Conservatives are always looking for converts, the old saying goes, while liberals are always looking for heretics. This would explain why so many of each are so angry right now. Joe Biden’s campaign has attracted the support of a small clique of Republican converts: the Lincoln Project, a boutique collection of anti-Trump Republicans, as well as former Ohio governor John Kasich, who confirmed yesterday he will endorse Biden at the Democratic convention.
It’s no surprise conservatives are furious. Anti-anti-Trump conservative Dan McLaughlin argues in National Review that the defectors have abandoned “any pretense at being a Republican or conservative project,” having expanded the grounds of their disenchantment from narrow critique of Trump’s personal failings (which McLaughlin shares) to a broader rejection of the party whose pathologies Trump reflects. “Just say they’re a bunch of Democrats who are campaigning for a Democrat,” sneered Ben Shapiro on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show. Both Ingraham and Shapiro (who has a side hustle hawking unregulated brain pills) agreed the Lincoln Project is composed of “grifters.”
Perhaps more surprisingly, many progressives are also furious. The Lincoln Project has been criticized by leftists like former Bernie Sanders spokesperson David Sirota, Esquire columnist Charles Pierce, The New Republic’s Alex Shephard, and the Nation’s Jeet Heer, who goes so far as to accuse the anti-Trump Republicans of “pushing a sinister agenda.”
Since all of them oppose Trump’s reelection, it’s difficult to understand what problem they could have with an organized effort to oppose him. One argument they make is that the Lincoln Project’s efforts probably won’t help. “The claim that the ads could win over Republicans seems, at best, speculative,” writes Heer. “Political scientists have long been skeptical of advertisements’ ability to persuade voters of anything,” argues Shephard.
It’s true that there’s no way to prove that ads attacking Trump and promoting Biden make a difference. It’s hard to prove that any political activity — lawn signs, rallies, door-to-door- canvassing — makes much difference. If proving something changes election outcomes became the standard, candidates wouldn’t campaign at all.
The purpose of both the Lincoln Project campaign and Kasich’s speech is to highlight intraparty disaffection with Trump and create a permission structure for Republican voters to support Biden. Shephard dismisses this objective on the grounds that “there are few of the voters the Lincoln Project aims to win over to begin with. A New York Times analysis found that 86 percent of the president’s 2016 voters are committed to voting for him again.” That figure is apparently intended to sound imposing, but Trump’s extraordinarily narrow margin of victory would make any slippage, even into the mid-90s, dangerous to his reelection.
The nature of American politics is that politicians usually retain the vast majority of their base, even under the worst circumstances. Even when Herbert Hoover went from a 40-state landslide victory in 1928 to a six-state landslide defeat four years later, he retained almost three-quarters of his support. Losing a few percentage points of your vote is extremely significant. If Trump manages to hold on to only 86 percent of his 2016 voters, he will lose resoundingly.
Pierce’s argument against letting Kasich deliver a prime-time endorsement of Biden is even more baffling. “The base hates him,” he insists, “and any Republican who is going to vote against Trump is already going to do so.” The first part of this statement is irrelevant — who cares what devoted Trump supporters think? — and the second part is obviously false. There are plenty of Republican or Republican-leaning voters who have serious qualms about Trump but also harbor reservations about the Democrats. The notion that all these cross-pressured voters have already decided irrevocably to support Biden is implausible on its face. Sarah Longwell has spent months studying wavering Republican voters. They definitely exist.
Even if the efforts to recruit Republican voters for Biden failed completely, why would any Biden supporters object? These transparently spurious complaints reflect the belief that the anti-Trump Republicans are morally unfit — by dint of their previous support for pre-Trump Republicans. Progressives suffer from a congenital tendency to demand that everybody who supports their side share all their beliefs. Conservatives didn’t complain when Democrats like Zell Miller and Joe Lieberman gave high-profile endorsements to the Republican candidate in 2004 and 2008, even though neither renounced every previous left-leaning position. Only Democrats seem actively hostile to accepting willing converts.
The second, more serious objection is that the Republican defectors are supposedly scheming to gain influence within the victorious Biden administration. “These ads should be seen as an attempt to stake a claim in Joe Biden’s victory so that if he becomes president he’ll give hawkish Republicans a seat at the table,” writes Heer. “If Biden wins, it would not be surprising for the group to claim a modicum of credit — and to also claim that it speaks for the Republicans (and perhaps even moderate Democrats) who backed the former vice president. Even though these voters appear to be statistically insignificant, one could easily imagine a future in which the Lincoln Project is using its claim to speak for moderates to lobby the Biden administration against health-care expansion or a rise in the corporate tax rate,” adds Shephard.
Notice that, having dismissed the Lincoln Project’s anti-Trump advertising blitz as ineffectual, they now attribute awesome powers to their completely hypothetical future press releases claiming credit for Biden’s win.
Of course, it’s completely sensible to worry that Biden will be unable to enact much of his campaign agenda. The actual limiting factor on his success is likely to be the composition of Congress, not whatever postelection spin anti-Trump Republicans come up with. Notably, the Lincoln Project is working to defeat the entire congressional Republican Party and give Biden the largest possible majority. (This is why even Republicans who tolerate criticism of Trump, like McLaughlin and Shapiro, recoil at the Lincoln Project.)
It is possible that many of the Republicans supporting Biden now will turn against him should he win. It is also possible many or most will stay. Many of them are deeply alienated from the party — not only in personal terms (though you shouldn’t underestimate the power of personal hatred as a motivating force) but also in ideological terms. If Democrats somehow nominated a bigoted, ignorant, authoritarian-minded career criminal and defended his daily abuses, I would rethink the premises that had brought it to that point.
Several of the anti-Trump Republicans have done just that. Stuart Stevens, formerly a top consultant to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and now a Lincoln Project operative, has a new book titled It Was All a Lie. While I haven’t read it yet, the title seems to indicate his dissatisfaction with his former party stretches beyond its choice of 2016 nominee. Other Republican defectors have become, at least for the time being, moderate Democrats, who have come to recognize the unacceptability of party positions like vote suppression and climate-science denial they used to go along with.
The possibility that these Republican defectors won’t turn on Biden — that they will remain in the Democratic coalition — itself poses a threat to the progressive left. Having expected to seize control of the party during the 2020 primaries, they had to accept the temporary setback of the moderate Biden leading the party for the next four years. An influx of new moderates would weaken them in a future factional struggle. From the standpoint of the left, the expansion of Biden’s coalition is a problem.
Indeed, it is a problem that looms larger in their minds than a potential Biden defeat. Yet, while Biden currently enjoys a commanding lead, his election is far from certain simply because enough time remains in the campaign for things to change. Working to shore up Biden’s standing with a potentially decisive block of persuadable voters seems like a worthy hedge against the risk of plunging into Orbanism. I’d prefer to drive that risk as close to zero as possible. Treating a probable Trump defeat as though it were certain is a mistake you’d think his opponents had learned not to repeat.