First wave of 2020 panic: Is Biden vs. Bernie really the best Democrats can do?

After the sweeping, female-fueled victories of the midterms, a battle of old white dudes could spell disaster

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 8, 2018 12:00PM (EST)

Joe Biden; Bernie Sanders (Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)
Joe Biden; Bernie Sanders (Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)

In case you thought the Democrats’ big win in the midterms — a pickup of 40 House seats, and counting — meant that the weirdness and bitterness of the 2016 primary was behind us, and that the party is ready to come together and banish the Twitter-troll-in-chief to the doghouse (or to prison) two years hence, you have a number of other thinks coming. Consider this: The leading contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination, by far, are Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

Speaking as a friend, kind of: That should be avoided at all costs. It's a tragicomic farce waiting to happen, one that threatens to undermine much of what the Democrats have apparently accomplished over the last two years. Both of them are profoundly decent men who have done a lot for this country. But, just, please no.

Presumably a large proportion of Demo-friendly apparatchiks, pundits, activists and regular people will disagree with this diagnosis. I think that’s a problem too.

OK, yeah: It’s much too early to start talking confidently about frontrunners and contenders or defaulting to inane horse-race coverage. (Not like that will stop anybody.) Anything could happen. There at least 12 to 15 other Democrats we could name who are pondering having a go in 2020, and the eventual nominee could well be someone who isn’t seen as a serious prospect at the moment. At this point in 2006, Barack Obama was a first-term senator from Illinois virtually unknown to the wider public. In 1990, Bill Clinton was the unctuous governor of Arkansas who had given an especially long and boring speech at the 1988 convention.

But right now we’ve got Joe and Bernie, who both look extremely likely to run and could easily end up as the principal antagonists. What in hell did we do to deserve this? I take no position on which of them is most likely to win, or even which of them should win — as Bill Moyers told me years ago, those are always the least interesting questions in politics. I do know that this could be disastrous for the Democratic Party, and not just because it opens the door for the re-election of What’s His Name. (Although that too.)

A Sanders-Biden throwdown would rip the scabs off old wounds, inflame entrenched divisions and cast the party in the worst possible light, making clear on a bunch of levels that it doesn’t know who it represents or what principles it stands for. At a moment when Democrats finally seem to be moving toward the future, this would make them appear stuck in the past.

I suspect that many political pros in and around the party feel similarly, which is why they keep trying to construct alternate scenarios that will make this one go away. So we have had the Oprah Winfrey boomlet (do you remember it fondly?), the Kirsten Gillibrand ponder, the Michael Avenatti moment, the Michael Bloomberg trial balloon, the Elizabeth Warren mini-wave and most recently Betomania, in which a guy who lost a Senate race in Texas has abruptly been inflated into the latest liberal dreamboat messiah.

Based on this hilarious article by Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley, it would seem that Neera Tanden, the uber-Clintonista who leads the centrist think tank Center for American Progress, has glommed onto Beto O’Rourke, at least for the moment, as the Democratic establishment’s best weapon against Bernie Sanders. It’s a quasi-viable theory, I guess, and one that speaks to the complete vagueness of O’Rourke’s ideology.

This has led to Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept mockingly accusing Tanden of being an anti-Semite. (They clearly dislike each other, but Greenwald insists he wasn't serious and it was an overly complicated joke about knee-jerk identity politics). Meanwhile, commentator Leah McElrath, in a tweet I will not quote verbatim, compared O’Rourke to "the sweet, nerdy guy" who is capable of inducing multiple mind-blowing orgasms in his female partners. Which would be an endorsement, I take it!

Maybe lover-man Beto or one of those other people I mentioned will be elected president two years from now, and we’ll all look back and say, Of course! We should have seen it coming. But also maybe not. At the moment, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are starting out amid a crowded field of unknowns and semi-knowns, with huge advantages in terms of name recognition, fundraising ability and being generally liked more than the incumbent. (Which is admittedly not difficult.)

I think those two face a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma: It would be better for the country, arguably, if both of them concluded they’d had their shots and run their races and done their part, and it was time to let a scrum of younger Democrats fight it out, with unpredictable results. But if only one of them runs, he becomes the prohibitive favorite and a central focus of media attention — and each has concluded that he’ll be damned if he lets the other guy be the hero who un-Trumps America. So we lurch toward a battle of the dinosaurs that’s a bad idea to start with, and likely to get worse.

There are reasons why these two guys are the biggest fish in the hypothetical 2020 pond, to be sure. One is the standard-bearer for the resurgent progressive movement, who galvanized a rising generation and almost single-handedly pushed Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, free college and other issues of economic justice to the forefront of the party’s agenda after 30 years of managerial neoliberalism. The other is the paradigmatic blue-collar Democrat, an Irish Catholic Rust Belt native with presumptive appeal to the much-fetishized white working class, but who is largely untainted by racism, thanks to his eight years as sidekick and alcohol-free drinking buddy to our First Black President.

They both believe they are real-life populists who could have saved us from Donald Trump in the first place. We don’t get to run that experiment over again, so they could be right. Their formulas for defanging fascism are different, to be sure: Sanders casts himself as the firebrand who will reinvent the Democratic Party as an activist tribune for the voiceless and dispossessed, rebuilding the public sphere; Biden is the great middle-ground unifier who will speak of consensus and decency and shared American values, and won’t scare  off Joe the Plumber with tax increases or whopping new social programs.

They are formidable candidates. But both of them running against each other is kind of a disaster. Coming on the heels of the Democrats’ biggest midterm victory in 40 years — a victory fueled by youth, by people of color and most of all by women — it verges on farce, or deliberate self-sabotage.

You know where I’m going with this next, so let’s be clear that age is the least important factor in this equation, at least in itself. America’s attitude on aging and older people is changing rapidly, and most of us would agree that no one should be excluded from the presidency or anything else purely because they were born before “Star Wars” or the Beatles or Elvis’ first Ed Sullivan appearance. (Or, in this case, before the release of “Casablanca.”)

Indeed, the United States lags behind on this issue, as usual: Winston Churchill began his second stint as prime minister in 1951, at age 76. He left office at 80, but served another nine years in Parliament. India has had several prime ministers serve into their 80s. The current Malaysian prime minister and Tunisian president are both over 90. Nicolò da Ponte was an esteemed Doge of Venice until his death at age 94 — and that was in 1585.

So we can stipulate that we are eager to resist ageism, and then we can consider the facts — and their symbolic meaning, which is all that matters in politics anyway. Biden and Sanders are a pair of white men born during World War II, who at this point, shall we say, both come with problematic histories and considerable negatives. Either of them would be the oldest president in American history as soon as he was sworn in. (Ronald Reagan left office just short of his 78th birthday in 1989. Biden would be 78 in January 2021; Sanders would be 79.)

But the issue here is not whether those two individuals are too old to be competent leaders; nobody thinks that. But a Sanders-Biden struggle would only support the widespread impression, which is not false, that the Democratic Party represents a diverse and disproportionately young coalition of voters but is led by a largely white gerontocracy.

As was widely noted during the brief furor around Nancy Pelosi’s speakership campaign, the leaders of the incoming House Democratic majority are all over 75, with the solitary exception of Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, newly elected to the No. 4 position. At age 68, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is a veritable towheaded youngster; do Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn steal his lunch money, give him noogies and address him as Squirt?

Furthermore, a Joe vs. Bernie battle will be depicted, fairly or not, as a continuation of the 2016 Democratic civil war by other means — or, wait, pretty much by the same means. It might sound ludicrous to say that Joe Biden is a male cognate to Hillary Clinton with fewer (or at least different) electoral negatives, but that’s approximately true. In fact, whatever populist, mid-Atlantic street cred he may possess, Biden is almost certainly less progressive than Clinton on core economic issues, and not much different in terms of hawkish foreign policy.

Biden is the only prominent figure in the prospective 2020 field to flat-out oppose Medicare for All, aka single-payer health insurance. He is lukewarm at best on other structural and economic reforms favored by progressives, and has long been a supporter of Clintonite 1990s-style financial deregulation and free-trade policies. (He’s from Delaware, a state whose economy is largely driven by quasi-predatory lenders perched in sinister office parks.) As a matter of dogma and doctrine he is certain to stake out a range of non-confrontational, "moderate" positions aimed at luring in repentant conservatives and not alienating the donor class. I mean, that worked out great for Hillary, so why not?

I make no judgment on the philosophical merits of the pro-Biden case, which is more or less that after the Trumpian trauma, America will require a national reconciliation led by an avuncular senior statesman at the head of a “coalition of normals” that spans the ideological spectrum. That has more appeal than usual under the given circumstances – but it’s also the exact same argument used by Democratic centrists to squash the left in every election since at least 1984. For Democrats to retreat on social and economic issues across the board in 2020, as Biden would clearly do, could be catastrophic for the party’s future.

Perhaps the clearest way to summarize all this is that a Biden-Sanders clash risks rehashing all the bitterness and division of 2016 in unnecessary and entirely avoidable fashion, with a pair of damaged protagonists, lower enthusiasm and a lot less upside. As you may have noticed, neither of those two will ever be our first female president.

Joe Biden actually isn’t Hillary Clinton, despite my earlier comparison. He’s a multiply-failed presidential candidate with a history of dubious comments, who to his everlasting shame presided over the Anita Hill hearings in 1991. For that matter, Bernie Sanders in 2020 cannot possibly be Bernie Sanders of 2016. That kind of lightning doesn’t strike twice.

While Sanders’ legislative record on issues of gender and racial justice speaks for itself, he unquestionably has a tin ear when it comes to public dialogue in the era of intersectionality. Fairly or otherwise, many feminists now view him with suspicion as the Man Who Sank Hillary, and who tolerated too much boorish, sexist behavior among his supporters. Neither Biden nor Sanders, in fact, is the kind of candidate who can handle every offhand comment being finely parsed for signs of insensitivity or micro-aggression. They say dumb things sometimes, and unless you're a blaze-orange Republican president, the political realm doesn't tolerate that well these days.

I’ve barely mentioned the question of gender up to now. Joe and Bernie can’t help being guys, after all. But for the two leading Democratic presidential contenders to be gray-haired white dudes, at this historical moment above all others, feels like a cruel joke.

Of course it’s not mandatory for the Democrats to nominate a woman, although in the immediate aftermath of 2016, many of us assumed that would be the likely outcome. When you consider who the current president is and how he got there, and all the things he has said and done — and then factor in #MeToo and Christine Blasey Ford and the hundreds of women elected to office this year across the country by a massive wave of angry and activated female voters — it would seem deeply bizarre for the idea not to be taken seriously.

Presumably it will. Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris are all thinking about it over the holidays, and all three have made conscious efforts to bridge the gap between Sanders-style progressives and Biden-style establishmentarians. If you were trying to grow a 2020 Democratic nominee in the lab, all three of those would be better options than the old guys. But in ways both subtle and obvious, fair and unfair, all three have already been undermined to some extent.

Warren is the likeliest to give it a whirl, but a Harvard professor from a deep blue state was always a reach. She did herself no favors with her ill-considered DNA reveal, which concluded that she has roughly the same amount of Native American ancestry as most white people whose European forebears got here in the 19th century or earlier. Gillibrand was badly damaged among many Democratic loyalists for her takedown of Al Franken, and promised during her re-election campaign in New York to serve her full term in the Senate. (Such promises are breakable, of course.)

Harris has lower negatives than the other two, and is a tremendous public speaker. Every time she gets a moment on TV — grilling Jeff Sessions or Brett Kavanaugh, for instance — she sparks a wave of social media passion. Northern California lefties may dislike her for her prosecutor past, but speaking as a native, I can assure you that doesn’t matter. But let’s get real: A black woman from the West Coast, with minimal political experience and little or no national profile, has a huge hill to climb, especially against a pair of gruff and grumbly daddy-types recognized by 100 percent of everybody. It could happen. But it probably won’t.

In this context, with Democrats apparently heading toward a campaign collision that seems both unavoidable and profoundly undesirable, you really can’t blame Hillary Clinton for flirting with the idea of running for president one more time, after repeatedly saying she wouldn’t. Don’t get me wrong: That’s a terrible idea. But is it actually worse than what lies ahead?


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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