Biden Is Repeating Hillary Clinton’s Blunders

Hey, remember 2016? Some of us do. Looking back on Hillary Clinton’s disastrous campaign offers a few key lessons.

I realize that in the age of TikTok and Twitter it can be difficult to remember what happened five minutes ago, let alone eight years. I’ve forgotten a lot of it myself, which is why I regularly have to dive into the Current Affairs archives to remind myself. But this magazine was started during the 2016 presidential campaign, and one of the reasons we managed to build an audience early on is that we were, correctly, warning that Donald Trump’s chances of becoming president were higher than many Democrats were assuming. We warned that the Clinton campaign had some severe vulnerabilities that were not adequately understood by pundits or her campaign. While Clinton, in her memoir, blamed everyone but herself for her loss, and there were wild cards (such as the “Comey letter”) beyond Clinton’s control, I have dwelled before on a few important factors that weakened her chances: 

  • She was an unpopular figure associated with the Washington establishment
  • She needed to be able to portray Donald Trump as dishonest and criminal, but Hillary herself was serially dishonest and under FBI investigation, which made it difficult for her to adequately claim the moral high ground and draw a large enough contrast
  • She did not articulate a clear vision for what she would do as president, and it seemed unclear why she was running beyond the desire to hold the office. Relatedly, her messaging focused too much on why Trump was bad, especially his moral character, and not enough on how people could expect to see their lives change for the better if she was president. 
  • She was hawkish and associated with an unpopular war at a time when the country was war-weary.
  • Instead of recognizing the pain and anger felt by many in the country, she insisted that America was “already great” and that Trump was “talking trash about America,” while Democrats said voters were misunderstanding statistics on the country’s well-being.
  • She relied too much on the endorsement of Hollywood celebrities like Beyoncé and Lena Dunham, rather than spending time talking with voters in Wisconsin.
  • She was not very good at inspiring crowds (contrast with Barack Obama).
  • She showed contempt for the party’s left (such as by picking anti-abortion centrist Tim Kaine as her running mate rather than the hugely popular Bernie Sanders), making a lot of young progressives reluctant to show up for her.
  • She relied on an insular group of party hacks for advice, and they were in denial about the problems.

All of this has been very well-documented, and in 2017 I reviewed an excellent insider account called Shattered that provides plenty of evidence. I also go into this a lot in Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity. I bring all of it up here because you might notice that each of the 10 bullet points above can be applied equally well to Joe Biden’s campaign here in 2024. Biden is deeply unpopular, with the lowest approval rating for this point in his presidency of any president on record, stretching back to Eisenhower. While Democrats have been saying for a year that Biden’s approval rating could go up as the election draws closer, the opposite has been happening, with it hitting new low after new low. Biden is, if anything, even more of a DC establishment figure than Hillary was, having been serving continuously in national office since the Nixon administration, when he was 30. Worse, if you want to portray that establishment as decrepit and cobweb-ridden, Biden is, looks, and seems old. In fact, Biden has a colossal liability that Clinton never had, which is that a staggering 86 percent of Americans think he’s too old to serve another term, including most of his 2020 voters!

Biden also has the same problem that Hillary had with claiming the moral high ground. Trump lies like he breathes, and if you’re running against him, you want to be able to point that out. But Joe Biden, is himself, well, a liar of almost George Santos-like audacity, having made countless false claims about his autobiography, including claiming to have done civil rights activism in the ’60s, claiming academic accolades he didn’t have, fabricating a story about being arrested on the way to visit Nelson Mandela, and more. (After one of what the New York Times charitably calls Biden’s “tall tales,” Biden gave his “word as a Biden” about the story, which shows you just how much his word is worth.) 

I’m seeing a lot of very, very troubling signs for Biden’s campaign. For instance, Democratic insiders have told Axios that Biden is, essentially, surrounded by yes-men who are not aware that they’ve got a failing strategy. Concerningly, Biden’s top political aide thinks that on Election Day, “the biggest images in people's minds are going to be of January 6th.” Well, that flies in the face of actual polling, which shows that strengthening the economy is voters’ top priority. But the Biden team doesn’t recognize the importance of strengthening the economy, because they think the economy is already good and voters are delusional about it. Donald Trump, on the other hand, makes much of people’s economic woes. Have a look at this clip from a Trump rally, where Trump talks about how inflation is hitting Americans. “Can you imagine if a you miss a couple of days of work, can you imagine, you can’t pay your bills? We have the highest percentage of that that we’ve ever had,” Trump says. He then illustrates the Biden economy by holding up and mocking a tiny box of Tic Tacs he was given, presenting them as an example of “shrinkflation” and calling them “Biden Tic Tacs.” It’s a funny bit that resonates with the audience.

There are other bad signs for Biden. He’s had to partly seal himself off from the public, in part because his events routinely get disrupted by anti-war protesters. Instead, he holds events with rich Hollywood loyalists, and in March the Washington Post reported that “neither the White House nor the Biden campaign has held an event with the president that is open to the general public since Biden launched his reelection effort last April.” That’s completely bananas. How are you going to convince the general public to vote for you if you can’t engage with them?

donate

Well, apparently the thinking is that Biden just needs to lean more heavily on social media, where you can talk to the public without them inconveniently trying to talk back. NBC recently reported that Biden’s strategy is “content over crowds,” noting that while Biden’s recent battleground state campaign tour didn’t draw major crowds,” “it did produce a lot of content,” and “Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris recorded a light video discussing their March Madness picks.” While “Biden didn’t even hold a rally during his swing through Michigan… he did have a private chat (and issued a playful golf challenge on an indoor putting green) with a local pastor and his son.” They are focused on producing videos in which Biden has empathetic encounters with voters, such as “a nearly four-minute video [with a Philadelphia restaurant owner], including a discussion of his daughter’s favorite books, the chickens they keep in the backyard and even mutual acquaintances of his family and the Bidens.” Those videos aren’t blockbusters on social media, though, with the one cited by NBC racking up less than 50,000 views. (Judging from the comments, a lot of that appears to be hate-watching.)

In fact, for a campaign focused on “content over crowds,” Biden is getting crushed in the content game. Donald Trump recently joined TikTok and racked up 5 million followers in 3 days, compared to the 355,000 followers the Biden campaign had built. (Trump is now at 6.4 million. His first two, and so far only, videos were each viewed by about 120 million people, while Joe Biden’s last five videos were each viewed by between 9,000 and 60,000 people.) The Biden team wants to work more with influencers, according to NBC, but the problem is that when he meets them they want to know why he’s supporting Israeli war crimes. They also probably don’t care much for his potential TikTok ban, which could destroy their livelihoods. Eric Levitz of Vox notes that while the Biden campaign has been massively outspending Trump on advertising (“As of late May, the Biden campaign was airing $13.6 million worth of ads, while the Trump campaign had yet to spend a single penny on TV spots”), the polls are not moving in Biden’s favor and his approval rating continues to drop. Judging from Axios’ reporting, the Biden campaign’s likely response to this will probably be to mention January 6th more. 

In fact, there’s something I find a little strange about Democratic strategy in 2024, which is that a lot of it seems to consist of sending annoying texts to get your money so that they can send you more texts to get more money. Often, these are from very mysterious groups whose websites don’t tell you much about them but just ask you to donate (e.g., Stop-MAGA.org). The one I just got this afternoon sends me to TheDemocraticMajority.org, which tells me their mission is to stop Republicans, and asks for money, but tells me absolutely nothing else. Is this the Democratic Party itself? Who is this money going to? What’s it going to be spent on? I have absolutely no idea. They just want my money, and they want it now.

One thing I find strange about all these Democratic texts (from “Chuck Schumer” or “George Clooney”) is while they want cash, they never ask me for anything else. They don’t seem to want volunteers, for instance. Apparently, the Biden campaign has rejected the Obama strategy of mobilizing an army of organizers in favor of an advertising-heavy approach, on the theory that everyone is online now. Well, everyone is online, but rallies still get people fired up and excited, and ads and texts are really, really annoying. 

Another strange thing, though, is that while all these texts tell me that Republicans urgently have to be stopped (I do agree), there is never anything on any of these websites about what Democrats are actually going to do for people if Joe Biden is reelected. Biden’s website, incredibly, doesn’t even have any policies on it! (Trump, on the other hand, has a full Issues page and a whole series of videos called Agenda47 laying out all the things he would do as president, most of which would be horrible if actually implemented but are meant to make people think he’d save America from ruin.) Biden doesn’t seem to have a vision for what he’d do in a second term, which he should, because one of his biggest weaknesses as a candidate is that people can’t envisage him having a second term, because they think he’s far too old! Instead, he’s running on his “record” (although even that is undiscussed on the campaign site), but even if people like that record, they might still not think that Biden can pull off a second term and want to hear some actual ideas and promises. 

 

subscribe blink

The Economist now gives Trump approximately a 70 percent chance of winning. Things look dire. Hillary Clinton was ahead in the polls, Biden is not. Democrats have all but ceded former swing states such as Iowa and Florida to the right, and now have to hope and pray that Biden can eke out victory in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. (Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada look right now like they’re solidly going for Trump.) Biden is in denial, and “doesn’t believe his bad poll numbers, and neither do many of his closest advisers.” His campaign hasn’t been treating the situation as urgent even as Election Day comes closer and closer. I think Biden people are relying on some vague special Joe Biden magic, the idea that he’s always underestimated, and people thought he would lose in 2020, too, but he pulled off a victory. (Importantly, the “deus ex machina” of the pandemic is what turned things around for Biden.) Personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to rely on the idea that the weak, unpopular Joe Biden just has magnetic personal properties that will save things at the last minute. Things could turn around for Biden—who knows what will happen on the debate stage?—but Axios quotes a leading Democratic strategist concluding that “If the election were today, we would lose.”

A reader emailed recently to say that because I write critically about Joe Biden, I am helping Trump, and therefore am objectively pro-fascist. I would ask this reader, and others who may react similarly, to note that everything I have written above is actually what is called “constructive” criticism. That is, I am actually showing what Democrats need to do in order to avoid losing, not celebrating their loss. They are unlikely to do those things. But the idea that tactical criticism helps Trump is precisely the kind of thinking that kept Hillary from seeing the truth about her doomed campaign. (If she’d been subscribed to Current Affairs, and listened to our sensible analysis, she would have gone to Wisconsin, picked Bernie as her VP, and Donald Trump would be back selling steaks on television.) 

I make some criticisms of Biden for important moral reasons—for instance, I don’t think you should be silent about a genocide even if speaking up about it increases the probability that the president will lose to a candidate who is likely to worsen that genocide, just as I don’t think anti-war protesters in 1968 should have kept silent about Lyndon Johnson’s war on Vietnam. But I want Trump to lose, and think his plans are nightmarish. That’s part of what makes me so angry about the Democrats running an unpopular, dishonest candidate, when Donald Trump should be, and needs to be, beaten. If Biden loses, the people responsible for the debacle of his campaign will go off to comfortable private sector jobs. They will insulate themselves from the worst effects of the climate catastrophe, and they may actually benefit from Trump’s insane upward wealth redistribution plans. There will be no accountability, and as we now know from looking back on 2016, there will be no lessons learned. 





More In: Editor’s Notes

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

A superb summer issue containing our "defense of graffiti," a dive into British imperialism, a look at the politics of privacy, the life of Lula, and a review of "the Capitalist Manifesto." Plus: see the Police Cruiser of the Future, read our list of the summer's top songs, and find out what to fill your water balloons with. It's packed with delights!

The Latest From Current Affairs