How Jim Clyburn Saved America

One thing you can say for Donald Trump: He sure knew how to unite the Democratic Party.

My theory of the race in 2020 was the same as my theory for the Wisconsin governor’s race in 2018: First, do no harm.

The shock and awe of Donald Trump’s surprise win in 2016 was so devastating that Democrats were not going to forget it over the next four years. Trump’s win and his ensuing four years of “owning the libs” was like a nuclear reactor. It was pumping out plenty of energy; the only issue was controlling the power plant.

So, the issue was never motivating Democrats because Trump had that covered. The task was to not motivate the other guys or alienate those few, but important, persuadable voters that were out there.

In 2018, Tony Evers fit that bill perfectly. He was just a decent guy who played Ueker and came off exactly like the high school principal he once was. Dynamic he was not, but he was impossible to hate. And, as it was, he beat Scott Walker by a narrow 30,000 votes. He didn’t win by exciting the base; he won by not exciting Walker’s base.

Two years later Biden has done the same thing. He hailed from the moderate wing of the party and so his support was a mile wide and an inch deep. But when Rep. Jim Clyburn endorsed him in South Carolina, things came together fast for Biden. He won there overwhelmingly and he won with lots of Black votes.

Interestingly, Black voters as a group are far more pragmatic than the activist liberal white base of the party. They just wanted someone who could win and Clyburn’s recommendation was good enough for them.

Nobody is more responsible for Joe Biden’s win than Rep. Jim Clyburn

With a strong signal that Biden could maintain his appeal to an important constituency in the party, progressives started to find him acceptable if not someone they adored. And, let’s be honest, Biden also got a strong assist from the pandemic, which shut down most personal campaigning. He vaulted over other candidates to become the frontrunner just as conditions made it harder for anybody to catch up. Also, any time a guy in his late 70’s gets to sleep in his own bed every night and campaign from his basement, that’s an advantage.

Like Evers, Biden is a guy that you just can’t hate — though the Republicans sure tried. But efforts to portray him as someone who would be run by “socialists” in the party just didn’t stick. And he helped the cause by selecting the first African American woman as his running mate. But Kamala Harris was no firebrand herself. Her presidential race was all about not landing too heavily in either the moderate or progressive wings of the party.

The Biden-Harris ticket ended up winning easily — or not, depending on how you want to look at it. By Trump’s own standards, Biden won in a “landslide” in the electoral college. That’s the word Trump used to describe the exact same electoral college score that he posted in 2016. Biden also won the popular vote by about seven million, more than twice that of Hillary Clinton’s margin.

But there’s a third way to look at it and it might be the most relevant. Trump still would be president but for 44,000 votes cast in three states. Had he been able to flip Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin by that combined number of votes he would have won in the electoral college. So, in that analysis, Biden actually won by an even thinner margin than Trump did four years earlier. Trump won Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by a combined 77,000 votes.

Why is that most relevant? Because, as we all know too well, the popular vote isn’t relevant to who gets elected president and the margin in the electoral college doesn’t matter as long as you get to 270.

And that’s not all. As a party, the Democrat’s brand is still in the tank. The party lost seats in the House, when it was expected to increase its margin, it picked up the Senate by the slimmest of margins and the party lost every statehouse it targeted.

Given all that, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that, like Evers in Wisconsin two years ago, Biden is the only Democrat who could have won. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders might still have won the popular vote because they would have run up numbers in California and New York, but it seems extremely unlikely that they would have gotten to 270 in the electoral college.

It was the moderate Joe Biden, and the willingness of progressives to stick with him just to beat Trump, that made it all work. And it was still a close call.

All of which is to say, that there is no mandate to go too far to the left. In fact, it would be disastrous and would open the door to another demagogue in four years, not to mention a Republican take over of Congress in two.

Look, repairing the damage Trump has done is going to take more than two or even four years. A good eight years of sensible, centrist policies and keep-calm-and-carry-on rhetoric might do the trick.

Today is a good day for America. The worst president in our history is out the door and a decent and capable man has replaced him. Let’s not mess this up, people.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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