Back in February it seemed as if we were about to have one of the most ideologically polarized elections in American history. President Donald Trump was rushing ahead with his populist/ego-trip/authoritarian whatchamacallit. The Democrats were shifting left: Medicare for All, Green New Deal, Bernie Sanders-style reimagining of capitalism.
The great political/culture war was at hand!
Instead, this has turned into the least ideological election in recent times. The campaign has largely shrunk down from grand ideological issues to two practical problems: How to get rid of Trump. How to beat COVID-19.
The shrinkage happened in three stages. First, Democratic primary voters decided that beating Trump was more important than the revolution. Second, the pandemic hit. Candidates imagine that if elected they will be able to implement their grand vision. But as George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump all learned the hard way, governing is usually about responding to crises you didn’t choose or foresee.
Third, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris decided to run a professional campaign. Instead of trying to please those of us who consume large amounts of media, they have ruthlessly and effectively focused their campaign on the Exhausted Majority — people who are disgusted by and semidetached from politics in working-class homes in the Midwest, in retirement communities in Florida, in suburban cul-de-sacs everywhere.
Harris' debate performance was the perfect implementation of the strategy and the perfect illustration of why it is succeeding. A lot of the conversation about who “won” the debate misses the crucial question of who effectively implemented their campaign’s strategy. Harris did. The Republicans don’t have a strategy, so Mike Pence’s performance was beside the point.
If you can stretch your mind back to the Democratic debates of last winter, you may remember a different Harris. You might remember that she was held in suspicion by the left because of her record as a prosecutor but that she was working hard to shore up support on that flank.
In 2019 she was ranked as the most liberal person in the Senate, to the left of Sanders, by GovTrack. She supported the Green New Deal and, for a while, Medicare for All. She co-wrote an environmental bill with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and proposed spending plans that one analyst reckoned would cost more than $40 trillion over 10 years.
That’s not who we saw Wednesday night. Her first answer on COVID-19 was the most ingenious of the evening, in that it hit Trump from the right. She did not say that government should come in and make the country safe with mandates or even lead with the mask issue. She said that in January, Trump denied self-reliant families the information they needed to keep themselves safe. It was the kind of language a libertarian suspicious of Washington could feel comfortable with.
From there it was center-left all the way. She asserted her support for a woman’s right to have an abortion but turned questions about the Supreme Court fight into a conversation about protecting Obamacare.
The three supporters she name-checked were Colin Powell, Cindy McCain and John Kasich. When asked about racial justice, she didn’t talk expansively about systemic racism but focused more practically on what she did as a prosecutor.
Big controversial issues were dodged or avoided altogether: Bernie-style class conflict, even any comprehensive talk about inequality and redistribution. When she was asked directly about the Green New Deal, she immediately reminded voters that Biden wouldn’t ban fracking and then sketched out a set of policies much more moderate than those she’d embraced in the primaries.
The policies she did embrace mostly came from the center-left Obama playbook: preserving and extending Obamacare, protecting those with preexisting conditions, investing in renewable energy and infrastructure projects, free community college, and preserving tax cuts for anybody making less than $400,000 a year.
The one plausible argument the Republicans had against Biden was that he is a Trojan horse for the far-left. After the first few months of the campaign and especially after last night, it is simply hard to believe that. When Biden said in the first presidential debate, “I am the Democratic Party,” it was inartfully put, but it’s closer to the truth than I would have imagined a few months ago.
How you campaign is how you govern. As people who have served in past administrations understand, once in office it is nearly impossible to rally support for issues and plans you didn’t take to the American people during the fall. All those plans buried in Biden campaign reports but which are being ignored now will not suddenly burst to life after Inauguration Day. That’s why it’s unlikely that Biden and Harris would switch sharply back to the left once elected.
Trump’s stated reluctance to accept the election results means that Biden has to run this way. He can’t run an ideological campaign that wins a bare majority. He has to inarguably crush Trump with the broadest possible coalition.
So far, that’s what’s happening. There’s a moment in many campaigns when the American people see chaos looming on the horizon. It happened in 2008 with the fall of Lehman Bros. and in 1968 with the riots. At those moments, Americans shift to the candidates who provide safety and order. Americans have seen chaos loom, particularly over the past nine days, and Biden and Harris seem like the safest and least exhausting pair of hands.
David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.