In the New York Times in January 2016, David Axelrod, former campaign strategist for Barack Obama, published The Obama Theory of Trump. “Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have,” he wrote. “They almost always seek the remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive.”
Ten months later, America elected Obama’s polar opposite, Donald Trump: Moriarty to his Holmes, Joker to his Batman, antimatter to matter. According to Paul Begala, a doyen of Democratic politics, the theory bodes well for Joe Biden.
“Too many Democrats were trying to be just as pugilistic in their way as Trump is,” he says, by phone from a farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. “I’ve known Joe a very long time and I think his most dominant character feature is empathy. He’s bright and he’s experienced but he’s so empathetic. We’ve seen him through tragedy. He’s been very good to me and my family.
“If there were a time where we needed empathy, it’s now. He has experience, which used to be a bad thing, he has competence and empathy and that’s exactly the opposite of Trump. So if we want the replica, we’re not going to vote for Joe. But if we want the remedy – and I think we do – he’s very well positioned to win.”
Now 59, Begala was a chief strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and served in the White House as counselor to the president, then advised a Super Pac that helped elect Barack Obama in 2012. He describes Lyndon Johnson, Clinton and Obama as the three “Rushmore-worthy” presidents of his lifetime. He is also a familiar face on CNN and has written six books, the latest of which is You’re Fired: The Perfect Guide to Beating Donald Trump.
Chapter one is entitled Mea Culpa, as Begala reflects on the catastrophe of Hillary Clinton’s utterly unexpected defeat in 2016.
Begala explains: “I have some personal responsibility here for failing to stop the worst man who’s ever been president and I think also the worst president we’ve ever had. Here’s what I got wrong. I was so appalled by Trump’s sewer-level character, I couldn’t avert my eyes.
“I didn’t connect my attacks on Trump’s character, on the racism, the misogyny, the Islamophobia, mocking the disabled, mocking a PoW, to the lives of the voters. When you don’t close that loop, all you’re doing is saying, ‘He’s a bad guy.’ A lot of people said, ‘Gee, he’s a terrible guy, but I’m going to take a chance on him because he looks like he’s a wrecking ball we might need in Washington.’ So what I should have said is, ‘When you deploy a wrecking ball he very often destroys your house,’ and this is what I’m urging in the book for the Democrats to do.”
The chaos, the cruelty, the outrages, the constant throwing of shiny objects for the media to chase: the reality TV presidency is the point.
Begala continues: “In addition to saying and doing racist things, there is a method to his madness. He uses those things to distract us from the fact that he’s looting the treasury, wants to destroy social security and Medicare and Medicaid, has rained hell on farmers and working people, the very people who elected him.”
What, then, would be his number one piece of advice to Biden as heads into an election that, against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, racial justice protests, online disinformation and Trump’s countless falsehoods, is likely to be one of the most combustible and unpredictable in history?
“It is to make it always about voters, not about Trump, and this is what coronavirus has done for Joe,” Begala says. “Trump’s gift is to convince enough voters that politics is just spectacle, it is just show, it is just a Twitter war with Rosie O’Donnell like when he was a TV star but now it’s a Twitter war with Colin Kaepernick or Nancy Pelosi.
“That’s terribly wrong but a lot of people accepted that and agreed with it. But now voting for your president is a life-and-death matter and no matter how hard he tries to reignite these divisive social issues, I think it is not enough to divert people from the fact that their mother, their brother, their child could get sick and, God forbid, die.
“His incompetence and his callousness and his corruption: these all now have a cost to me the voter, to you the voter. I think Joe’s done a very good job of keeping the focus on voters and not every day rising to the bait of every crazy thing that Trump says.”
‘The left has been terrific’
An old political saw holds that Democrats fall in love while Republicans fall in line. Some have blamed Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 on bitter infighting between moderates and progressives who voted for Bernie Sanders. There were fears of a repeat in 2020 but Biden won the primary with room to spare and now the party appears remarkably united behind him.
“He is consolidating the base and that’s for two reasons,” Begala says. “He’s doing his job but you know what? The left is doing theirs. I come from the Clinton wing, I’m a more moderate guy, but I got to tell you, the left of my party has been terrific in rallying to Joe and people like me need to note that and salute that.
“It’s been really impressive. My hat is off to the left wing of my party. They’re not taking their marbles and going home. They’re mobilising, organising, registering. It’s just been great. Now, will this last forever? Of course not. But for right now, nothing unites the people of Earth like a threat from Mars.”
He adds: “I am publicly urging Biden and the Democrats to spread the map, to run very hard in North Carolina, in Georgia, in Arizona and in my beloved Texas, where I grew up, because how long can the Democrats hold together a coalition which right now consists of four-star generals and Black Lives Matter? That’s not going to hold forever, but that’s OK. He’ll get static probably from the centre of his party and from the left of his party.”
Democrats tend to embrace generational change. Their past four presidents were John F Kennedy (aged 43), Jimmy Carter (52), Clinton (46) and Obama (47), all with photogenic young families. Biden, by contrast, would be 78 on inauguration day, eclipsing Trump’s record as the oldest person sworn in as US president. Is there a danger Biden belongs to a less charismatic group of Democratic nominees – Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry – all of whom lost?
Begala insists: “I actually think Joe’s quite charismatic and I’ve seen him give terrific speeches but we can’t have stadiums full of people anyway. What we want is empathy and that’s what he has. At another moment, we want something else. But I think the Democrats did a very wise thing in picking this man at this moment.”
Indeed, Biden’s empathy is anchored as deep as the ocean. His wife, Neilia, and baby daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash in 1972. His adult son, Beau, died from brain cancer in 2015. Jon Stewart, the satirist and film director, observed recently that “we are fearful and we are angry and we are in pain. And when I see Biden, past the shtick, I see a guy who knows what loss is. Who knows grief. And I think that that kind of grief humbles him.”
His age, however, is bound to be a recurring theme. The Trump campaign is hammering away at Biden’s mental and physical fitness.
Does Begala fear that will stick? “No, because it’s compared to what? Joe’s not the guy telling people to drink bleach. Trump is batty. I don’t know if it’s age-related – maybe he’s always been batty – but Trump is completely unhinged. He’s not just unstable, he’s unhinged. Seriously, if we had a fully functioning mental health system, he’d be in a rubber room, not an Oval Office.
“So the notion that’s a valid critique on Biden is fatuous and I don’t think it’s where the Republicans should want to go. If they had a [Mitt] Romney, a [George] Bush, somebody kind of stable and middle of the road for their party, that might be an effective attack. But this is always a comparison. There’s a great old comedian, Henny Youngman, who would’ve been a great political strategist because his famous one-liner was, ‘How’s your wife?’ ‘Compared to what?’ That’s all a presidential campaign is. Compared to what?”
He adds: “I think that the people who took a chance on Trump now are chastened. A whole lot of people voted for Obama and then Trump and I accept that … but I think you’re going to have an awful lot of people who go back, Trump to Biden.
“I can’t count the number of people, including friends of mine, who said, ‘Look, I voted for Trump, I took a chance, I thought we could use a little business experience in shaking things up. But oh, my God, he’s been a disaster and we must never have him again.’ Hundreds of people have told me that. I never had one say to me, ‘I voted for Hillary but you know what, Trump’s done a really good job and we need to keep him.’ So I think that tells us something.”
‘The damage is really devastating’
Should Biden prevail, Begala fears it will be an uphill task to repair American’s reputation abroad.
“Let’s say that Biden wins and he’s inaugurated, I’m going to go see my friends in Europe and I’m going to say, ‘Everything’s better, everything’s better,’ and they’re going to say, ‘Yeah, you guys could do it again.’ How do I argue that my country is incapable of electing a Trump? I will. I’ll say once you’ve been through it, you don’t want it again. But I think the damage is really devastating. It’s incalculable.”
Has Begala ever known America so divided? “No, I was too young in the 60s. I love being partisan but it’s negative partisanship. So many of the people who were for Trump are for him because they hate me and that’s no way to live a life.
“I do think it’s asymmetrical. The crisis in America is not both sides. It is one side that’s gone insane and seems to be consuming itself with hatred. My party has its problems, believe me, but it is not both sides. This negative partisanship from the right: they will do anything to ‘own the libs’.”
Historians will perhaps invoke Caligula, King George III and assorted authoritarians of the 20th century. But they will surely also dwell on how the Republican party both produced Trump and succumbed to his will, and ponder what it says about human nature.
A drubbing in November, Begala argues, is just what Republicans need.
“They are getting a shrinking percentage of a shrinking portion of the country. Most of the guys I grew up with were high-school-educated white men and didn’t go to college and so I have a lot of friends that way. They’re a smaller cohort every day and he’s doing less well with them.
“They have to reform and the best way to make that happen, paradoxically, is for the Democrats to have a crushing victory. If the Democrats win Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona – states that we rarely carry – the Republican party will have to reassess and it will actually pull the Republicans to the centre.
“I’m a great believer in revivification because I saw Reagan do it as a kid and I saw Clinton do it as an adult. I believe they can but they have got to find a way to communicate with this rising American electorate, to women – especially unmarried women – young people, people of colour. They’re just haemorrhaging the folks.”
A practising Catholic, Begala reflects: “There’s two kind of churches. Those that seek out converts and those that hunt down heretics and right now Joe Biden’s leading a party that’s seeking out converts. Even George Conway and Bill Kristol are on the same side I’m on. I love it.
“But meanwhile, Trump is leading a hunt for heretics. When Jeff Sessions is not rightwing enough for you, you got a problem!”