Joe Biden has been ahead in the early polling for a long time. But, I wonder: Why?
The argument for Joe Biden’s nomination seems to be the one least likely to excite Democratic voters: he’s old and white, and his nomination is a decent enough accommodation to Republican political enemies who are backward looking. That is a problem because two different large cohorts of Democrats want to move forward in different ways. An upwardly mobile section of “woke” white progressives wants to triumph in the cultural arena, not accommodate. And a more socialist-influenced core wants to move on from the Clinton and Obama policies they detest as half measures.
Biden is now so aged in politics that he partially belongs to history. And of course, having been around long enough, he was frequently on the wrong side of it. At least by progressive sensibilities. He sponsored the 1994 crime bill, which is deplored as a sop to racist suburbanites and cops rather than a reaction to horrific crime rates. Earlier than that he opposed mandated school busing to create racially integrated schools. Some progressives are thrilled to see Mayor Pete Buttigieg fight the supposedly homophobic Vice President Mike Pence (Pence’s great offense is that he previously called Buttigieg a “patriot”). But back in 1973, Biden was asked by gay-rights activists about security clearances for homosexuals. Biden responded that his “gut reaction” was that homosexuals were “security risks.” All of these things could be excused in the way Obama’s opposition to gay marriage was, as mere concessions to the regnant taboos and politics of the day. But Democrats want to vote for a leader who inspires them, not one who requires contextualization.
The Biden campaign’s implicit promise is a return to normalcy. But that is a rebuke to the liberal imagination of history, in which Obama was a welcome rupture with the tradition of 42 white men as U.S. president. And in which the arc of history destines Democrats to make another startling break from the norm. There are qualified women in the Democratic race, aren’t there? And women of color. And a gay man. Wouldn’t electing one of them do more, symbolically, than electing another handsy old man on the premise that he is adept at coddling a politically fickle white working class? Biden’s candidacy is an attempt by Democrats to bargain with Trump’s America. Other candidates are promising to cleanse America from what Democrats see as the disgrace or even the sacrilege of Trump’s presidency. Democrats don’t want to bargain with the devil, they want an exorcist.
If anything, recent presidential elections have taught the two major parties not to settle for someone who seems electable and unthreatening to swing voters, but to go with the candidate who excites them in the hope that excitement itself will be contagious. John Kerry as war veteran flopped. So did Romney. It was the candidates who drew impassioned crowds, Obama and Trump, who prevailed.
But what about his accomplishments? Biden has historically positioned himself as a foreign-policy expert. But his record of judgment includes the very thing that disqualified Hillary Clinton for Democratic voters in 2008: a vote in support of the Iraq War. And despite Biden’s experience and insight on foreign policy, his proposed solution for Iraq was in some ways the one later attempted by ISIS, cleaving it into pieces along religious lines. What this would have meant for Syria, for Saudi Arabia, and for the resultant states, which would not all have equal access to Iraq’s resource wealth, he never quite speculated at the time.
Some say that Biden is a reminder of the Obama years, and a counter-conventional wisdom is developing that nostalgia for the Obama years is precisely what the left wing of the party discounts at their peril. Biden’s campaign logo, as a design proposition, tries to steal Obama’s halo and place it on ol’ Joe himself. But, Obama was a history-making candidate, allowing voters to be aspirational about their country and themselves by voting for him. And Biden isn’t. Biden is the white guy who got in trouble for calling Obama “clean” and “articulate.”
For the voter set that is looking for a break with the mostly centrist economic orthodoxy of the Clintons and Obamas, Biden is a step backward as well. Biden helped write the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, which made it harder for consumers to escape their debts through bankruptcy, a gift for lenders such as JP Morgan, Chase, and Wells Fargo. Biden has always been a favorite of Delaware-based financial and credit firms. His son even worked for MBNA, both as an employee and as a consultant.
Biden’s great poll numbers are the result of his great name recognition and his association with a popular ex-president. But Biden’s debut did not give voters a reason to be more excited about him than any of the other candidates, the ones who promise real, substantial, and symbolic breaks from the past.