Last night, as I attended a safety presentation at my kids’ school, I cracked open a notebook I’d hastily grabbed as I was leaving my house. Prepared to jot down a quick note, I instead found a lone quote I’d scribbled inside a couple years earlier:
“This presidency lacks a theme. — Krauthammer”
The notebook was a freebie handed out at a Weekly Standard summit I had attended back in the summer of 2017. One of the featured speakers at that event was the late, great Dr. Charles Krauthammer. That quote had come from his opening remarks that day on the Trump presidency, which was less than six months old at the time.
As most political observers will remember, Krauthammer was not a fan of Donald Trump. And one of his many criticisms of the president was that Trump was without guiding principles and a substantive vision to equip him to be a strong and successful leader for the American people. Krauthammer framed this deficit as a presidency without a theme. And he was right. Trump came into the presidency without a serious, tangible agenda.
Of course, a lot of supporters of the president would adamantly reject that notion. They’d point to his “build the wall” campaign slogan, his rhetoric on China, and his popular “Make America Great Again” mantra. But platitudes alone are not themes. And when it came to a number of political issues, it wasn’t uncommon for Trump to take multiple (and sometimes nonsensical) positions within the same week — usually dependent on the audience he was talking to.
As Fox News’s Greg Gutfeld used to say, Trump was a “rhetorical chameleon.”
Trump’s only truly consistent theme was (and continues to be) himself — his attitude, his tenacity, his brazenness, and of course his self-confidence. In other words, his persona.
But as a presidential candidate, it proved to be enough. It was enough to garnish over 90% of the media’s primary coverage. It was enough to win over roughly 1/3 of Republican primary voters, which, in a bloated field, was enough to win him the party’s nomination. And ultimately, it was also enough to win the elector college against an almost equally unlikable and transparently corrupt Democratic competitor.
Some might call that a template for success. But a template is only successful if affords the same result to whoever uses it.
While there are some significant differences in styles and backgrounds, Joe Biden (who is still considered the Democratic front-runner) is following Donald Trump’s template more closely than a lot of people realize or would like to admit. Like Trump from four years ago, the central theme he’s running on is himself. But unlike Trump, the power of his own persona doesn’t appear strong enough to achieve the same result.
If you were to ask a typical voter — one who’s not enthusiastic about Trump — what they like about Joe Biden’s campaign platform, he or she probably wouldn’t be able to provide you with an informed answer as to what positions the former vice president is even running on. They would likely say that they appreciate his folksy personality (as they came to know it during the Obama years). They might even say that they find his trademark gaffes somewhat endearing, and that he’s more down to earth than his progressive Democratic counterparts.
That’s all well and good, but it’s not a theme. He’s the theme of his campaign, and as he’s gradually focusing less on his association with President Obama (mostly because of the mockery he’s received for going back to that well so many times), it’s becoming increasingly clear just how weak that theme really is.
When Biden recently revealed his “No Malarkey!” campaign slogan — the phrase appearing on the side of his bus as he toured Iowa — even liberals and Democrats sympathetic to Biden mocked the choice. “Malarkey” is a generational term from Biden’s personal vocabulary, recognizable to (but rarely used by) folks over a certain age as a reference to misleading rhetoric.
Aside from the irony that Biden, like Trump, spews misleading and demonstrably false rhetoric all the time, the choice of slogans was directly tied to Biden’s personality, not any vision he has for the country.
Earlier this week, Biden made some waves with this tweet:
My administration will spark the second great railroad revolution to propel our nation’s infrastructure into the future and help solve the climate emergency. pic.twitter.com/0LEAtfweyv
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) December 5, 2019
A railroad revolution? This isn’t a serious idea, of course, but rather an offshoot of Biden’s well-documented, personal affinity for train travel. Again, it comes back to him.
The other day, after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other world leaders were captured on video mocking President Trump in (what they believed was) a private conversation, the Biden campaign thought they had struck pay dirt.
“The world is laughing at President Trump,” quickly showed up on Biden’s Twitter feed. “They see him for what he really is: dangerously incompetent and incapable of world leadership. We cannot give him four more years as commander in chief.”
A day later, Biden’s account tweeted this photo of Biden with Trudeau:
We need a president who is respected on the world stage. pic.twitter.com/Hqv6T06Mtv
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) December 6, 2019
The message here is tone-deaf. While there’s a legitimate and effective argument to be made that Trump needlessly strains our relationships with international allies (sometimes by publicly belittling their leaders similarly to what Trudeau did candidly), the notion that Americans deeply care about winning the personal approval of these heads of state is ridiculous. In fact, many Americans (not just Trump fans) would take issue with cocktail wielding, international elites having a snarky laugh at our commander in chief’s expense (even if those Americans would otherwise think Trump deserves it).
When you’re running for the U.S. presidency, it’s the opinions of Americans that matter…not the opinions of foreign leaders. If you don’t believe me, ask John Kerry at the end of his 2004 campaign.
Yet, here’s Joe Biden, essentially saying, “Look at me! Trudeau likes me!”
None of this is to say that Biden can’t beat Trump. He can, and he might be the Democratic candidate most equipped to do it. But he’s not going to get there by relying on his personal brand. Maybe that would be enough if the economy were doing terribly, but that isn’t the case. And that fact alone gives Trump a significant advantage, despite being widely disliked by the electorate.
If Joe Biden wants to win, he needs a theme. Being everyone’s “fun uncle” just won’t cut it.