Former Vice-President Joe Biden is enjoying comfortable double-digit leads in nearly every major poll conducted since he declared his intent to secure the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination. His lead over other candidates was to be expected, even if the sizable distance between him and the other nominees was not. Biden is, after all, one of the most popular and recognizable veeps in modern history, his name indelibly attached to historically popular former President Barack Obama. In these turbulent times of Trump, Biden’s candidacy clearly symbolizes a call to return to decency, to progress, to the nirvana of normalcy. Biden’s charisma, experience and everyman appeal plays as strong a foil to Trump as any candidate. When taken together, these traits offer an attractive package to the party’s base, and a good shot at taking back the White House.
The trouble is, that’s about where Biden’s strengths fizzle out. Actually “fizzle out” may be too kind a term: it’s where his strengths come to a screeching halt. Biden is an undeniably kind and good man adept at zinging our buffoonish president. He would be a phenomenal improvement over Trump. But I would argue that almost all of Biden’s so-called strengths cannot survive more than a perfunctory review. His long history inside the Beltway as well as his current platform (if we can call it that) offer little-to-nothing for real progressives — or even moderate progressives — to rally around. Which is why his present dominance is so perplexing, perhaps even alarming.
Biden’s experience as a legislator is well-documented, but it might be a bigger weakness than a strength. As we saw with Hillary Clinton in 2016, Trump revels in casting himself as the outsider fighting against the “swamp” of career politicians who, he claims, have spent decades getting nothing done. Unless Clinton decides to rise from the political graveyard, nobody in 2020 will more fully symbolize the past futility of Washington than Biden. Fairly perceived or not, Biden is not known for any major legislative accomplishments during his 36 years in the Senate. Worse, his most memorable moments have often been shameful. His silencing of Anita Hill, naturally, comes to mind first, making him a poor champion for women in the era of #MeToo and Brett Kavanaugh. Biden’s vote in favor of the Iraq war will further undermine his credibility amid the country’s anti-war mentality. He also has a long track record of gaffes, awkward lies and support for retroactively poor legislation. Last week’s flip-flop around the Hyde Amendment is just another example of this. If Trump is an expert in one thing (and only one), it’s getting voters and the media to fixate on and over-analyze these kinds of records. Again: Hillary Clinton 2016.
If the potential parallels to Clinton’s campaign aren’t worrisome enough, the ways in which Biden’s campaign could differ signals still more peril. Yes, Biden offers blue-collar (read: sexist) appeal that Clinton did not, but in a party already deeply reliant on women and people of color, Biden brings none of the new-demographic excitement of some of his competitors in the Democratic primary. Nor has he ever had anything similar to the tough-as-nails-brawler reputation usually attributed to Clinton, who could argue, credibly, that she could balance scandal and politicking on hot plates while maintaining her composure. As we saw again last week, Biden has a history of botching responses.
Biden could make many Democrats ignore these red flags if he at least offered a plausible path for the future. But his governing vision is foggy at best and downright uninspiring at worst. Progressives are demanding a leader who offers change. The base wants clear plans to address universal healthcare, income inequality, climate change, gun control and the opioid crisis. Biden has been scant on details to address any of these topics, opting instead for feel-good overtures about an “environmental revolution,” while already compromising on universal healthcare by supporting a public option. Contrast this with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is getting voters to ignore her gaffes by introducing bold, innovative ideas. Biden isn’t giving us the boldness necessary to move our public conversations away from highlight reels of the embarrassing moments that will haunt him.
Then there is the counterargument: that Biden’s steady blandness is a result of his years in the Senate; that his long-term plan is to make the chains move, but incrementally. When asked how he’d be productive as president — how he’d push legislation through a likely divided Congress — Biden comes up dishearteningly short once again, assuring us that with Trump out of the picture, the GOP would return to “normal,” and would work across the aisle once again. He genuinely believes that Trump is the only problem. That takes an almost willful ignorance.
How someone who watched, up close, the Republican Party’s radicalization during the Obama administration could possibly believe that Trump is the only thing preventing bipartisan cooperation is beyond this universe. In 2008, then-candidate Obama promised something almost identical to Biden, assuring voters that all that was needed to return to good governance was to remove the Bush administration and to have an adult conversation across the aisle. What we got was eight years of absolute poison in Washington as the GOP revealed itself to be a beast hostile to compromise. This should have been definitive proof that the GOP’s governing style is pyrrhic, toxic and self-destructive. These people will be no more willing to work with President Biden than they were with President Obama. All we’ll get with President Biden is four years of gridlock, nonsensical investigations and reminders that the GOP would rather destroy America than see a Democrat succeed in the White House. Going to them with open arms will only result in lost limbs.
Believing that Trump, and Trump alone, is what ails this country may be the most chilling forewarning of what a Biden presidency would really look like. It tells us that Biden does not consider the underlying problems that led to Trump in the first place. For meanness, bitterness, xenophobia and divisiveness doesn’t so much emanate from Trump as Trump serves these sentiments as their megaphone. Biden doesn’t see them as symptoms of a shrinking middle class, of the gulf between urban and rural America, of the ludicrous rise in the cost of everything from housing to healthcare to higher education.
Which means Biden isn’t looking to treat these symptoms through governmental redress. He’s the old guard. He’s the ancien regime returning from exile, promising the bourgeois professional class that they can still milk a broken system while discarding the crassness currently emanating from Capitol Hill.
The greater danger would be if the Democratic base actually gobbles this up. It has been well documented that Biden supporters, when asked to justify their support for such a bland candidate, lament that he makes them feel safe. His following isn’t playing itself into believing that Biden is hiding some revolutionary grit that is only to be revealed once he enters the Oval Office; they’re fully aware of, and largely attracted to, the fact that Biden’s best selling point is he’ll let people get back to their former lives, that they won’t have to constantly attend to the latest crazed antics in Washington, DC. Biden is, in sum, offering nothing more than a quiet, unexciting third term for people who look back on the Obama years with nothing but nostalgia.
That may seem fine — at first. But we can’t forget that the failures of the Obama years led to the rise of Trump. Both Obama and Biden are good men who made for fine leaders, but the country does not need more of what they offered in 2008. Again: the rise of Trump is not an aberration but a sign that something — maybe many things — fundamental has gone wrong. A return to the pleasant old order will not change this.
Does a Biden nomination mean the progressive movement is broken? That it isn’t thinking about what needs to be done, what needs to be accomplished, but about its own fears and doubts? A Biden nomination would mean that the progressive movement despises Trump so fully that it would allow that ancien regime to ride their desire to get Trump out of power right back into office for themselves. With Biden, we would relinquish the bold new ideas of the Sanders and Warren wing, that we wouldn’t even put our faith in the toughness of a Hillary Clinton. Instead, we would simply bet that the very embodiment of a standard Democrat would restore us to a better time. It’s like no one wants to ask “What do we do on Jan. 21, 2021?,” stating instead “We just have to get rid of Trump, that’s all Joe has to do.”
That mentality might be why so many people are disenchanted with the Democrats.