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In the US, 'Democrats Fall in Love, Republicans Fall in Line.' Is That Changing?

As someone with a consummate appetite for US electoral politics, there is a distinct shift that is taking place.

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Joe Biden is no spritely geriatric, he can’t speed walk, but he is running, AGAIN.

That was the prevailing sentiment across the Beltway, the flyover states, the purple states, and with all the running mates. 

In one of my previous articles, I likened Biden’s victory in 2020, to less of a Biden pulling off a Bill Clinton in 1992, and trouncing a strong Republican incumbent, but more of a referendum on Donald Trump. 

As Senator Brutus said on the pulpit in Rome in 44 BC (this was even before Judas Iscariot was codified with treason), after he slayed his friend, the emperor Julius Caesar, Brutus melancholically chanted, he did so, “not because he loved Caesar less, but that he loved Rome more”. Hence, the referendum on Trump was telling. In 2020, the pandemic handling was the last straw that broke the electorate’s back. I then wrote, “It was not that the people loved Joe Biden, it's simply that they did loathe Donald Trump.” 

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But as a political junkie and someone with a consummate appetite for US electoral politics, there is a distinct shift that is taking place. As former President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) said, “There goes the South for a generation," as he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. This was at a time, when staunch segregationists counted themselves as Democrats, compared to “Lincoln Northerners” who opposed segregation. Today, the Deep South is blood red with patches of blue, almost making it like the concept of a tiny blueberry that fell into tomato soup.

There is another political upheaval brewing, one that psephologists would be quizzical about. The adage was that Democrats used to fall in love and Republicans used to fall in line. But that’s changing and how.

In the last seven decades, Democrats picked charismatic young powerful orators from the primaries and at conventions, while juxtaposing the Grand Old Party’s (GOP) choices of a pragmatic elderly statesman, who embodied conservative principles, either in fiscally or socially. 

During the 1960s Presidential elections, incidentally, the first-ever televised Presidential debate was between a young charismatic Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy against the curmudgeon incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon. Interestingly, enough, those who saw the 1960 debates on television were more likely to vote for Kennedy, while those who listened to the radio were more likely to vote for Nixon. Television was about to change the way we consume politics. There was the visual element of charisma, presentation, flair, and elan, witnessed best when seen.

The 1992 President Elections always capture my political imagination. A sitting incumbent president, a veteran politician in George H W Bush (41), who had been Vice President for 8 years to a conservative heartthrob in Ronald Reagan. Bush 41 had been the former Director of the CIA, oversaw the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States’ biggest adversary since World War II, and won the Gulf War and had a near 90% approval rating. Easy peasy right? The annals of history will tell you Bush 41 lost to a then-whippersnapper young Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, someone as old as his elder son George Bush, who would later become Clinton’s successor.

In 2008, after the collapse of the U.S. economy, ennui with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a young Democrat junior Senator from Illinois captured the imagination of a wounded nation with his credo of “Hope and Change”. Barack Hussein Obama sought to put the dysfunctionality of the Bush administration behind and present an a la Martin Luther King Jr., sense of optimism with a “Yes We Can” attitude. 

His opponent was the late veteran Senator and former Prisoner of War (PoW) John McCain, less charismatic, redolent of silver-haired sagacity, and a fiscal conservative.

Enter Joe Biden.

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As Ezra Klein writesThis is a man who has been running for president since he was young. He wins the presidency, finally, unexpectedly, when he’s old.”  Biden ran unsuccessfully in 1988, and 2008, against his future boss, Barack Obama. His road to the Oval Office seemed all but done. But Biden owes his presidency, not just to Obama or Trump, but also to McCain. 

The book and the hit movie Game Change reveal the makings of the 2008 election. McCain attacked Obama for being a novice and lacking experience. For the Obama campaign, the conundrum was simple. How do you beat an old guy named John? Well, you pick an old guy named Joe. Veep candidates are traditionally picked to either deliver a state, appeal to the base, compensate for the deficiencies at the top of the ticket, or strengthen the ticket. 

Obama lacked the foreign policy experience that McCain had, so the pick of a leading member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a veteran Senator was a perfect counterweight to John McCain. Reading the tea leaves the McCain campaign did the same.

Obama’s charisma radiated and oozed through the sound waves. It didn’t help McCain belonged to the same party as George W Bush and focused on distancing himself from the administration. Obama was a dynamic game-changer, so he needed a game-changing pick. 
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Enter Sarah Palin. The former Governor of Alaska was a political wild card. She was supposed to be McCain’s game changer but instead was his Achilles Heel as she epitomised gaffe central. McCain was polling low among women voters, wasn’t seen as conservative enough for the base, and needed a political outsider who could shake things up – so the campaign picked Palin. 

Cut to 2020, and one would need an endless supply of papyrus to chronicle the malaise and toxicity of the Trump administration. Controversy and scandals, bombast, and asinine tweets, putrid sound bites and mud-slinging political fights, there were hair jokes and scary blokes that made up an administration that failed to come to terms with the COVID-19 crisis. Eventually, COVID-19 finished off the Trump administration, as pollsters recorded disenchantment with the electorate of Trump’s handling of the crisis.  

Donald Trump doesn’t check out as a traditional conservative.

He has changed his political positions multiple times, reported to have voted for Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan, which is a Republican coup-de-grace, and backed his former adversary Hilary Clinton in the past, saying, she would make a good president. Trump doesn’t embody traditional Judeo-Christian values, sacrosanct to many Republican voters, and his billionaire wealth is way more than that of his Republican presidential predecessor Mitt Romney who ran in 2012, whom many viewed as out of touch with the common man. 

Yet, Donald Trump has a cult-like following as the MAGA movement gains steam and has changed the outlook of the Republican party, splintering it into various groups from the ‘Never Trumpers’, to the traditional fiscal conservatives to the far-right of the party that croons for Donald Trump. Their defence of Trump is less based on a pragmatic choice but a cross between a messiah-like cult following or idolatry doting for a rockstar. They’re quick to shut down any mention of January 6 being an insurrection and rebuke that the elections of 2020 were free and fair.

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Ezra Klein adds: “The cliché used to be that Democrats fell in love and Republicans fell in line. The reality, in recent years, has been that Democrats fall in line and Republicans fall apart.” 

Many Democrats in 2024 and some Republicans who found Trump as anathema, coalesced behind Biden as the best bet to dislodge a dangerous incumbent. He didn’t serenade heartstrings but presented himself as the strategic best bet to dislodge a dangerous incumbent. 

The famed South African comedian and former host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah once said, that overseas, people spend more time criticising the candidate they vote for, while in the U.S., Americans spend more time critiquing those they didn’t vote for. And culture wars and the politics of polarization are the staple diet for a pugnacious 2024 campaign, a reset of 2020, minus the pandemic. It’s a battle of ideologies over ideas as each side locks horns in some unhealthy rendition of an ideological civil war. 

As Jon Stewart resumes his hot seat on The Daily Show, he did a segment calling the Biden-Trump rematch, one that nobody wants. Biden and Trump are far from the best candidates for the job. But in a two-party system, they are backed by powerful politicos and packaged as the best candidate from each of their parties and then sold to the general public. 

How did we get here indeed?

(Akshobh Giridharadas is based out of Washington DC and writes on diverse topics such as geopolitics, business, tech and sports. He is a two-time TEDx and Toastmasters public speaker and a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. He tweets @Akshobh. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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