How did the Democratic Party survive the Age of Trump? That’s the question Edward-Issac Dovere set out to answer in his new book “Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats’ Campaigns to Defeat Trump”.
In a world awash in books on Donald Trump, the 45th President is not a character in this volume so much as a looming presence. Dovere instead focuses on the various Democrats, both those in the campaign as well as those trying to guide it from afar, who made it their mission to defeat Trump in 2020.
Nor does “Battle for the Soul” concern itself itself much with the horse race aspect of the contest. There’s very little about the candidates’ delegate and Electoral College strategies, for example. This is a work that focuses much more on the personalities involved than the electoral math.
As an examination of the nation’s top Democrats and the dynamics between them, though, it’s one of the best volumes I’ve read. Not to mention it’s chock full of delicious dirt. To give you all a good sense of the book, I’ll run through a few of its most intriguing narrative threads.
The ‘Underdog, Front-Runner’
That’s the term Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield used to describe a Biden campaign that led the polls most of the time, yet rarely got the respect they felt they deserved.
That attitude emanated from the top, as Joe Biden resented that he couldn’t recruit his party’s best campaign operatives or keep long-shot moderates out of the race. At the nadir, on the night he finished 5th in the New Hampshire primary, Biden confided his frustrations to Sen. Chris Coons. That conservation culminated in a painful, clenched-teeth “Dammit” from Biden that spoke volumes.
At just that moment, however, it all began to turn around. Anita Dunn, one of the few top Obama veterans to sign on to Biden’s campaign, was handed the reins and made the call to put everything into Nevada and South Carolina. By pushing their candidate past Pete Buttigieg for 2nd place in Nevada, the Biden team set up everything to come in South Carolina.
As the primary wound down and COVID took over, Biden became rejuvenated as his party finally rallied around him. One unusual, yet illuminative, anecdote of his entire campaign experience concerned Lady Gaga. Biden was disappointed that the pop star, who he got to know during their work against campus sexual assault, turned down an inviation to perform at his kick-off event in Philly. By the eve of the election, though, she was there in Pittsburgh for his final major rally.
Ultimately, this surge of support led to an unexpected outcome. In the election’s final days, the man many believed did not have the discipline required to win actually became his most polished and confident self.
The Fall and Rise of Kamala Harris
One of the most enlightening segments of this volume was the detailed portrait it paints of the new Vice President: a naturally cautious person, well aware and frustrated that she is viewed as naturally cautious.
Trump’s unexpected 2016 win significantly sped up her own timetable, and pushed her to jump into the race with no clear rationale for her candidacy. She also suffered from a campaign filled with Clinton alumni more skilled at knifing each other than doing their jobs.
Dovere identifies the attempt to run from the left as the Harris campaign’s central error. He believed that a desire to please prominent voices on Twitter led the former prosecutor to try and run from her past. In reality, Harris would never be able to convince hardcore progressives that she was one of them.
Despite these primary stumbles, polling and focus groups conducted by Biden’s VP vetting team showed that Harris was still a solid pick for the ticket. In fact, her case was so strong that it outweighed Biden’s legitimate affection for VP runner-up Gretchen Whitmer.
As Harris navigates finding her place in Biden’s world, Dovere supposes that a future run as a Biden-Harris moderate will be a much better fit for her.
Bernie and Warren
Speaking of the left, this book does an excellent job explaining how the Bernie-Warren rift was inevitable.
As Dovere makes clear, the partnership imagined by many was always more strategic than personal. In reality, both Sanders and Warren are awkward introverts with few real friends. It also became clear that neither thought the other could win a general election.
Meanwhile, a Democratic establishment that was lukewarm on Warren was desperate to prevent a Sanders nomination. The issue was that they didn’t know exactly how.
Thanks to a clever scheme, Bernie was able to shape the Democratic race from the start. In 2017, he successfully set out to get as many potential opponents as possible to sign on and co-sponsor his Medicare for All legislation.
The concept’s high approval numbers, though, were a bit deceiving. Focus groups found that many thought of Medicare for All as something closer to a public option than a full-scale restructuring of the healthcare system. Eventually, Harris and Warren came to regret their support.
According to Dovere, Sanders’ ultimate decline was due to two inter-related factors. The first being that the campaign’s plan required winning a plurality in a crowded field, and the second was that they refused to try and reach out to other factions of the party. Bernie’s strategy necessitated everything to break his way, and while it nearly did, he was left without options when the field narrowed.
Obama and the DNC
As for the party leaders, their tale is told here too.
Actually, one of the most vivid characters turns out to be the enigmatic 44th President. As the Trump presidency unfolded, the famously even-keeled Obama grew visibly more frightened and disturbed. Driving that worry was his concern over the Democratic presidential field.
Pres. Obama would describe it as a problem of the head and the heart. His heart was with Biden, but his head was unsure who could win. As Jen Psaki would note, “he undervalued Biden’s political abilities because they had such different styles.”
One of Dovere’s major themes concerns Democratic angst over just how much of a mess the DNC became during Obama’s Administration. A particularly damning anecdote concerned a survey conducted by the newly victorious Obama campaign in 2008. One question found 30,000 respondents who’d said they would be interested in running for office, yet nothing was ever done with that information.
That sense of apathy was evident as well in the 2017 contest for DNC Chair, as the establishment didn’t have a candidate to block Sanders’ choice Keith Ellison. It was only when Tom Perez decided late to give the DNC gig a shot that Obama threw his weight behind him.
The former President also remained fiercely protective of his old VP. It was a bit of a shock to learn that he didn’t trust Biden’s old Delaware hands, fearing that they were only using Biden as their one chance at the big-time. Dunn and Bedingfield actually had to brief Obama and convince him that the campaign wouldn’t embarrass Biden.
Dovere also reveals that Obama played a major role in convincing Bernie Sanders to drop out, as he was the one to pitch Bernie on the idea of joint task forces. In fact, Obama was so eager to heal divisions in the spring that he briefly urged Biden to pick Warren or even Bernie as VP. The moment passed, though, and by the summer he was helping steer Biden towards Harris.
Through it all, their strange brotherly bond was strengthened. When he made the call to congratulate Biden after the networks finally projected him the winner, he told his old partner “I’m proud of you.”