Making peace with Joe Biden — whatever the hell that means

Only a party that hates itself could have wound up with this guy, at a moment of historic crisis. That's a problem

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 12, 2020 1:45PM (EDT)

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

How do we come to terms with Joe Biden? Let's not pretend it will be easy.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how excited my mother was about the possibility of voting for a socialist presidential candidate, and the possibility that he might actually win. I didn't say to her at the time that I wasn't sure what "socialist" meant in 2020, and that I definitely wasn't sure he would win. My mom has been through a lot more elections than I have, and now she is grimly resigned to reality — more so than me, maybe. She's locked down in her senior residence with three meals a day and MSNBC, and fully prepared to vote for a candidate she doesn't really like if that's the only way to get rid of the current president. 

Her condition, needless to say, is general. From the long, long view of history, maybe all this is amusing. The Democrats had an entire year to come up with a candidate who could at least temporarily bridge the gap between the party's warring factions, offer a compelling vision of the future and stand forth as a forceful alternative to Donald Trump. (Who, as you may have heard, is kind of a disaster as president.)

They didn't do that. Indeed, they did pretty much the opposite of that, as if guided by the inflexible principle — carved on stone tablets kept in a safe in Democratic National Committee headquarters — that the only moral or responsible or perhaps possible way to win elections is from the most defensive, apologetic posture imaginable. Because only then, only when a craven desire to please meets chronic ideological vagueness cloaked in thickets of legalistic language meets buckets of campaign cash from Big Pharma and the Wall Street banks, only then will the "Reagan Democrats" or their children (or grandchildren) cast aside their red hats and their half-eaten Kentaco Hut concoctions and return to the ranch in a golden-hued John Ford wide shot, weeping with loss and joy and wonder. And everything will be just like the Good Old Days, except a lot worse.

Only a party that hates itself could have wound up in this predicament. I'm quite serious. Every other candidate who made a somewhat serious run at the Democratic nomination had what was at least supposed to be an affirmative narrative about themselves, about their conception of America and about their vision of the future. Whose narratives you or I may have thought were craptastic, and whose we may have swooned over, is not the point: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Julián Castro all had stories to tell, which were more or less compelling to some number of highly engaged people. (Hell, so did Kirsten Gillibrand and Jay Inslee, two people who might well have been leading contenders in a different electoral cycle where normal political calculus applied.)

(There's also Amy Klobuchar, who is a special case: She offers no compelling or forward-looking narrative at all, but more than makes up for it with sheer force of personality and a peculiar but undeniable charisma. So she seems like she stands for some kind of vision, when her actual vision doesn't go much beyond "Amy Klobuchar: About to fuck you up." Biden should definitely pick her.)

Biden alone offered neither a compelling story nor a compelling personality. In the retail politics environment of Iowa and New Hampshire, he completely disappeared and almost seemed to surrender. Say what you will about the unrepresentative character of those states, but in both cases Biden went in leading in the polls, and after voters took a good, hard look at him they moved on to someone else. His appeal, such as it is, has nothing to do with the future. It rests on a cloudy, uneasy nostalgia for the recent past (and also the more distant past), which may have had its problems but — in the perception of the Likely Democratic Voter — was at least not an utter and complete shitshow.

Yet as we now know, despite those liabilities — or, whatever, because of them — Biden was the runaway winner on Super Tuesday and thereafter, in one of the biggest political impulse purchases since the Bolshevik Revolution. And so a 77-year-old lifetime politician with a long history of dubious tales and questionable conduct — a human archive of every triangular policy decision and every strategic cutback made by the Democratic Party for the last 50 years — will be tarted up and rolled out on stage in the role of Guy Who Will Take America Back From the Guy Who Made America Great Again.

Only a party that hates itself would have made that choice, and only a party that hates itself would be so morbidly obsessed with the unanswerable question of who other people might vote for, and so unwilling to declare what it wants. Democrats who fetishize  white Obama-to-Trump voters in western Pennsylvania and Democrats who piously announce that they await the verdict of "black women" (in practice, this means a subset of older black women in Southern states, understood as an oracular monolith) might appear to hold different theories of politics. But they're both making the same admission: We don't know what we want and we don't know what we stand for, and we desperately don't want the responsibility of figuring that out.

Furthermore, the "totem voter" phenomenon is an attempt to reconnect a party that is increasingly dominated by the urban and suburban professional classes with some version of American "authenticity." White men with lunch buckets and African-American church ladies actually exist, of course, and their votes can and should count. But within the discourse of the Democratic Party, they function as sentimental props, semiotic anchors of meaning for an organization whose true power centers are in the Hamptons and Beverly Hills and Silicon Valley.

That same quest for authenticity or, in the garbled syntax of politics, that quest for what other people might perceive as authenticity, also landed upon Joe Biden. Consultants, pundits and strategists concluded that he was the best bet to lure back working-class whites in the Midwest, and then black voters in the South embraced Biden for exactly the same reason, because they believed that at least a few of the racist fools who elected Trump could be persuaded to vote for him. 

There must be people who love Joe Biden and are massively psyched about his campaign, who believed in him from the get-go and think he'll make a great president. I have not met any such people, and it really, really does not appear that belief or enthusiasm was the basis of his primary victory. He will be the Democratic nominee because he's not a woman and he's not black and he's not a socialist, and while being none of those things is also not Donald Trump. We saw a massive turnout among Democratic voters over 45 on Super Tuesday and afterward — and, South Carolina aside, that wave was overwhelmingly among white suburban voters — who embraced the inspiring message of, yeah, I guess this guy will do.

Biden's supporters and defenders will respond, of course, that my premise is false and that his inspiring comeback victory proves that the Democratic Party loves itself, since Biden is without question the most Democrat-y Democrat ever, and wound up wiping the floor with that other guy, who — did you know this? — isn't actually a Democrat. There may be some grains of truth to this: It certainly appears that Bernie Sanders' attacks on the "Democratic establishment" played differently in 2020 than they did in 2016, and provoked a forceful reaction from many of the same voters who turned out in the 2018 "blue wave" to elect a bunch of more or less normie Democrats.

But if so, this is a pinched and shrunken version of self-love, focused on the most transactional vision of the Democratic coalition and yielding a candidate who was no one's first choice and hardly anyone's second choice, but perceived as the most palatable option for vaguely-defined other voters in other places. And then: What kind of Democrat is Joe Biden, exactly? Terms like "liberal" and "conservative" don't mean the same thing over a span of many decades in a rapidly changing society, but I think it's inarguable that Biden will be the most conservative Democratic nominee since at least Hubert Humphrey in 1968 — and even then, Humphrey was significantly to Biden's left on most domestic social issues, and would have supported the general outline of Sanders' platform.

More to the point, you can't find a Democratic nominee in recent history who appears so dramatically out of step with the temperature of his own party and the changing character of the nation. It's a futile academic exercise, but we might have to go back to the West Virginia segregationist John W. Davis, nominated by the Democrats on the 103rd ballot in 1924 — as, yes, a compromise candidate nobody really liked — who went on to lose in a landslide to … Calvin Coolidge. 

I don't know how badly the rumors of cognitive decline surrounding Biden will hurt him, although he sometimes appears to need considerable prompting to get out coherent sentences. I don't know how the allegation that he sexually assaulted a Senate aide in 1993 will play out, although it clearly can neither be proven nor disproven. I don't know how much video footage we will see of Biden's numerous false or embellished statements over the years, though I'm going to guess it's a lot. You can certainly argue that running against the current president in an upside-down political environment nobody quite understands, none of that should matter. 

But now that Biden is clearly established as the Democratic standard-bearer, polls show him and Trump effectively even, with an agonizing seven months of uncertainty ahead, made doubly or trebly uncertain by a public health crisis and the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression. By all normal political logic, those factors should spell doom for the incumbent president, and indeed Biden may well become our next president by default, as the literal enactment of the "Any Functioning Adult" bumper sticker. But none of us should feel any degree of confidence that normal political logic still applies.

Would Biden be preferable to Trump? Oh, please: That's not even a question. Could a Biden administration be coaxed or pushed or coerced a few degrees to the left on some issues? No doubt, and it will be the thankless task of various liberal or progressive activist groups to grind out a few minor policy victories, as it was under Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Biden's proposals for dealing with the climate crisis, although not nearly adequate, suggest that he understands the magnitude of the challenge. His foreign policy, in relative Democratic war-hawk terms, probably won't be terrible.

What the repercussions of Biden's primary victory will be — in which older, more middle-class voters decisively crushed an ideological and generational insurrection led by a radicalized, multiracial coalition of younger voters — is impossible to say. Let's go with not great. That certainly didn't do anything to bridge the existing split within the Democratic electorate, which is now a bitter, gaping wound that will not be healed by whatever happens this fall and will be back with a vengeance in the next campaign and the one after that.

And then there's the even bigger and more troubling question of whether a Biden victory in November — likely in some version of a 4 a.m. Electoral College nail-biter — will do anything to address the deeper structural conditions that made Donald Trump possible in the first place, or to reverse the immense damage of the Trump presidency. There's no point trying to project into the future amid multiple levels of national crisis, but I do not look forward to a possible 2024 campaign between an 81-year-old President Biden and some vigorous junior-Trumper like Josh Hawley or Tom Cotton. (For that matter, can we imagine Trump running again, if he loses this time and manages to avoid a prison sentence? Of course not! Impossible!)

At any rate, here we are: Those of us who suspect that the Democratic Party and its primary electorate placed a panicky, last-second bet on a default candidate who is laughably ill-suited to this historic moment will have to make the best of it, whatever that means. On principle, I never tell anyone how to vote, and as a practical matter most Americans' presidential votes (mine included) are meaningless anyway. 

This election will not turn on the performative despair of online radicals who claim that Biden is no better than Trump (we've all seen that movie before) or on the performative scolding of online moderates who claim that all criticism of Biden or the Democratic Party is the work of Russian trolls or crypto-Trumpers. Both of those camps really need to give their shtick a rest. Rather, this election will be a choice between the party that hates itself and the party that hates reality. That doesn't strike me as an especially difficult decision, but in the context of 2020 America, it's pretty much a coin toss.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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