It's 3am California time on 6 November 2024 and Kamala Harris is wrapping up her Presidential concession speech in a non-descript hotel ballroom. When Wisconsin and Arizona joined Florida in the Republican win column, she knew the Electoral College math had defeated her. When all the votes are finally tallied, she may have the pyrrhic victory of winning the popular vote, but she knows her campaign never truly recovered from the bruising primary battle that went all the way to the Democratic convention in August.
She'd worked hard to unify the party during the autumn, but it had been only 11 months since Joe Biden declared himself a one-term President. Despite Biden's strong endorsement of his VP, his surprise announcement – citing failing health – triggered a bare-knuckle fight for the Democratic nomination rather than a coronation. With the Iowa caucuses coming only weeks after Biden's withdrawal, the scramble for delegates saw a throng of Democratic contenders try to exploit and amplify the policy divisions and ideological animosities that had hobbled the Biden Presidency. Ultimately, Harris fought them off to secure her historic nomination as the first black woman to run for President, but the damage had already been done in many key swing states.
Back in January 2021, when Biden was inaugurated, the celebratory sense of relief that the Trump era was finally over was enough to create a brief honeymoon period of common purpose. Democratic optimism was further buoyed by their narrow Senate win in November, giving them legislative control as well as the White House. But it wasn't long before it became painfully apparent that Biden's winning coalition was defined far more by its antipathy towards Trump than its enthusiasm for Joe's agenda. Within months, Biden's attempt to simultaneously suppress the COVID-19 pandemic that had claimed well over 300,000 American lives while also taking on healthcare reform, climate change, immigration rules, and racial justice fractured a surprisingly brittle Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill.
A defining moment came in late 2021, when moderate Democratic Senators protected their electoral flanks by crossing the aisle and blocking Biden's 'Green New Deal' legislation, citing both its high cost and its aggressive timetable. After that very public schism, the last three years became a long uphill battle, with Biden wrestling both an unbiddable congress and a staunchly conservative Supreme Court willing to roll back legislation from the bench.
There was genuine gratitude in the country that Biden's largely drama-free Presidency returned the country to a semblance of normality while re-establishing America's leadership around the world. Unfortunately for Harris, personal warmth towards Biden for reintroducing comity and decency to American politics didn't translate into any meaningful domestic policy achievements. Without the lightening rod of Trump to run against, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party reverted to its natural state as a bag of political ferrets one-upping each other with increasingly radical purity tests.
Sitting here in late October 2020, many Democrats, heartened by Biden's solid lead in the polls, don't want to entertain pessimistic speculation about what comes next. In fact, many Americans are still suffering from 2016 electoral PTSD and refuse to even consider the post-3 November world in case they jinx it. Instead, much of America (and the world) is simply holding its breath and hoping that a Biden landslide brushes aside any lawsuits, mail-in vote shenanigans, and general Trump lunacy that may ensue next Tuesday night. Having suffered through the last four years, many Democrats will only worry about what comes next when the flitting vans and/or federal marshals arrive at the White House in January to remove the Trumps.
But as Mark Twain observed, 'history doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes'. While there have been many things about the Trump Presidency that have been unique, there are also plenty of historical parallels and lessons to be learned if Biden takes the White House. The most concerning for Democrats is the election of 1976 and how the subsequent four years played out for President Jimmy Carter.
Just like in 2020, America in 1976 was traumatised and divided. The country had just lost a shooting war in Vietnam rather than a fight against a contagious virus. Nixon, like Trump, had been shown to be an aspiring Mafia Don and had resigned in disgrace in 1974. Just like this year, an exogenous macroeconomic shock had decimated the American economy, but in the form of a severe oil price hike rather than a pandemic. Grappling with these challenges was Gerald Ford, an accidental President that no-one had voted for because he'd been drafted in as Nixon's VP when Spiro Agnew resigned over corruption charges in 1973. Ford's primary qualification for being VP was that he was unobjectionable and squeaky-clean, but his Presidential re-election campaign could never quite outrun the taint of the Nixon administration.
Carter's Bidenesque pitch to the American people was that he was a modest, trustworthy, born-again Christian who could bring the country together and restore dignity to the office of the President. He strummed Lincoln's 'mystic chords of memory' by announcing his candidacy at Franklin D Roosevelt's 'Summer White House' in Warm Springs Georgia, flanked by two of FDR's sons. His 'restore normal service' message plus his outsider credentials as a flannel-clad peanut farmer turned out to be enough to win him both the Presidency and a Congressional majority.
But Carter turned out to be a rebound President whose election was largely a reaction against what had gone before rather than a vote of confidence in the future. Defined by the negative, Carter's supporters ran the gamut from coastal elites to Midwest farmers and evangelical Christians. However, it turned out that Carter was less of a sophisticated political chameleon consciously appealing to a diverse set of constituencies and more of a tabula rasa onto whom voters projected their own hopes for post-Watergate, post-Vietnam America.
When Carter narrowly won, his supporters lined up to cash their checks and started to make fundamentally incompatible demands on his administration; most of which Carter pointedly ignored, as he did much of the counsel from his own cabinet and policy advisers. While history tends to blame Carter's poor handling of the Iranian hostage crisis for his landslide loss to Ronald Reagan, the reality when you look at the 1980 exit polls, is that it was the combination of his ineffective domestic policy agenda and a broader perception of being weak that sealed his fate. His apparent weakness attracted a robust challenge for the 1980 nomination from within his own party in the form of Ted Kennedy, and by the time Carter fought Kennedy off, swathes of his support were already primed to defect and become the famed 'Reagan Democrats'.
It's hard not to see the parallels with Biden's 2020 campaign in which conservative 'Never Trump' Republicans are linking arms in common cause with the 'Bernie Bros' of the progressive left. Once the overriding objective of removing Trump is accomplished, the divergent policy agendas of these various factions will reassert themselves and Biden will need to navigate a fine line between simply being a comfort blanket of normality and trying to get things done. With the magnitude of the challenges facing America, there will be enough space between the cautious incrementalists and the radical revolutionaries to drive a legislative truck through on issues like healthcare reform.
The other lesson from 1976 is that, while America may be tired of Trump, that doesn't mean it's tired of Trumpism. Ford's defeat opened the door for Ronald Reagan to win the nomination in 1980 and usher in 12 years of Republicans in the White House. Behind Reagan's avuncular movie star persona was a harsh and ideologically driven conservative agenda focused on small government at home and strong military leadership abroad. Barry Goldwater had attempted a similar ideological reboot of the Republican Party in the 1964 election, but it needed a voter-friendly vessel like Reagan to make it palatable to the broader electorate.
I didn't speculate who Kamala Harris lost to in 2024, but the danger for Democrats is that she loses to a new Ronald Reagan. For all his rhetoric about making America great again, Trump's point of departure has been consistently declinist, pessimistic, and dystopian, starting with the dark 'American carnage' language of his inaugural address. In contrast, although Reagan was a tribune of the new conservative right, his messaging was always positive and optimistic, as exemplified in his classic 'Morning in America' re-election ad from 1984. Reagan was a disciple of supply-side economics and he intended to gut America's social programmes, but he made sure he did it with a winning smile and gee shucks wisecrack.
It's unlikely that a Trump defeat causes the scales to fall from the eyes of Republicans transforming them back into moderate one-nation compassionate conservatives. Instead, the danger is that the 2024 Republican Presidential candidate is a new and improved Trump v2.0, shorn of the performative petulance, persecution complex, and thin-skinned ill-discipline, but retaining elements of the macho strongman vibe and heartland populism that fires up the Trump base. The single Vice-Presidential debate this year left many Democrats relieved that Biden was facing the erratic Trump rather than the polished and often reasonable sounding Trumpism of Mike Pence.
If they're smart, the post-Trump Republican Party will quickly suppress and condemn their toxic white nationalist fringe while continuing to jab at the demagogic buttons labelled low-tax, pro-business, pro-military, tough on immigration and crime, anti-elite, and anti-trade. With a spiralling COVID-19-fuelled deficit, Republicans will inevitably rediscover their fetish for balanced budgets and start peddling the economic fable that the country's cheque book needs to be balanced like that of a Midwestern housewife. Finally, they might even adopt some of the recommendations from the party's famous 2012 'autopsy report', such as cautious immigration reform and a focus on conservative social values, to peel off the less woke elements of the Democrat's Hispanic and African American base.
The principal lesson of the last 50 years in both American and British politics is never to underestimate the gullibility of the electorate and their willingness to swallow a recycled and reheated bowl of conservative small-government gruel, as long as it's served in attractive chinaware. If a Biden administration fails to navigate what will inevitably be treacherous policy waters and the Democrats end up eating their own for the next four years, the probability of an easy-listening version of Trump winning in 2024 go way up. While it's hard to imagine, Trump v2.0 could be even more dangerous for America than the toxic 'Trump Classic' we've endured for the last four years.