Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidencyby Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes (Crown: 2021), 528 pages.
To Americans today who are hailing Joe Biden as a “transformational” president, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s Lucky is a sobering reminder of just how close Donald Trump came to being re-elected. By contrast, to those who view Biden as something less than transformational, Lucky suggests that they were sold a bill of goods.
Allen and Parnes, whose book Shattered described the appalling dysfunction of the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign, are seasoned journalists whose many contacts with insiders from both the Democratic and Republican campaigns enable them to reconstruct key moments in Joe Biden’s path to victory in November 2020. Employing a kind of fly-on-the-wall style of writing, Allen and Parnes make no efforts to disguise their anti-Trump sentiments.
Nonetheless, Lucky provides a revealing glimpse of the drama behind Biden’s march to the White House. In 2020, they conclude, Biden “caught every imaginable break,” yet his victory fell short of a slam dunk. Winning the White House was offset by Democratic losses in House seats and in state legislatures. Biden, Allen and Parnes observe, “had no coattails.”
Allen and Parnes document that, by February 2020, the party’s centrist core faced the “worst-case scenario” of Bernie Sanders winning the nomination. Meanwhile, Biden, “the national front-runner… had bumbled through his first three debate performances.” He was out of money, he had dumped his campaign manager, his aides “were at one another’s throats,” and Michael Bloomberg was breathing down his neck.
Then came the turning point. Majority whip Jim Clyburn, a Democratic godfather and consigliere all rolled into one, endorsed Biden before the South Carolina primary, where he then crushed Sanders. Clyburn’s endorsement and its shock waves carried Biden through Super Tuesday, when Democratic voters rallied behind the former vice president as the only hope for derailing Sanders. Nobody in Biden’s camp “had ever seen such an abrupt reversal of fortune. Not in a political race with stakes this high,” Allen and Parnes note. One of Clyburn’s colleagues told him: “Damn, Jim, you’ve got more stroke than we thought.”
What Allen and Parnes call “the Clyburn effect” catapulted Biden to the national convention. After Biden surged to victory on Super Tuesday, endorsements from Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Beto O’Rourke quickly followed. In early April, Sanders threw his support behind Biden.
By then, “Obama world” had taken charge of his campaign. Neither Obama nor his “crowd” had been thrilled with Biden’s candidacy in the first place. “The invasion of the Obama people,” Allen and Parnes concede, signalled a huge turnabout in Biden’s fortunes.
Yet the real game-changer was COVID. The pandemic brought the economy to a halt, shut down businesses, and put Americans out of work. Biden used it as an excuse to retreat to the basement of his Delaware home, claiming he didn’t want to get sick or infect anyone. Some staffers complained about the optics of sequestering “your dumb uncle in the basement,” but on the other hand, Biden’s retreat from impromptu encounters with voters reduced the chances of him going off script. On March 10, in front of reporters, Biden had called a Detroit auto worker a “horse’s ass” and told him “you’re full of shit.” Along with Biden’s other verbal gaffes, an outburst like this gave his handlers all the reasons in the world to curtail his public appearances.
As a Biden aide admitted: “COVID is the best thing that ever happened to him.” An unnamed Trump official told Allen and Parnes that “until the COVID thing came, we were winning four hundred electoral votes.” Biden could look compassionate and responsible in his self-quarantine, while the very-public Donald Trump appeared to many voters to discount the seriousness of the coronavirus.
As for Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential nominee, readers of Lucky will be reminded that in December 2019, she left the race for the Democratic nomination after staff infighting, polling in the single digits, and with donors fleeing her campaign. Allen and Parnes write that Harris had “cultivated more enemies and adversaries than friends in home-state politics.” She “churned through aides like a woodchipper.” Even the Black Caucus was “lukewarm, at best, on Harris.” It’s nothing short of astonishing to realize this same woman, who “wasn’t perceived as a team player” within her own party, is now a heartbeat (in a 78-year-old’s chest) away from the presidency.
As gripping and eye-opening as Lucky is, it cannot be considered the full story of how Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump. It seems a tad odd that Allen and Parnes only refer to Trump’s Operation Warp Speed in their preface, and not by name. There is no mention of Tara Reade, who in March 2020 accused Biden of sexually assaulting her back in 1993 when she worked in his Senate office. It took the New York Times 19 days to run the story, and then only to cast doubt on Reade’s honesty. For a party identified closely with the #MeToo mantra that every woman must be believed, it’s mystifying how Allen and Parnes chose not to write about the controversy generated by Reade’s allegations.
Nor is there mention of Mike Podhorzer’s clandestine campaign throughout 2020 to ensure Trump lost the election. It wasn’t until February 4, 2021, that Americans learned from Time magazine about the shadow effort on the part of Democratic operatives, organized labor, big business, Never Trump Republicans, and social activists to oppose Trump’s alleged assault on democracy through skillful use of the media and election laws. Podhorzer’s campaign billed itself as bipartisan and intended solely to defend the “integrity” of the election, but its anti-Trump animus was never in doubt.
Last, but not least, Twitter and Facebook took the “unusual steps,” in the Washington Post’s own words, of blocking an October article in the New York Post about Hunter Biden’s laptop and its emails, while also temporarily locking the accounts of White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, the New York Post, and the Trump campaign. The tech giants defended the move, saying that they didn’t want a “hack and leak” situation swinging an election. Media efforts to keep the Hunter Biden news from the eyes of voters surely deserved some attention in Lucky.
In other words, Joe Biden may have been lucky thanks to the timing of the pandemic, but he also had powerful forces working behind the scenes to get him across the finish line. Allen and Parnes are right that Biden’s “bland message and blank agenda” enabled many voters to project onto him their hopes for a better future. Many imagined that Biden offered a return to a pre-Trump era. The reality, as 2021 confirms, is different. Amid talk of statehood for the District of Columbia, an unprecedented $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, and legislation designed to legalize ballot harvesting and protect gender identity under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, many Americans justifiably might wonder if this is what they voted for.
Ian Dowbiggin is a professor of history at the University of Prince Edward Island.
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