Biden’s Change Beats Trump’s Disruption
If you think President Trump is running behind on account of his bombastic style and divisive rhetoric, you’re missing the forest for the trees. Voters knew who this guy was four years ago, and nearly half the country voted for him anyway. His campaign this year is collapsing because the American people are recoiling from the essence of his governing agenda. Mr. Trump’s destructive record will define not only next month’s election but also Republican politics for years to come.
American presidential elections generally come in one of two varieties. The first is “change vs. the status quo.” That dynamic framed the 2008 election, when Sen. Barack Obama, running on a platform of hope and change, defeated Sen. John McCain. The same basic template shaped Sen. John Kennedy’s 1960 race against Vice President Richard Nixon. The second variety is “challenger vs. incumbent.” That’s what we had eight years ago, when Mitt Romney lost to Mr. Obama, a race that turned on the public’s impression of the president’s first-term success. Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan in 1980 reflected the same dynamic—but obviously toward a different outcome.
This year’s election is unique because it doesn’t fit either mold. In contrast with Hillary Clinton, who came off as a beacon of the elite establishment, Joe Biden is a clear agent of change, a working-class son of Scranton, Pa., who has lived the American dream and promises to reform, improve and expand the infrastructure of American life by bringing new ideas to Washington. But Mr. Trump is an agent of neither change nor the status quo. He ran promising to be a disruptive president. In both style and substance, his modus operandi is to exploit cultural resentments. So the 2020 campaign is broadly unprecedented, pitting a change agent against a disrupter.
Yet Mr. Trump wasn’t the first candidate to run as a disrupter. William Jennings Bryan did so beginning in 1896, challenging the Eastern corporate trusts. Huey Long planned to do so in 1936, challenging the New Deal from the left with a simple phrase: “A chicken in every pot, and every man a king!” More recently, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot and Newt Gingrich each promised to be a disrupter before being shunted aside by Republican Party apparatchiks. Mr. Trump distinguished himself because he managed to win, even while running behind in the popular vote.
Now we’re seeing why Mr. Trump’s approach has historically been such a political failure. Four years of constant disruption has proved to be more than the American people bargained for. He bested Mrs. Clinton by 5 points among voters 65 and older. But today Mr. Biden leads by 21 points among seniors according to one poll. Mrs. Clinton lost noncollege white women by a yawning 27 points four years ago, but Mr. Biden has narrowed that gap to 6. Another poll found that Mrs. Clinton’s 3-point deficit with white college-educated women has shifted to a 24-point lead for Mr. Biden. And the mass of disaffected Americans, many of whom will emerge as “Biden Republicans,” isn’t limited to these three demographic groups.
Politicians shouldn’t interpret voters’ demand for change as a call for “disruption.” Frustrated as voters may be with Wall Street, Hollywood and the culture inside the Beltway, their support for change agents doesn’t mean they want to rip apart America’s core institutions. Most want reform, not recklessness, and they don’t see anything good about dividing the country against itself. Four years ago, neither nominee appeared to be an agent of change in the traditional sense. This year Mr. Biden carries a torch for that longstanding tradition.
The distinction will matter even after Mr. Biden wins. When people say “This isn’t your father’s Republican Party” over the next several years, they won’t only mean the rhetoric. With Mr. Trump, the GOP abandoned the conservative creed that stitched Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and John McCain together. And there’s no going back. By allowing themselves to become Mr. Trump’s lackeys, even as he hacked away at the essence of conservatism, Republicans have more permanently become the party of disruption, anger, nativism, science denial and resentment.
Set aside the Supreme Court, where the president’s appointees have cemented a majority that is poised to dominate for years to come. On the political battlefield, Mr. Trump’s visceral distaste for principles of decency will cast a long shadow. His persona has already reshaped his party, which means progressives and moderates will face adversaries very unlike 20th-century conservatives in future electoral cycles. And the GOP leaders who acquiesced during the course of this catastrophe will have no one to blame but themselves.
Mr. Emanuel was a senior adviser to President Clinton and chief of staff to President Obama. He represented Illinois’s Fifth Congressional District, 2003-09, and served as mayor of Chicago, 2011-19.
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