The Republican Party’s latest casualty is optimism about America’s future. The most Reaganesque presidential candidate in 2020 is the Democrat, Joe Biden.
Once upon a time, that would have been the ballgame. Until recently, the most optimistic candidate almost always won the presidency. Still, for Democrats, optimism might be the key to the 2020 election.
That’s because the so-called “Trump-Biden voter” could be the most vital bloc of swing voters in November—and people yearning for a “shining City on a Hill” instead of more “American Carnage” could do worse than a candidate who is taking a page from the Gipper’s playbook. As an added benefit, by tapping into Reaganesque language, Biden can aesthetically signal kinship to this constituency without bucking his progressive base on policy issues.
That this was already an overt Biden strategy eluded me until recently, when I saw the Lincoln Project’s latest video, which features rhetoric from modern presidents, juxtaposed against Trump’s toxic talk. The ad closes with Biden’s saying, “It’s time to pick up our heads. Remember who we are. This is the United States of America.” To my ear, that evoked Reagan’s “We are Americans” line.
It’s important to note that Reagan’s rebranding of the GOP as the party of optimism and American exceptionalism was an incredible maneuver. Once upon a time, conservatism was thought to be an inherently pessimistic—even reactionary—philosophy. William F. Buckley, Jr., founded National Review magazine with a mission statement promising to “Stand athwart history yelling Stop!” Whittaker Chambers, who left Communism in favor of conservatism, famously lamented that he was “leaving the winning side for the losing side.”
Reagan, whose boyhood hero was Franklin Roosevelt (“The only thing we have to fear is fear, itself”), assiduously sought to reverse that dim view. He was aided (like Biden) by running against a president (Jimmy Carter) who seemed to have lost his grip—to lead a nation, plagued by “malaise,” that seemed to have lost its nerve.
“I will not stand by and watch this great country destroy itself under mediocre leadership that drifts from one crisis to the next, eroding our national will and purpose,” Reagan said at his nomination in 1980. “The time is now, my fellow Americans, to recapture our destiny, to take it into our own hands” and reject leadership that “drifts from one crisis to the next.” He might as well have been talking about the current administration.
But Reagan didn’t just criticize, he inspired. He accomplished this by borrowing FDR’s lines (“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny”) and talking about how “our best days are yet to come.” He did it by rejecting the defeatist view that the U.S. had “lost its day in the sun,” and reminding us that we have it in our power to remake the world (Thomas Paine), that America was still “the country of tomorrow” (Emerson), and by aiming to appeal rhetorically to our best hopes, not our worst fears.
For a generation of conservatives, optimism (not the delusional “Mission Accomplished” kind to score short-term political points, but a calm reassurance that our future is bright) and American exceptionalism became synonymous with Reagan conservatism. But it’s not just a group of disgruntled Never Trump conservatives who see a market demand for sunny optimism. Biden’s current slogan, “Our best days still lie ahead,” is right out of the Gipper’s playbook. It’s not a new line for Biden, but it is one that suddenly resonates more than ever. New battleground polls show voters have rejected Trump’s handling of the major crises that have confronted him this year: coronavirus and the controversy over race, protests, and policing.
Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan, itself borrowed from Reagan, tapped into the hunger for a better future. But Trump clearly hasn't delivered on that promise. What is more, Trump’s worldview is premised on a pessimistic assumption that this is a zero-sum game and that the powerful will (and should) win.
To be sure, Biden’s vision of hope may be gauzy, and he lacks the charisma and eloquence of a Reagan (or a Barack Obama). But in this milieu, a return to normalcy might pass for inspirational. What is important—for now, at least—is that voters can graft whatever dreams they might have onto him. And in doing so, they can imagine a better future.
Every winning presidential candidate (including Trump in 2016) seems to possess this quality, regardless of how unrealistic this optimism might later seem (see how Obama’s “Hope and Change” era was followed by Trump).
And while 2020 should still generally be considered a referendum on Trump’s tenure, Biden has assumed the optimistic high ground the president has abandoned, making the contrast all the more stark.
The Party of Reagan has become the Party of Trump. And it’s hard to quantify just how much ground has been squandered for what might turn out to be one Trump term.