Another book about the Trump years and the election that (for the time being, at least) saved the country from another Trump term! But Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats' Campaigns To Defeat Trump by Edwad-Isaac Dovere (Viking, 2021) is only incidentally about Trump and very much about the Democrats, the multiple Democratic candidates, and especially about the Democrats' internal challenges.
For those who love campaign accounts, there is plenty of that here, including fairly comprehensive attention to many of the "minor" candidates in the Democratic primary contest. But top billing goes to Joe Biden himself, who against the expectations of many and the hopes of the party's progressive wing, won the nomination, and then went on to be the one who could actually defeat Trump. "Biden was the compromise candidate, the collective consensus about who could actually beat Trump, but who wasn’t exactly inspiring." Indeed! But it turned out to be Biden who alone could make the case that best spoke to the American electorate, "as the old white man who was so well known that this made it clear what he stood for." In part, that was because, "Biden was actually the guy Trump pretended to be, with the working-class sensibility and the close family, and by being an older, white, straight man, he didn’t give Trump any of the usual openings he used for his bullying."
But, even more interesting than his account of Biden's amazingly on-target campaigns (for both the nomination and the general election), is Dovere's depiction of the divisions within the Democratic party, the structural and institutional weakness of the party, and especially Barack Obama's weaknesses as leader of the party. The author devotes a lot of space to describing Obama's failures, what he calls "the long rot of the Obama years"- both as president to bring about the change he had once promised and as party leader for neglecting the party. Whereas some Obama aides "privately described his abandonment of the party while he was in the White House" as “Benign neglect,” Dovere calls it “Negligence.”
According to Dovere's account, "Obama never built a Democratic bench and never cared to, aside from a few scattered candidates who interested him. ... In his first term, Obama used the party structure as a host for his campaign. In his second term, he cared about what happened to the husk as much as any parasite does." Moreover, Dovere describes a Democratic party that during the Obama years "was hopped up on delusion" - the delusion that "Everything had changed."
As for Biden's prospects to succeed him in the presidency, Obama recognized "how unprepared logistically and emotionally Biden was for a presidential campaign" especially in the personally devastating aftermath of his son's death. "Obama wasn’t naive about Clinton’s political weaknesses—he had beaten her because of them. Still, he believed she would win. He thought she would do a good job, and he would say privately at the time, she seemed to him to be the only plausible option to succeed him, which was in itself a pretty clear comment on what he made of his own party’s bench under his presidency." It was also the case that, as Jen Psaki observed, Obama "undervalued Biden’s political abilities because they had such different styles.”
Looking ahead to 2020, "Obama always assumed Biden would run against Trump, that his theory of his own candidacy made sense and that Biden might just be the right antidote. ... [but] Obama remained skeptical about Biden’s chances. In his account of the 2020 primary campaign, Dovere highlights the the problem that the Left created for itself in that campaign. "A progressive could have won the 2020 primary. Arguably, with the energy in the party where it was, one probably should have. ... Medicare for All is a major reason why the left did not.”
As everyone knows, Biden secured the career-saving endorsement of Congressman Clyburn and won the South Carolina primary, after which the moderates in the party immediately united behind Biden to prevent the possibility of a Sanders candidacy. And so it happened, almost overnight, that by "Super Tuesday" Biden was suddenly transformed into the frontrunner - and more.
Presidential campaigns typically have two parts - the primary campaign as its fist half, followed the general election campaign. In 2020, the effective end of the primary campaign coincided with something no one could have anticipated or prepared for - the pandemic. Roughly halfway through the book, the coronavirus takes over the country and effectively ends the primary campaign. The author highlights the difficulties the pandemic created for Biden's campaign. "Building a wider sense of team and community was close to impossible—except for the shared, almost religious mission of beating Trump." His description of the convention experience for Biden is poignant: "The prize without the ceremony. The acclamation without the acclaim. Shrouded in a sense of mourning. Incomplete. Imperfect. A Biden nomination."
One of the peculiar paradoxes of the 2020 election was how the failures of the Obama years and the trauma of the Trump years steered the Democrats to choosing the safest possible candidate, who proved possibly to be the only candidate who could successfully defeat Trump, and who then surprisingly, in large part in response to the unprecedented twin calamities of Trump and the pandemic, positioned himself to aspire to become a truly transformational president. How effective that aspiration may prove remains to be seen - the topic for future books.