Lessons for Courtiers

Lessons for Courtiers

The results of the 2020 Democratic primaries suggest the limits of a left strategy for power starting at, rather than building toward, the presidency.

Joe Biden campaigning at the Iowa State Fair in August 2019 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats’ Campaigns to Defeat Trump
by Edward-Isaac Dovere
Viking, 2021, 528 pp.

On the snowy night of Friday, January 3, 2020, Joe Biden found himself at a farm equipment museum in Independence, Iowa. It was three days after the first reports from Wuhan of a new pneumonia, thirty-one days before Biden came in fourth place in the state’s caucuses, 369 days before insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol as Congress prepared to certify his election, and 383 days before he took the oath of office as President of the United States. “There’s two ways people get inspired,” he told the small crowd: “one by the John Kennedys of the world who genuinely inspire and lift us up, Abraham Lincolns, who appeal to our better angels. And another way is we have a really bad president—no I’m not being facetious. A president who, in fact, when you learn what they’ve done and how they’ve done it, we say, ‘No, no, enough of that.’”

Just how Joe Biden emerged from a vast Democratic field and found enough Americans to say “enough of that” is the topic of Battle for the Soul, Edward-Isaac Dovere’s doorstop of a campaign book. Dovere, a writer for the Atlantic, has talked to well-nigh everyone in the higher reaches of Democratic politics, and the book is a contemporaneous account of the campaign told from their eyes, with capsule portraits of all the candidates and longer sections on the big players.

This is journalism from the top down, the story not of grassroots resistance or of shifting voter blocs but of politicians and their leading courtiers. They’re constantly sizing one another up, poking and prodding to assess strengths and weaknesses, motivations and foibles. Everybody’s chewing the fat about everybody. Because Battle for the Soul is structured chronologically, voices and themes come and go. The more interesting material—to be clear, this a book for political junkies only—comes in the nomination fight. By the time things barrel on, amid pandemic and protest, to the contest between Biden and Donald Trump, the elite interviews lose their distinctive advantage, and one wishes for a painting on a broader canvas.

The title comes from an essay Biden wrote for the magazine where Dovere works, just after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017. For Biden, the battle against Trump as he began to conceive it then was more than the old warhorse’s last hurrah. Instead, Dovere writes, “It felt like a mission. A calling. Beyond politics. Fate.” That narrative arc ties the 2020 campaign together with the classic Biden themes of grief and resilience. An old politician’s claim that a campaign is about more than politics is always hokum, no matter how earnestly he and all the political professionals around him make it. But in 2020, it proved broad enough to unify the Democratic Party behind it.

The central mystery of the 2020 nomination is why Biden, after a dismal 2019—with an underfunded campaign and a rusty candidate—consolidated so much support so fast following his big win in the South Carolina primary, including rapid-fire endorsements from Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg. Dovere emphasizes the contingency of it all, noting, for instance, how Mike Bloomberg provided a convenient moderate target at an opportune moment. But there’s more than one route to the same destination. Without exactly saying so, which would vitiate the retrospective suspense in Dovere’s narrative, the blow-by-blows collectively suggest that the outcome shouldn’t have been so surprising. No other candidate had a plausible route to nomination, or anything much like it. (The political scientist Seth Masket offers an excellent account, based on the preferences of party donors and activists, in Learning from Loss: The Democrats, 2016–2020.) None of them, whatever their core appeal, could prove themselves down the stretch with the voters Biden conjured up in words that say much about how he sees the Democratic electorate: “hard-working folks, ethnics, and Blacks.” For that matter, even if the big players in the Democratic firmament had their doubts about whether he was up to it, the interviews suggest that very few of them really had it in for Biden. He was a two-term vice president with a story to tell about his partnership with, albeit no endorsement from, a popular former president, at a time when the party, scared of what a second Trump term might bring, wanted desperately to win.

The 2020 Democratic primaries should give pause to leftists seeking to wage a factional nomination battle in the next cycle or two expecting to win, rather than just to seed agendas and activists for future fights. The rules are daunting: it takes an absolute majority of delegates, apportioned according to results in primaries and caucuses, to win the nomination. (Under the rules for 2020 and beyond, “superdelegates” who are not serving as pledged delegates get to vote in the event no candidate wins a majority on the first ballot at the convention.) That means the nominee has to build a coalition wider than any single bloc or faction, and deeper than relationships with a few big players, however carefully cultivated. For a faction that’s now a substantial minority, not a majority, of a diverse party, that’s a tall order—and suggests the limits of a strategy for power starting at, rather than building toward, the presidency.

Following the conventions of the campaign book, Dovere doesn’t identify his sources. It’s a useful strategy for blurring the lines between their voices and the author’s. In general, the perspective is that of the party’s elite moderates, worried about a rising left and unworried about the implications of a party gaining wealthier and more educated voters while shedding working-class and less educated voters. Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA case officer now representing Virginia in the House, castigates the party for failing to launch a full autopsy after the 2020 campaign. “With my background coming from the Agency, you do a postmortem on everything,” she explains, in an eye-popping remark that Dovere just lets slide.

Battle for the Soul lacks the flair that propels the best campaign books, whether the literary style of Theodore White, who more or less invented the genre (though Dovere escapes White’s signal failure of ascribing strategic genius to the winner, whatever the underlying circumstances); the acute rendering of social conflict in An American Melodrama, the long-out-of-print account of the 1968 campaign by three British reporters that’s the very best American campaign book; or the deep backstory—not least about the hyper-ambitious Biden himself—provided by Richard Ben Cramer in his chronicle of 1988. The crises of American democracy hang heavy—there’s a scene that describes January 6—but don’t fundamentally impinge on the well-worn tropes of the campaign book, kitted out for its comfortable place on the shelf in the den. Instead, Battle for the Soul’s best moments come in the details, like Harry Reid realizing Biden would run when he saw him on TV with new hair plugs.

The leading candidates all get a moment in the sun (Tulsi Gabbard, presumably for lack of access, stays elusive). While Dovere gives everybody a respectful hearing, conclusions are easy to draw. Buttigieg and Cory Booker, the earnest Rhodes Scholars, get the nicest treatment—no surprise in a book that presents Barack Obama and not, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt as the yardstick against whom to measure contemporary Democrats. With no discernible experience or rationale behind his campaign, Beto O’Rourke ranks worst. Klobuchar has the sharpest political mind. The Bloomberg campaign was just a very expensive proposition to scratch a rich man’s itch.

Among the top-tier candidates, Dovere is by far the harshest to Elizabeth Warren. In his view, she never had the personal appeal or political dexterity to consolidate her rising numbers in the fall of 2019. David Axelrod, Obama’s top consultant, who after a career highlighted by selling Black politicians to white audiences had become a Buttigieg mentor, gives voice to the sentiment: “She takes what is utterly authentic and makes it sound inauthentic.” Bernie Sanders is, well, Bernie. Though he never built the relationships that would have helped him expand beyond his committed base, there’s a gruff principle that shines through and wins him a grudging respect. Kamala Harris, Biden’s likely successor as Democratic nominee, comes across as razor-sharp at her best moments but lurching from one fixation to the next, overthinking each move and unsure how to take the long view in national politics.

Neither campaigns nor campaign coverage are what they used to be. But Dovere’s portraits evince nostalgia for an era committed to what its adherents like to call “public service.” If the phrase sounds reassuringly Kennedy-esque, that’s precisely the point. The idea is both to show oneself as in it for the right reasons and to suggest that, for all their flaws, the other big players in the Democratic Party are, too. (Sanders succeeds on the first test and fails on the second.) If the players’ motivations make a difference—the whole conceit of the campaign book—then the play-by-play isn’t just a matter of trivia; it’s a skeleton key that reveals the moments of character that truly matter. But that dubious proposition papers over the clash of conflicting interests at the heart of politics.

The next generation of would-be courtiers can learn certain lessons from this book, nevertheless. Campaign strategists who provide ready access to the candidate, display a certain enthusiasm, and offer a little gossip to keep things exciting can win their clients positive coverage from journalists with the power to shape Democrats’ opinions. Reputational currency goes only so far for a campaign that never quite catches fire, as Booker can attest, but if you want to be portrayed as a public servant, Dovere’s book offers a road map. (If you think “public service” is just claptrap and you want to run a different kind of campaign, there’s material to wargame your opponent’s strategy here, too.)

Still, Battle for the Soul fails fully to reflect the realities of contemporary politicking. The data analytics that have reshaped campaigns and campaign coverage alike are conspicuously absent. Between all the peeks behind the curtain at campaign buses and debate prep sessions, it would have been good to hear from some data gurus and see what campaigns did with all their messages tested and surveys deployed.

The larger issue, entirely unaddressed by Dovere, is that elite players may not see things the way they really are. That’s the central problem of middlebrow history, whether told retrospectively, as in the work of Jon Meacham (a sometime Biden speechwriter), or else in real time. Though a campaign book isn’t the place to work out all the problems of structure and agency, the relentless personalization limits hard thinking about what candidates can and cannot control, and what difference all the back-and-forth among campaign headquarters really makes. In the end, a sweeping campaign book like Battle for the Soul does best in small details and worst at the big picture.

Aside from a few entries on Biden’s long career, there’s little history prior to 2008 in Dovere’s sprawling book. Obama stands alone at the pinnacle. He was obviously a source, and he casts a long shadow. “Gun control was the great failure of Obama’s presidency, and he knew it,” Dovere writes—a self-serving entry into the historical record when measured against the inadequate response to the Great Recession followed by a grindingly slow recovery, the Democrats’ atrophy down ballot, the failure to enact real democratic reforms before it was too late, or the tepid response to global warming. However Biden tried, he could never match Obama’s eloquence or his swagger. Josh Shapiro, the attorney general of Pennsylvania, voices this thought. “It’s funny to say this, given [Obama’s] relative youth, but he’s the elder statesman. . . . He’s grounding to us. He’s comforting to us.”

Yet this story falls short as a political guide to the Biden presidency. For one thing, so far it’s making Obama look worse. Biden has used the inside game to good effect. Less deficit-phobic and less enamored with tinkering around incentives and nudges, he has outdone his Democratic predecessor in his embrace of big initiatives to reorganize markets, support workers, and put money in people’s pockets.

More generally, Biden, a loyal Democrat happy to swim with the tides, understands that they are running left. He in no way caused these developments in the Democratic Party; they are the result of the great partisan sorting, a robust policy agenda that has emerged from think tanks and activists, and an emboldened left. But in contrast to, say, Larry Summers, he has accommodated them. Nobody would mistake Biden for an ideologue, or even a particularly deep political thinker, which is one way he navigated through 2020 to slim victories in the states where it mattered. “You know my heart and you know my story, my family’s story. Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?” he asked. Paper-thin majorities in Congress have limited his achievements far more than restraint from the president or his inner circle. Presidents never have the freedom of maneuver that they imagine, or that are often imputed to them, but with Biden that story is particularly stark. To a greater extent than any of his recent predecessors, whether Republican or Democrat, the forces around his party have shaped the Biden presidency more than he’s shaped them, and we’re the better for it.

Daniel Schlozman is Joseph and Bertha Bernstein Associate Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University and author of When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History (Princeton, 2015).

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