We Americans may not agree on much, but according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, we largely agree on one thing. That one thing might end up trumping all other concerns in the next election, too — pun very much intended:
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that — despite Americans’ overall satisfaction with the state of the U.S. economy and their own personal finances — a majority say they are angry at the nation’s political and financial establishment, anxious about its economic future, and pessimistic about the country they’re leaving for the next generation.
“Four years ago, we uncovered a deep and boiling anger across the country engulfing our political system,” said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates, which conducted this survey in partnership with the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies. “Four years later, with a very different political leader in place, that anger remains at the same level.”
The poll finds that 70 percent of Americans say they feel angry “because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street or in Washington.” Forty-three percent say that statement describes them “very well.”
Say, says NBC News, this sure looks … familiar:
That’s almost exactly the percentage that agreed with the same statement in October 2015, when the presidential election was being upended by the anti-establishment message of then-candidate Donald Trump.
What’s most interesting about these results is where that anger is manifested. According to NBC, that anger has gone down ten points among Republicans since that 2015 poll, which is understandable. Their anger has been vented — somewhat — by the election of Donald Trump and all the winning that has transpired since (arguably, of course). Among Democrats, anger at the establishment has gone up ten points in the same period and now hits a majority 54%.
If that’s the case, though, why is Joe Biden dominating in Democratic primary polling? Other than the Clintons, no one represents the Democratic/Beltway establishment better than Joe Biden. He’s been in DC for 46 years and some change, served for decades in the Senate, and then did eight years as Barack Obama’s VP. In fact, Biden has more or less predicated his run on the idea of a restoration of the Obama-era establishment, against which the populists in both parties revolted in 2015-16. Biden might not be riding quite as high in polling as he did in the spring, but his RCP average puts him twelve points above his nearest competitors, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Furthermore, this dynamic points up another risk. Right now, Beltway Democrats are trying to find some way to eject Trump from office, even with another election around the corner. What could possibly look more swampy, more Establishmentarian, than the evolving rationalizations offered for the impeachment push by Democrats who have been in DC for decades?
Democrats are running full tilt into a populist buzzsaw, as I warned a few weeks ago:
Biden’s candidacy does present unusual circumstances that could give Trump some advantages for going on the attack. First off, Biden’s campaign is also employing a curious campaign strategy. Both the Washington Post and CNN noted in the past week that Biden isn’t exactly embracing a rigorous appearance schedule. Biden didn’t bother to schedule any events over the holiday weekend, and the Post noted that this has become a familiar refrain from Team Biden since his launch a month earlier. CNN also informed readers that even when Biden does hold events, he rarely takes questions from the crowd as other Democrats have done.
The strategy, progressive strategist Rebecca Katz told CNN, is to have voters “see him less and remember him more.” It’s better for Biden to keep the focus on his past with Obama rather than on the present, Katz concludes. Trump’s provocations could force Biden to abandon that strategy and spend more time in the public eye — although it also provides Biden a good platform for making himself the eminence grise of the 2020 hopefuls and enhancing his credibility as Trump’s chief opponent.
However, that context still benefits Trump in another way. This is because Biden represents the status quo ante that Trump campaigned against so effectively in 2016. He is literally the reset option for Democrats and other voters unnerved by Trump’s chaos-agent campaign, a comfort food menu choice in the Democratic primary that would endorse the old order over Trump’s swamp-draining paradigm. Making Biden his central foe plays into that narrative again for Trump, even before Democrats choose Barack Obama’s former vice president as the nominee.
If Trump sees Biden as his most effective potential opponent, then the time to attack is now — he could effectively pre-define the general election race regardless of what strategy Democrats try to use to challenge his incumbency — as long as he’s convinced that voters don’t want a return to a safe status quo ante.
The NBC/WSJ poll certainly makes it look as though most voters don’t want to return to the status quo ante — not even Democrats. Biden might be the most “electable” candidate on stage in a normal cycle, but if 2020 gets dominated by populism again, Biden might turn into a very easy target for Team Trump. And an impeachment attempt could turn into a disaster even before then.