Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author with Peter Eisner of “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Joe Biden leads the Democratic race for president, despite a series of headlines that might have done in candidates in years past. He’s taken flak for the way Anita Hill was treated by his committee during the confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas, and his support for the 1994 crime bill that’s seen as a driver of mass incarceration. He also reversed his longtime support for the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits most uses of federal funds for abortion, after facing criticism from members of his own party. Yet he’s still on top.
What accounts for his staying power? Perhaps it’s the fact that we have a President who was elected despite a huge raft of controversies over his past. There have been bankruptcies. Multiple divorces. Sexual harassment accusations. None of it seemed to matter to his supporters, who stuck with their man despite all his troubles.
Trump has paved the way for politicians to withstand criticism and controversies that may have been disqualifying in the past. For his part, Biden recently reversed a position he held for decades, on perhaps the most divisive issue in politics. On Wednesday, he said he’d repeal the Hyde Amendment. Then his campaign backtracked, said he misheard the question and reasserted his support for it. By Thursday, Biden said he changed his mind and said he would throw it out. While Biden got “major side-eye” from the other Democratic candidates, so far it hasn’t hurt him.
Biden’s reversal came after he was pressured by members of his own campaign, along with opponents and some of his friends, including actress Alyssa Milano, according to the Atlantic. They told Biden that his old position was untenable in a Democratic party that it is alarmed by draconian anti-abortion laws being adopted in various states such as Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana, and by the many anti-choice judges President Trump has appointed to the federal courts.
Ironically, it is President Trump’s own flip-flopping that may have helped make it possible for Biden to backtrack without necessarily suffering the consequences at the polls.
Trump was long in favor of abortion rights but became the darling of anti-abortion Christian right activists when he embraced their position. He has reversed himself on many issues, from the value of the Electoral College to his promise to release his tax returns, but none of these flip-flops have seemingly mattered much to his supporters. They have likewise ignored all the evidence of his moral corruption, including his demeaning statements about women, and the scandals that have caused turnover and turmoil in his government.
Trump’s backtracking, divisiveness and scandals, combined with the forgiveness he receives from his loyal base, suggest that he has broken our politics in a fundamental way.
Consistency and decency may no longer be required of political leaders. In fact, in this era of hyperpartisanship and personality-driven campaigns, some people seem to double down on their loyalty when their candidate says or does something others find objectionable. The President indulges in childish name-calling and it’s just Trump being Trump. Biden botched his response to concerns about his touchy-feely habits and even some Republicans said everyone should cut him some slack.
Biden’s record includes many controversies, but they don’t seem to be slowing him down. As chairman of the Senate committee, he let his colleagues abuse Anita Hill as she testified about Thomas’s alleged sexual harassment and failed to let other women who would have supported her claims testify. He was an outspoken supporter of the 1994 crime bill, which many Democrats – and some Republicans – have criticized for its role in the mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders in black and brown communities. In May, Biden said that bill “did not generate mass incarceration.”
But just as Trump’s most ardent fans excuse his excesses, including his racist dog whistles, Biden’s fervent supporters will find ways to accept his missteps. Given that the crime bill, like the Hyde Amendment, is now anathema to many Democrats, you might think his view is a handicap. However, if Biden is regarded as the person most capable of beating Trump in 2020, it may not matter.
Many things that once mattered to voters no longer seem important. For a brief period, it appeared as if reports that presidential hopeful Sen. Amy Klobuchar treated her aides harshly would completely damage her chances. But just as repeated accounts of Trump being the hellion of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have done little to dent his popularity with his base, Klobuchar’s candidacy hasn’t suffered any obvious hits. Elizabeth Warren was widely criticized for attempting to use a DNA test to confirm past claims of Native American ancestry, but her campaign is only gaining momentum.
Even more remarkable is Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s resilience after news reports revealed a racist photo on the page of his medical school yearbook.
Back in February, the yearbook photo – which showed one person dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit standing next to another person in blackface – sparked national outrage and calls for his resignation. Northam initially said he was in the photograph and apologized, before he denied being in the photograph at all. A concurrent scandal involving allegations of sexual misconduct against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax prompted similar calls for resignation. Fairfax has denied any wrongdoing. Both men hunkered down and then gradually resumed their public lives. Lately, Northam and Fairfax have been conducting business as usual, and folks in Virginia seem to accept it.
Get our free weekly newsletter
What do the cases of Fairfax, Northam, Klobuchar and Biden tell us? They tell us that the old rules, which called for consistency, sober behavior, and good manners are less powerful than they were in the past. Trump blew those rules out of the water, and now others are benefitting.
In 2016, the outsider Trump and his team defied convention and relied on tribalism and confusion to carry them to victory. If other candidates end up following a similar playbook and ignoring their own records under the assumption that they’ll get away with it – we’ll have Trump to thank.