The Biden debacle must spell the end of short-termist politics

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It didn’t have to be like this. The Democrats didn’t need to be in the midst of a crisis less than four months out from the US election, scrambling to deal with the reality that their candidate is just not up for another four years in the job.

There was another way, one that would have required facing some hard truths, a little introspection and — crucially — some foresight. But it wasn’t one that President Joe Biden, his staff or his backers were willing to take. And the bitter irony is that they were so caught up in using any means necessary to achieve what they regard as the highest moral imperative in US politics — stopping Donald Trump from returning to the White House — that they have now made it much more difficult for him to be stopped. 

The tendency for intelligent, well-meaning people to overlook the potential long-term consequences of abandoning previously strongly held principles in favour of what they believe is a morally righteous cause is a mysterious thing, one that demonstrates both the power of internet-fuelled groupthink and a utilitarian streak that has come to dominate in the west. There is an inclination to think in terms of easy equations: doing x will prevent y, y would obviously be terrible, therefore doing x is the right thing. But what about if doing x creates z, and z ends up being worse than y? Too often this does not seem even to be considered.

But the problem with abandoning principles such as objectivity or proper scrutiny of leaders is that the public, quite understandably, starts to lose trust that you have any real principles at all. Deciding not to cover the Hunter Biden laptop story in the run-up to the 2020 election might have been a great idea for the left if the 2020 election had been the last election ever. Given that it wasn’t, all it did was further erode trust in the willingness of the media, and of the establishment more broadly, to report the whole truth. And all that does is make non-establishment figures — people just like Trump — ever more popular. 

And yet the short-termist thinking continues. Following the painful-to-watch presidential debate, Biden sat down for a 22-minute TV interview last Friday in which he was asked how he would feel if he did lose to Trump, “and everything you’re warning about comes to pass”. 

“As long as I gave it my all and I did the goodest [sic, though the White House has insisted he said the equally ungrammatical “good as”] job as I know I can do, that’s what this is about,” Biden replied. 

That’s not, actually, what this is about, as some were quick to point out. And yet, even in their responses, one could see the same myopic mindset that got us into this mess in the first place. “The priority for Democrats is not electing Joe Biden. It is stopping Donald Trump . . . ” posted political analyst Lakshya Jain.

I am often struck by the real tension between the apocalyptic warnings that Trump will “end democracy” and the belief, among many who deliver them, that he must, at all costs, “be stopped”. If democracy is really the summum bonum here, shouldn’t the voters be trusted to make their own decisions about who governs their country?

And where do these people think all the Americans who back Trump will go if he’s “stopped”? Will the Maga base miraculously disappear and the polarisation of the last decade or so vanish overnight, or do these voters just not count? And is Trump really so uniquely awful? What about if someone like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — who a year ago many were warning was worse than Trump — were to have another stab at the presidency? Would that election be centred around “stopping DeSantis” at all costs?

Over in this corner of the Anglosphere, we have a new prime minister who has promised to bring an end to “sticking plaster politics” and to Westminster’s “short-term mindset”. Time will tell whether Sir Keir Starmer’s new government can deliver on this. But if it really wants to, it must not fall into the kind of short-sighted thinking that has left our public services in a “doom loop”, as the Institute for Government put it last year.

As has been made abundantly clear in both the Tory wipeout and the Biden crisis, short-termism makes for bad politics. Often the backlash it spawns ends up being worse than whatever the strategy was trying to avoid in the first place.

It is now up to the American public to decide who they want to lead their country, and they deserve to be given the whole truth. Trust in institutions is already at or close to record lows, but that trust can fall further if the public feels they are being lied to. One more Trump term might be bad but if trust in America’s institutions is permanently broken, that would — in the long run — be even worse.

jemima.kelly@ft.com

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