Joe Biden is being talked up as not only the man who can beat Donald Trump but also the one who can beat Bernie Sanders, which many Democrats see as the first order of business.
There’s one problem with that: Biden is Bernie Sanders.
Old white guy? Joe Biden has hair plugs that are older than the median Democratic primary voter. Sanders and Biden are a year apart — and both of them are older than Trump. Creaky? Creepy stuff in his history? Dusty northeastern union-hall politics? Check all those boxes. Worst: Sanders and Biden, though they are miles apart in rhetoric, are in many ways a couple of outmoded Teddy Kennedy liberals in a party that wants nothing to do with dinosaurs of that particular species.
Don’t bet the farm on either one of them.
Biden is a weird, handsy phony who has been in political office since before I was born, a mediocrity who topped out as vice president to the most insipid nonentity to occupy the Oval Office since Warren G. Harding — and made him look good by comparison. The first time Biden ran for president, I was in junior high. (Go, Rangers!) He’s a hack, a hapless, feckless lifer whose “Regular Joe on the Amtrak” shtick is a ridiculous joke. He’s shameless, once telling a black audience that Republicans plan to “put y’all back in chains,” affecting a quasi-southern black-ish accent. (Do white people say “y’all” a lot in Scranton?) He apparently had considered launching his presidential campaign in Charlottesville, Va., but someone thought better of it. He cited the violence there as his main reason for running for president — as though he hadn’t been running for decades. He didn’t even have the decency to make a pro forma phone call to the family of Heather Heyer, who was killed on that horrible day in Charlottesville, before cynically instrumentalizing her death. “They capitalize on whatever situation is handy,” said Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother. At least Robert Francis O’Rourke mounts restaurant counters and not tombs.
Is Biden the anti-Sanders? Not really. Sanders, for all his notional radicalism, seems like something new mainly because he is so retro: one part SNCC doofus, one part milquetoast Norman Mailer imitator, which is what all that weird rape-fantasy political porn on his résumé is about — that stuff was fashionable back in the days when the author of The Naked and the Dead was running for office. A cultural creature of the 1970s, Sanders is very much of a piece with the post-LBJ Democratic party: He’s what Howard Dean would be if Howard Dean had grown up on East 26th Street in Brooklyn instead of on Park Avenue.
The old-white-guy thing isn’t working out too well for Sanders. In Houston earlier this week for a cracked festival of progressive inanity called “She the People,” Sanders got read the old-white-guy riot act: Pressed about racial issues, Comrade Muppet started to launch into yet another retelling of the fact that he marched with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 — but the crowd shut him down, hooting and laughing at him. “We know!” someone shouted. They’d heard it all before. Sanders, visibly flummoxed, went on to talk up the fact that he’d supported Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign, and the room responded with, approximately, “Jesse Who?”
The Reverend Jackson’s is a name to conjure with no more.
The Democratic party has reached a generational cleavage. Sanders doesn’t seem like the kind of rascal who would have joined Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd in whipping up a “waitress sandwich” at La Brasserie — he is a rascal of a different sort — but he’s part of the same generation. He is old and white in a party whose future isn’t. He’s part of the cohort of aging liberals who are still trying to figure out whether they’re supposed to say “transsexual” or “transgender,” not trailblazing in search of that elusive 72nd gender identity.
The politics here should be familiar.
Republicans settled on Donald Trump in 2016 because they wanted a national repudiation of Barack Obama and all he stood for, and Trump was — and is — the social and cultural antithesis of the Obama type. Republicans did not want Democrats to suffer a mere political defeat in 2016 but to suffer a humiliating rejection, and Democrats helped things along by giving the public a very easy candidate to reject. Democrats going into 2020 are where Republicans were going into 2016: They don’t just want Trump out of office — they’re pretty sure (maybe too sure) that they’re going to get that in any case. They want him shamed, they want those around him shamed, and they want the country to make an executive gesture that says, in essence, “Never again.” And replacing Trump with another rich old white guy would not pack the symbolic punch that Democrats want, even if one of them calls himself a socialist from time to time.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has never uttered an original thought in all of her brief public career; she’s only interesting as a point of comparison to the man upon whom Democrats are for the moment fixated: not Biden, not Sanders, but Trump. The lady from the Bronx is too young to run this time around, but Democrats have a lot to choose from: an actual woman of color, a fake “professor of color,” a gay man, a black man, a Hispanic man under 50. What, exactly, does Joe Biden bring to that particular game of intersectionality roulette? Or Bernie Sanders?
Biden probably shouldn’t worry too much about beating Sanders. And Sanders probably shouldn’t worry too much about beating Trump. Anything’s possible in a presidential election, but if the best Joe Biden can say for himself is that he isn’t Bernie Sanders — that he’s the other white meat — he isn’t saying much.