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March Divided, Strike United

The Biden coalition is wide and it’s going to be messy. That doesn’t mean it won’t be effective.
May 12, 2020
Featured Image
Joe E. Ross as Gunther Toody and Fred Gwynne as Francis Muldoon from the television program Car 54, Where Are You?

Thinking about the next six months until Election Day reminded me, for some reason, of the great TV show of my youth, Car 54, Where Are You?

While it tragically lasted only from 1961 to 1963, the show’s opening theme is seared—seared—on the nation’s memory:

To interpret:

Life is chaotic. The forces of civilization (embodied by Officers Toody and Muldoon in New York Police Car 54) have to struggle to deal with it. And it won’t always be easy or pretty. As I recall, it wasn’t—but I do believe Car 54 usually succeeded in its mission civilisatrice.

Which brings me to the Biden campaign. Joe Biden would have been in college during Car 54’s heyday, perhaps a bit too old to really appreciate its brilliance as we 10-year-olds did. But I like to think of young Joe watching the show with his classmates on the lone black-and-white TV in his dorm at the University of Delaware. Genius transcends age groups.

In any case, what’s the connection between Car 54 and the Biden campaign?

It’s this: The Biden campaign is going to be chaotic. It isn’t going to be a smoothly oiled machine. More to the point, the coalition behind Joe Biden—or should I say the coalitions behind Joe Biden?—aren’t all going to be pulling in the same direction at the same time with military precision.

The chaos, the disorder, the mixed signals will occasion some frustration, some anxiety, and even some recriminations among the diverse assemblage of Biden supporters. One already sees signs of this.

My advice to Biden 2020 voters is this: Calm down. Elizabeth Warren supporters aren’t going to change their views about the deficiencies of American capitalism just because they’re in alliance for the next six months with Never Trump free marketeers—who will not, in turn, experience a sudden conversion to democratic socialism.

Bernie Sanders enthusiasts will continue to have different world views than Mayor Pete aficionados. Woke millennials won’t suddenly have the same priorities as old-fashioned senior citizens.And guess what?

Welcome to American politics. To get 70 or 80 million votes for a presidential candidate, you need a big, diverse coalition. Groups in that coalition don’t have to love one another, or agree with one another, beyond one baseline conviction: Four years of Joe Biden will be preferable to four more years of Donald Trump.

These groups and their representatives won’t stop making their own cases for their preferred policies to the American people just because there’s a presidential campaign going on.

Nor should they.

But those who belong to what Ben Wittes calls the “Coalition of All Democratic Forces” should perhaps try to suspend the most intense hostilities among themselves for the next six months. There’s no need to make life for all who are fighting for a decent American future more difficult than Trump will make it anyway, with his shameless attempts at public disinformation, his unscrupulous efforts at voter suppression, his unchecked indulging in intellectual gaslighting and emotional scapegoating.

All they can do in response is make their varying cases against four more years of Trump. In doing so, they can, following the counsel of military commanders from Napoleon to Count von Moltke, “march divided, strike united.”

On November 3 they strike united. But until then, they march separately, loosely affiliated, and trying not to get in one another’s way: divisions of Clinton and Obama Democrats; democratic socialists and neoliberal capitalists; young and old—supported by smaller scouting units of Never Trumpers and expeditionary platoons of soon-to-be-former Republicans.

Because in the real world of 2020 there isn’t a Car 54 to save the day.

William Kristol

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.