The Biden Campaign Must Be About More Than Trump

Warren is a Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. He is co-leading a trans-partisan effort to protect the basic parameters, rules, and institutions of the American republic, and is the co-founder of Generation Citizen, a national civics education organization

As President Biden begins to finally campaign in earnest, he is making a forceful case that the future of democracy itself is on the ballot. In a speech to mark the three-year anniversary of the January 6th insurrection, Biden noted that upholding the nation’s democracy is “the central cause of my presidency.” The president went on to note that in elections, “the choice and contest between... solidarity and division—is perennial. But this time, it’s so different.”

It is not difficult to make the case that another Donald Trump presidency could provoke an existential challenge to the country’s democratic institutions. As Biden noted, Trump has promised a reign of “retribution” and “revenge.” But it is not clear what is different about Biden’s re-election campaign, or second-term policy agenda.

If President Biden believes that Trump truly represents an existential threat to democracy, it is incumbent on him to articulate a campaign, and governing strategy, that is similarly exceptional. Restoring democracy cannot be solely about defeating Donald Trump. It also requires a compelling vision.

This is not to suggest that a Biden victory is tangential for democracy to survive and thrive. It is not a stretch to say that re-electing a man who spurred his supporters to engage in insurrection and only believes in elections when he wins is a threat to democracy as we know it. Irrespective of voters’ opinions of the policies of the last three years, the Biden Administration has not lied about election results, threatened to jail political opponents, and openly flirted with the idea of a dictatorship.

It is unclear, however, how a Biden victory would vanquish the unique threat of the current moment. After all, Biden campaigned in 2020 in starkly similar terms, arguing that his campaign was one to restore the “soul of America” and framing Trump as an “existential threat to America.” At the time, Biden did provide a vision for a more functioning democracy, arguing that his victory would create an “epiphany” amongst Republicans, and that the political environment would “fundamentally change…with Donald Trump out of the White House.” The current political reality, however, is one in which House Republicans have commenced impeachment proceedings against President Biden and cabinet members, the Speaker of the House is an election denier, and Republican leadership has quickly and dutifully lined up in favor of a Trump re-election. It’s safe to say that this promised epiphany never materialized.

A campaign that recycles themes from four years ago, even if the premise is fundamentally true, risks tiring and alienating voters who may deservedly wonder how the fever would break this time around. Biden is attempting to articulate the real risk of re-electing Trump, without providing a new vision of how he would help lead to that better democracy.

Read More: Biden’s Challenge for 2024

But this is not just a Biden Administration problem. Democracy reformers and scholars from both sides of the political spectrum provide innovative ideas to revitalize American democracy, arguing that the current challenges are structural, and require solutions more complex than a focus on elections. For example, conservative scholars like Yuval Levin have made a forceful case for increasing the size of the House of Representatives, and more progressive academics such as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have articulated fixes like making Election Day a national holiday, establishing congressional or Supreme Court term limits, or making it easier to amend the U.S. Constitution.

The argument that American democracy is structurally broken is persuasive, and many of these proposed reforms are worthwhile pursuits. It is difficult, however, to see how any of these ideas would be implemented in the near future. The short-term solution to saving democracy is straight forward: defeating Trump. And many have worked to articulate a long-term utopian vision of American democracy. But ideas of how inauguration day and a subsequent second Biden Administration, would be different, are in short supply.

A new, more immediate vision for a revitalized democracy could start with an outside of the box campaign that moves beyond campaign rhetoric. If Trump is a singular threat to democracy, then Biden should make the case that his campaign will be unlike any we have seen in American politics to date. Throughout history, when authoritarianism has been on the rise, countries have formed broad, multi-party coalitions that defend democratic principles above other policy priorities. Biden can make the case that his campaign, and subsequent governance strategy, will embrace any and every individual and politician who puts the cause of democracy over party.

This could start with Democrats, and potentially even Biden himself, making the case that Republicans, and even independents and cross-over Democrats, should vote for someone like Nikki Haley in remaining primary states. A Haley victory may be worse for Democrats (and Haley would, of course, firmly reject any type of endorsement), but if Biden truly believes that Trump is an exceptional threat, he should openly express support for other conservatives. As Ian Bassin, the Executive Director of Protect Democracy has noted, ““If Democrats believe Republicans should hold their noses and vote for Joe Biden for the sake of democracy, they can model that … by crossing over and holding their noses to vote for Haley in the G.O.P. primary.”

Secondly, Biden could note where he has made mistakes by equating a push for democracy with winning campaigns. For example, in 2021, Biden called new Georgia election integrity laws “Jim Crow in the 21st Century” in remarks that still rankle Georgia Republicans as being more focused on motivating supporters than based in reality. Indeed, 2022 saw Georgia lead the entire South in voter turnout, and the state ranked 13th in the entire country. Additionally, Democrats would be wise to admit that there are multiple Democratic-stronghold states, including Biden’s own Delaware, that make it harder to vote by mail than in Georgia.

Similarly, while campaigning under the banner of “democracy” in 2022, Democrats cynically spent tens of millions to support several Trump-related candidates in primaries, with the goal of bolstering potential Democratic victories in the general election.

Biden, and Democrats, could humbly note that they, too, have engaged in anti-democratic behavior to win elections. Biden could pledge to not engage in hyperbolic attacks on election laws, and could actively support pro-democracy conservative candidates, rather than actively engaging in efforts to secure their defeats by propping up extremists in primaries.

Finally, Biden could note that he would meet the gravity of the moment by governing differently in 2025. This could include appointing conservatives (only those who have not engaged in election-denialism) into cabinet-level seats. He could and pushing a bi-partisan democracy agenda that could involve serious compromise, like a bill that combines universal voter registration, a Democratic priority, with mandatory voter identification measures, a conservative agenda item.

None of these campaign or governance promises would be popular with a progressive base. But if Biden truly believes that Trump is a singular threat to democracy, it is incumbent to articulate a compelling vision of democracy that goes beyond vanquishing Trump.

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