Battle for the Soul

Edward-Isaac Dovere, a staff writer for The Atlantic, talks about Battle for the Soul: Inside The Democrats’ Campaigns To Defeat Trump.

This week, I had Edward-Isaac Dovere, a staff writer for The Atlantic, on the podcast to talk about his book, Battle for the Soul: Inside The Democrats’ Campaigns To Defeat Trump.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.

The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:

Matt: I've never met Joe Biden, what's he like? 

Edward-Isaac: He is the most classic extrovert that I think could ever be. But it is not, it's not like what happens with Bill Clinton where he's an extrovert, and he's kind of feeding off of it. Biden draws energy from people, but when he sees that he can make someone happy, it literally makes him happy. He knows that if he takes a selfie with someone, that it will make someone's day. And that really means something to him. He'll really take that to heart. On the other side of the equation, with grief, if you are upset about something—especially somebody dying or somebody getting cancer—and confide in him, he will not just console you, he will go down into the depths with you. And it's really kind of amazing to watch it play out. I think it is part of the explanation for why people connect with him, because even if you haven't had the direct interaction with him—and I've witnessed a lot over the years of covering him—you do get the sense that that’s the kind of guy he is. 

Matt: During the primary, the Democrats, aside from Joe Biden, were embracing kind of a radical “woke” politics. How did Biden win that battle for the soul of the party?

Edward-Isaac: One of the things that I track in the book is the relationship between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren…there's a chapter in the book called “Not Friends” to describe them... And I think it helps explain both personally and politically, some of the things that didn't happen for the Democrats in the 2020 campaign. Because you'd have thought that with a real turn toward progressivism…that's going to be where the party goes—who the nominee is. And sure enough, there was a big chunk of 2019…when Elizabeth Warren seemed like she was the front runner. And then there was a chunk of the beginning of 2020, when Bernie Sanders seemed like he was running away with it—including a week when everybody just assumed that he would be the nominee after he won in New Hampshire and Nevada. But part of what happened is they split the vote, and part of what happened is that voters looked at Trump…and were worried that that kind of [progressive] mentality…would not turn on the moderates and independents that they knew somewhere deep in their guts they needed in order to win the White House.

Matt: It did seem like Bernie Sanders was on a glide path. And I can't help but think that maybe Donald Trump really could have won this election if things didn't fall just right for Democrats and Biden.

Edward-Isaac: Now, I think that that's definitely true. And you know, when, in 2016, I'm sure you remember, there were a bunch of people on the Clinton campaign who were so excited as Trump started to win the primaries, and they thought “This is great. He’s the perfect candidate for us to go up against.” I think most people, when you do like the smart political consideration, Trump looked like the worst major party nominee candidate in history—except that he wasn't, clearly, he won. And yes, he lost the popular vote, but he won the Electoral College. He was president. And he was much stronger, even with all the factors—with COVID and everything else—in 2020, than than anybody would have guessed. And you can also look at these numbers and say, “Hey, Biden won 81 million votes, it's the most votes that any human being on the history of the planet has gotten in a presidential election.” (Obviously, in India, you've got bigger campaigns for Prime Minister but for one leader, right.) But also Donald Trump got 74 million votes, which is the second most votes. And a lot of the Biden votes were people voting against Trump. But one of the questions that Democrats have to face is, “Is the Biden brand better than the Democrat’s brand?” That's a big one. We don't know the answer to that, even though he ran ahead of most of the candidates. Again, we'll see what the math of this actually looks like when you consider the other factor, which is “How much of this is people voting against Trump?” When you don't have Joe Biden or Donald Trump on the ballot, at least in 2022, what does that mean? 

Matt: Yeah, that's a good question, because I think both candidates are unique and they're not replicable.

Edward-Isaac: I think, actually, what you're pointing to there is something that's really important to understand Biden's presidency. In the interview I did with him, he made a point, he said to me, “I'm the most progressive person who's ever been president.” And that seems like he's making a brush back maybe to Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren. But he's also making a little bit of a brush back to Obama. I think part of Biden's political power is that he's an older white guy. And he makes people not react to some of the things that he is doing in the same way that they would if someone who had a different face was doing that. And so, there are things that were in the American Rescue Plan that were more progressive than anybody would have thought Joe Biden would do. But I also think that it's stuff that probably Joe Biden was maybe the only person who could have done. And we see how Republicans on the Hill are struggling to find a way to attack him—or to find a way to explain why they're not getting more done. That is what's happening here. His personality—the way that he connects with voters—this argument that some of the Republican have made like, “Oh, he doesn't really want to be this way. It's his staff that's leading.” That's just garbage. He is setting the direction for the White House. And if you don't like it, that's okay, but blame Joe Biden, not Ron Klain, or whoever.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.