up of the chances of re-election for the President, rehashing lines about 2016 and what the mainstream media missed. But that argument is now at odds with pretty much every indicator going, and rests almost exclusively on the fact that Americans haven’t actually voted yet.

Predicting the outcome of this election is now a choice between saying something interesting and saying something true.

As Strassel forecasts, “There is no doubt Mr. Trump is at risk of losing.” No shit.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover