The missing ingredient to win the 2024 election — a mea culpa

For as long as I’ve covered politics, the “hold your nose and vote” trope has been a staple in the zeitgeist.

Sometimes it’s the “lesser of two evils” or the “least of the two bad options,” but the point is the same. “South Park” put its own twist on this “choice” in October 2004, when it depicted its coincidentally timed “school mascot election” as a choice between a “giant douche” and a “turd sandwich,” complete with a lecture at the end about the importance of voting even if the choice is between two very unappetizing options.

Which, of course, brings me to our always uplifting and joyful campaign between Donald Trump and Joe Biden — our third-ever campaign between two presidents and the first in the modern age. Unlike most elections, voters don’t have to imagine what either presidency is going to look like — they already have that picture. It’s the ultimate choice election, and whatever the outcome, voters can’t say they weren’t warned.

But the uncomfortable truth about this choice election is that the last slice of people deciding which way to vote don’t love their options. Will they hold their noses and vote for one of the presidents? Will they decide to stay home? Will they simply vote third-party or skip the presidential race altogether on their ballots?

As I’ve noted previously, this election is going to be decided by two kinds of “swing” voters: the independents truly vacillating between Biden and Trump and the disaffected partisans deciding whether to vote or not.

Obviously, if I knew how voters were likely to answer those questions, I’d be moving to the U.K. and legally betting on the outcome!

The question I’ve been pondering — and what many a strategist in both the Trump and the Biden camps is trying to figure out — is what these last undecided voters need to hear. What’s the best way to get them off the fence, whether it’s the Biden-or-Trump fence or the “do I bother to vote” fence?

Both campaigns are having an easier time trying to message to the disaffected partisans. Essentially, both parties are trying to lure their disaffected partisans back to the fold by scaring them off the other side with cheap “guilt by association” tactics — think “Soros-funded progressives” or “MAGA conservatives.”

Biden’s team also believes the issue of abortion is a way to get voters who aren’t thrilled with Biden to show up on his behalf, especially younger voters. Trump’s folks believe the border and the economy should be enough to get those Nikki Haley Republicans and others in the GOP who don’t like Trump’s character to hold their noses and “come home.”

But there’s a final chunk of voters who I think are looking for one or both of the candidates to do something else: admit some failure in their tenures and express regret for decisions they did or didn’t make. Ultimately, voters want to know the candidates they support are actually listening and responding to their concerns, even if those concerns change.

We’ve had presidents who acknowledged voter disappointment following rebukes at the polls (usually in midterms). Bill Clinton did it after the 1994 elections. Two years later, he set up his re-election campaign when he used his State of the Union address to declare, “The era of big government is over.” It was his way of virtue-signaling to the middle that he’d back off trying to tackle health care or another big-government idea. Clinton would eventually clean up with the middle-of-the-road voter by 1996.

Barack Obama called the 2010 midterm results a “shellacking” and curtailed his ambitions beyond health care after those elections, most prominently stopping his drive for a cap-and-trade law to curtail carbon emissions.

Even George W. Bush made a gesture responding to the voter rebuke over Iraq in the 2006 midterms by firing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and bringing in Bob Gates.

So what mea culpas do these current presidents facing off against each other owe the voters?

I’m sure many of you have a fairly long list, especially for the candidate you dislike the most. I’d argue there’s plenty for both presidents to acknowledge they didn’t get quite right. The question is this: Is either candidate capable of admitting failure or showing that kind of humility?

When it comes to a major failure for both candidates, there’s one obvious place to start: their inability to bring the country together. I believe it’s that fact that has kept either gentleman from taking anything more than a margin-of-error lead in the polls.

The most common refrain from the “double hater” voters I’ve talked to is exhaustion from the political divide. If either candidate could somehow conjure an elixir to ease that feeling, it would go a long way for some of these voters.

Right now, it’s hard to argue with voters who think the country won’t be in much of a better place regardless of who wins. There’s a doom and gloom feeling among these voters that is palpable.

Now, Donald Trump and mea culpas aren’t something that go together like peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter and tuna fish, maybe.

In fact, most presidents don’t like to admit they were wrong — as my colleagues and I joke, presidents always seem to have “communication challenges” when their poll numbers go down. Rarely do presidents want to admit an idea itself is bad. Most presidents are supremely confident in their ability to persuade, which is why they have an easier time admitting communication failures than actual policy mistakes.

There is also this idea running through the minds of many political strategists that admitting failure shows weakness and weakness erodes confidence over time. That’s what Trump would tell you: Never say you’re sorry. Never admit a mistake. Find somebody else to blame.

But that’s not the campaign or the candidacy that Joe Biden presented the country in 2019 and 2020. I can’t help but wonder whether some of Biden’s problems with this part of the electorate stem from his failure to fulfill the lofty promise he made on the first day of his presidency. In his inaugural address, days after the Jan. 6 riot, Biden said:

“Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation. I ask every American to join me in this cause. Uniting to fight the common foes we face: anger, resentment, hatred. Extremism, lawlessness, violence. Disease, joblessness, hopelessness. With unity we can do great things. Important things.”

The above paragraph is something perhaps any new president would say and want to believe. But Biden took his promise a step further in this speech:

“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear and demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial. Victory is never assured.

“Through the Civil War, the Great Depression, world war, 9/11, through struggle, sacrifice and setbacks, our ‘better angels’ have always prevailed. In each of these moments, enough of us came together to carry all of us forward. And we can do so now. History, faith and reason show the way, the way of unity. We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature.

“For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward. And we must meet this moment as the United States of America.”

Nearly four years later, I’m not sure many Americans would agree that we’ve made much progress or that we’ve gotten less exhausting outrage. We aren’t any more unified — if anything, the country feels just as divided, and both parties seem more divided than ever, as well. One of the reasons over 70% of the country believes we are on the wrong track is a lack of faith in our ability to come together or, more specifically, our political leaders’ ability to go the extra mile to bring us together.

Presidents have to go 80% of the way on unity, whether that’s fair or not. Hoping to meet the party out of power “halfway” is a tad naive. Many folks don’t believe the other side (whichever that is for them) is serious about unity beyond looking like it is.

I’m not convinced Biden is going to do a mea culpa for his inability to bring the country together or his inability to turn the page on Trump, even though I think that was the central premise of his campaign, at least for the last slice of voters who put him over the top.

I have no doubt that the people around the president and Biden himself believe he was prevented from bringing the country together by elements outside his control, including media fragmentation, partisans in the GOP, and the “stolen election” narrative pushed by Trump and amplified by forces outside our borders who are intentionally trying to divide us. And there’s some part of that that rings true.

And I’m not sitting here saying he needs to find someone or some entity on the left to throw under the bus. But he has to be honest about his inability to fulfill the promise of his inaugural address.

What’s his plan to bring the country together in a second term? What’s his plan to heal the soul of the nation? How does he introduce tolerance of differing political opinions to some in his own party who don’t like what they hear from the populist right?

There’s a growing perception among many centrists in the Democratic Party — and perhaps among some Nikki Haley Republicans, as well — that Biden doesn’t speak out more as a centrist-sounding president for fear of alienating his base. It’s similar to an argument some in Trump’s orbit make about his trying to placate the centrists in the GOP.

Trump is an insurgent leader, and insurgents can’t lead their troops successfully if they compromise too much and alienate them.

In the last days before the 2016 election, Trump did do a form of mea culpa. He finally acknowledged Obama was born in the U.S. Of course, when you watch the video of Trump doing this rare mea culpa, it has all the trappings of a hostage tape.

But it was an important moment at the end of the campaign. His advisers convinced Trump he needed to show some humility about something, and the birther issue was an obvious place to start. Ironically, I doubt 2024 Trump would do what 2016 Trump did on the birther business, given how much he has clung to his stolen election fantasy. But the point is that it may have worked for him in 2016. Voters who didn’t like Hillary Clinton were looking for some hope to hang on to with Trump, and that tiny mea culpa might have been it.

And that brings me back to Biden and his current polling predicament. Compared to the last two Democratic presidents who won re-election, he has yet to have his mea culpa or public humble pie moment.

He was basically rebuked in the midterms, if you look at the exit poll of voters asked about the job he was doing. But because Biden’s party did so much better than expected, the White House ditched any “we hear you” messaging in favor of a “we had the most successful first midterm for a Democratic incumbent in decades” narrative.

In hindsight, I’m not sure that should have been the choice. Biden’s Democratic Party overperformed in 2022 despite reservations about his leadership, not because of it. And now, Biden hasn’t yet had a moment when he has been able to acknowledge to the public that he has heard the disappointment from voters.

The White House still believes it has a communications problem or a communicator problem, not a policy problem or a culture problem. The bottom line is this: I do think a little humility still goes a long way with the American voter. If it doesn’t, we’re doomed to some horrible presidential choices over the next few decades. But if I’m right, the first one of these two unpopular presidents who credibly looks voters in the eye and says, “Here’s what I’m gonna do differently, and here are the mistakes I made that I will correct” — that person is likely to be the president who gets to serve a second four years.

Challenge accepted

Last week, I asked whether anyone could come up with an example of a major American campaign featuring a deeply unpopular incumbent that still succeeded. I noted that the closest parallel to Biden’s current situation was probably overseas, when French President Emmanuel Macon won his re-election over the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen despite sporting a lower job rating than Biden.

Well, a longtime reader and Southern California political analyst, Howard Cohen, reminded me of an example closer to home: then-California Gov. Gray Davis and his successful re-election in 2002 despite an underwater job rating.

Davis is a great parallel: He was the modern pioneer of using his campaign cash to try to “help” Republicans decide their nominee. Before the state’s all-party, top-two primary system was enacted, California had conventional primaries like most states. Davis’ campaign didn’t want to face former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in the general election, so the Democrats “helped” another Republican candidate, Bill Simon, make the more conservative case against Riordan. The primary interference worked, and Davis was able to make the idea of Simon as governor a more unpopular choice than re-electing Davis.

Of course, Davis’ campaign worked so well that it inspired a recall less than a year later, giving Arnold Schwarzenegger his opening to make California history. Thanks, Howard, for the California history lesson!

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