On Monday night, the Democratic National Convention will feature something that might seem a little bit odd at a partisan gathering: Republicans.
Former Ohio governor and longtime member of Congress John Kasich will lead the charge, followed by Susan Molinari, who is a former GOP member of Congress from Staten Island, and Meg Whitman, the former eBay and Hewlett-Packard CEO who is now chief executive at the mobile streaming service Quibi.
Cross-party speeches are actually a staple of convention rhetoric, but this round is already attracting criticism from the left — in part on the merits, but more broadly because many people on the left don’t like Joe Biden very much and never have.
This in turn highlights Biden’s fundamental strength as a candidate: He’s good at focusing on the actual views of the American electorate, which continues to enjoy hazy gestures of bipartisanship even as politics becomes more polarized.
But it’s also a reminder that Biden’s efforts to court the left wing of the party and present a united front face daunting fundamental challenges, because the underlying issue is that the left does not trust him on a basic personal level. Consequently, he can form all the joint policy task forces he wants, but at the end of the day, he is given little running room or benefit of the doubt by his intraparty critics who are primed to see betrayal at every turn.
Who are these people?
There will be three main GOP speakers at the convention Monday:
- John Kasich was a fairly typical Reagan-era House Republican who rose to chair the powerful Budget Committee after the GOP seized control of the House following the 1994 midterms. He left Congress after 2000, did a not-very-successful stint as a Fox News personality, made a bunch of money at Lehman Brothers, and got elected governor of Ohio in 2010. As governor, he accepted the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion money, for which he took a lot of heat from the right, but otherwise governed as a fairly conventional conservative. In the 2016 primaries he positioned himself in the “moderate” lane and, after losing to Trump, tended to evince even more of a moderate side in various speeches and media appearances. He actual record, however, remains very right-wing on everything from unions to abortion right and beyond.
- Susan Molinari served two terms in the New York City Council and three in the US House of Representatives, all in districts based on Staten Island. Her father, Guy Molinari, preceded her in the House seat, which he vacated in order to become borough president, where he was essentially the party boss of the borough. Susan Molinary was seen in the ’90s as one of the more moderate House Republicans, and potentially a rising star of the party’s more socially moderate wing, but she unexpectedly quit to work at CBS News and then later joined Rudy Giuliani’s consulting firm before becoming a Google lobbyist from 2012 until 2018.
- Meg Whitman has had a long and distinguished career in corporate America, starting with a stint at Procter & Gamble and ranging from Walt Disney and StrideRite to Florists’ Transworld Delivery and Hasbro. She’s best known for her turns as CEO of eBay and later Hewlett-Packard. She’s also been increasingly involved in politics over the past 15 years — as a national co-chair of John McCain’s 2008 campaign, as the GOP nominee for governor of California in 2010, as finance chair of Chris Christie’s campaign in 2016 — but has never won anything or even backed a winner. She’s now the CEO of Quibi, a mobile video streaming service.
From a vote-winning standpoint, Kasich, who got about 14 percent of the vote in the 2016 primary cycle, is an okay get for Biden. He’s known to the national media as a thoughtful but decidedly conservative Republican, and he’s well-known to voters in Ohio. If Ohio were still a major battleground state, he’d be an excellent get, but politics has evolved to the point where if Ohio is close, Biden is almost certainly winning the Electoral College anyway.
It’s doubtful many people know or care who Whitman and Molinari are, though securing their support continues the trend kicked off by Kamala Harris’s selection of consolidating Silicon Valley donors behind Biden. Molinari endorsing Biden could also conceivably be useful to Max Rose, the first-term Democrat who holds what was once Molinari’s seat and who’s vulnerable given how well Trump did there in 2016.
In short, these are not earth-shattering endorsements, but Kasich speaking at least creates a clear permission structure for moderate Republicans to follow him into Biden’s camp.
The left is mad about this
Biden courting a prominent moderate Republican — one who, to be clear, is really not that moderate — is causing him to take flak from the left.
The best way to understand this is probably not about Kasich per se, but about a larger fear on the left that Republican elites dissatisfied with Trump are not so much joining the Democratic Party as infiltrating it.
Samuel Moyn, a Yale law professor, recently published an article in the New Republic denouncing entryism by Never Trumpers as a successful strategy for “centrist containment of the left.”
This seems like a questionable causal argument — Sanders lost twice first and foremost because of overwhelming support from black voters for first Hillary Clinton and then Biden and it’s hard to believe Never Trump conservative intellectuals were the key cause here. And it’s hardly unknown for a figure on the left to emphasize support from someone despite areas of disagreement — Sanders himself eagerly accepted Joe Rogan’s support, even though it angered trans activists upset about Rogan’s past comments on trans people. But it is true that Biden secures support from some ex-Republicans precisely because he does not share the left’s critique of the pre-Trump bipartisan foreign policy consensus.
More broadly, the presence of cross-party endorsers is by no means unusual. But from a left perspective, a moderate podcast celebrity boosting Sanders is good because it boosts Sanders, whereas a moderate ex-governor boosting Biden is bad because it boosts Biden.
Conventions frequently feature cross-party endorsers
Most convention speeches are extremely forgettable.
One noteworthy exception that I witnessed in person was a barnburner by Sen. Zell Miller, a Georgia Democrat who earlier in his career had been a well-known New South moderate-to-progressive politician. Miller shifted right over the years and took a particularly severe swerve after 9/11, only to end up speaking at the 2004 RNC in New York, where he absurdly slandered John Kerry as wanting to force the US military to defend the country with spitballs.
Joe Lieberman, a Democrat turned independent who caucused with the Democrats, prominently endorsed McCain at the 2008 convention, and though nobody particular remembers Jim Leach and Jim Whitaker (the GOP mayor of Fairbanks, Alaska!) speaking at the 2008 Democratic convention, at the time, Obama was eager to trumpet the support of some GOP politicians.
It seems very unlikely that this sort of thing “matters” in any real terms. Cross-party endorsements are both common enough that it’s not hard to find examples, and forgettable enough that a lot of people found the Kasich announcement surprising. That said, politics is a game of inches, and if Biden can get just a brief mention of the idea that longtime Republicans discomfited by Trump should feel comfortable voting for him, that will be a huge win for his campaign.
The left, meanwhile, will grumble. But their problem is really with Joe Biden, not with Kasich.
The left doesn’t trust Joe Biden and likely never will
Elizabeth Bruenig, a leftist and deeply Biden-skeptical opinion writer for the New York Times, recently penned a column built around her recent conversations about the 2020 campaign with Bernie Sanders.
As she herself concluded, the fundamental reason Sanders is more bullish on the 2020 Democratic ticket than she is is that he knows and likes Joe Biden whereas she does not:
It’s worth mentioning that Mr. Sanders has more faith in Mr. Biden than many of those among the young left, myself included; many politicians will call one another friends behind the podium only to seethe behind the scenes, but not Mr. Sanders. When he says Mr. Biden is his friend, he means it: “Obviously, Joe and I have very strong differences of opinion,” he said, “but I do know, having talked to him, that he is more than aware of the acute, unprecedented crisis facing this country,” a fairly high distinction in the Sandersverse.
As I wrote when the primary wrapped up, there was always a certain amount of folly in the idea that Biden could win over the left with concrete policy concessions because Biden personifies the Democratic Party establishment that the left is convinced is the thing that stands between them and policy victory. Biden’s policy platform is much more progressive than Hillary Clinton’s was in 2016, or than Barack Obama’s was in 2008 or Bill Clinton’s was in 1992. And today’s moderate Democratic senators like Kyrsten Sinema and even Joe Manchin are well to the left of the likes of Mary Landrieu and Ben Nelson.
But the left’s diagnosis of the Obama years is that the president betrayed his grassroots supporters in favor of the moneyed interests that supposedly control the Democratic Party and pull the party to the center (this is not true). This is not an analysis that can really be debunked with policy concessions, since the point of the narrative is that Biden will betray his promises, not that he will refuse to make promises.
Biden-era Democrats have declined to give much succor or comfort to left-wing activists inclined to believe in narratives of betrayal, and to those inclined to believe that a Biden betrayal is coming, the Republican convention speakers offer a useful preview.
To those inclined to believe that Biden’s laser focus on assuaging moderates’ doubts about the Democratic Party has been effective so far, it will be just another example of that success.
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