One of the most illuminating statements of the 2020 presidential campaign was left unsaid by a candidate. It came from a former Republican congressman. “It’s hard to attack vanilla,” complained Carlos Curbelo of Florida, bemoaning the failure of the GOP to attack then-candidate Joe Biden. Curbelo may have intended to mock the former vice president as a coward. But he inadvertently landed on the key to Biden’s success: Nobody hates vanilla. Biden’s political style is not everyone’s favorite, but most people are happy to accept it.
Biden won by 7 million votes in 2020, but criticism of his candidacy has not changed. To the president’s critics, many of whom are Democrats, he is old, dull and unremarkable. He lacks the dynamism needed to inspire younger voters, and his resistance to radical change is not relevant to the moment. But that criticism fundamentally misunderstands Biden’s appeal: He won because he was mediocre, not despite it. That’s because his political style perfectly counters the acquired taste of today’s Trump-led Republican Party.
Consider the contrast between Biden and his opponents: In the 2022 midterm elections, Republican primary voters have nominated a group of Trump-backed conspiracy theorists who deny the results of the 2020 presidential election. Whatever you think of these candidates and their views, they certainly inspired the base, and they certainly weren’t boring. Almost all of them lost, however, giving up competitive swing states in the process. It turns out that what motivates Republican membership excludes the independent voters the party needs to win elections.
Biden embodies the opposite approach. He has excelled at being an acceptable candidate to as many general-election voters as possible, even though he has generated only moderate enthusiasm among the party’s loudest voices. This quiet consensus-building — rather than crowd-pleasing rhetoric — is how Biden won the White House. In a world of pistachios and rough roads, it’s vanilla, which is off-putting to most and unlikely to trigger any allergies. This is often more about Biden’s impact than his ambitions: Even when he pursues ambitious policies, he tends to frame them in common sense rather than revolutionary terms.
Pundits and activists have never warmed to Biden, but that’s because they are perpetual connoisseurs in search of new flavors. Biden understands that most voters don’t live and breathe politics and value reliability over novelty. Many Americans just want an unobtrusive president who doesn’t require their constant attention, especially after years of the opposite.
The fundamentals have their benefits: According to the Cook Political Report, polls show Biden overwhelmingly winning voters who “somewhat disapprove” of him, while Trump loses the same group. For the dissatisfied, the president is a safe bet; his predecessor was a loathsome one.in frustration Character Comments from Fox News host Jesse Watters, “There’s no ‘hate Biden’ ballot out there. Did you know there’s a ‘hate Trump’ when Trump’s on the ballot Democrats voting? People just don’t have the same passion for this guy.” It’s hard to get excited about vanilla, but even harder to get angry.
As the 2020 and 2022 elections will demonstrate, Biden’s intentional inoffensive approach is superior to Trump’s brusque approach. However, with Trump now on track for the 2024 Republican nomination, Republicans are poised to repeat the same mistakes. A recent CBS survey found that 75 percent of Republican primary voters backing Trump did so because they believed “he actually won in 2020.” By contrast, polls have repeatedly found that an overwhelming majority of Americans think Trump has lost. The former president’s supporters are looking to serve what the majority of voters are unwilling to consume.
This is where Biden’s painkiller impact becomes an asset rather than a liability, especially today. By taking traditional but popular positions that resonate with Democrats and independents alike, Biden has made himself a solid choice. By stepping back and letting his opponent do the talking, Biden is ensuring that the upcoming campaign cycle centers on the opponent’s deeply unpopular position. When the only alternative to vanilla is a rum raisin with a rebellious side, modesty starts to look attractive.
Because the product Trump is peddling is toxic to most voters, there’s no need to pit a flashy candidate against him for the spotlight. Biden doesn’t want to drown out Trump’s insane machinations and petty cruelty — he wants independent voters to hear them and remember why most of them rejected Trump twice at the ballot box. In fact, Trump is the best surrogate for the Biden campaign.
In recent months, the likely Republican nominee has been arrested, tried for civil damages in a rape case and snatched reporters’ phones after they asked him questions he didn’t like. Trump’s often extreme rhetoric has thrilled his supporters but alienated more moderate voters. At a recent conservative conference, he declared, “The evil forces trying to kill America have done everything in their power to stop me, shut you up, and turn this country into a socialist dump for criminals, drug addicts, Marxists rioters, thugs, radicals, and dangerous refugees that no other country wants.” The longer the campaign goes on, the more Trump reminds viewers why they don’t like him. In other words, he is anti-Biden.
None of this means the president won’t lose to Trump in the 2024 rematch, which polls suggest is remarkably close. But it helps explain why Biden continues to outperform expectations, despite glaring shortcomings such as his age, propensity for gaffes and a history of failed presidential campaigns. It’s understandable that some Democrats want someone with more flavor to be their standard bearer, but the trick to being a consensus candidate is avoiding giving voters a reason not to vote for you. This is Biden’s forte — and Trump’s weakness.
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