The Democrats gambled that if they chose the least offensive, most avuncular establishmentarian to lead them — a guy who could say “Do I look like a socialist?” and get America to concur that, no, Joe Biden did not look like one — they could leverage dislike for President Trump to win not only the presidency but the Senate. Meanwhile, they assumed they would build on their majority in the House to achieve overwhelming dominance.
What the Democrats understood is that Democrats are pretty much all the same under the surface. Once a “harmless moderate” was installed, the radicals would come out and boogie. Trojan Joe was selected to tell the voters he didn’t support the Green New Deal, even as his platform clarified that he essentially did. He was supposed to tell the voters that restoring “decency” was what the election was mainly about, even as his backers schemed to rewrite the political rulebook by destroying the filibuster, packing the Supreme Court, and making states out of Puerto Rico and D.C. He didn’t want Medicare for All, which would destroy the private insurance industry immediately; he merely sought a “public option,” which would do so gradually. And every time he futzed up a simple sentence or retired for the day at 9 a.m., activist Democrats licked their lips at the prospect of replacing him with the single most liberal member of the United States Senate, a woman of color whom several nonpartisan surveys ranked to the left of even Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Just as Biden secured the party nomination, the country was gripped by the pandemic, whose catastrophic effects allowed him to blame Trump for mismanagement, even though his own party’s disgust for the stigmatization of China and the hardening of our borders against the virus probably would have made matters worse.
The voters saw through all of this. If, as appears likely, voters have given Biden a narrow win, they have done two things: acknowledge President Trump’s personality and stylistic flaws while resoundingly rejecting the idea that it was time to implement the opposite of Trumpian policies. Unless the Democrats can grab both Senate seats in Georgia in runoffs scheduled for January 5, Biden would be a bandleader without musicians, an architect without builders. The country will have chosen to remove President Trump while asking that America otherwise continue on its present course, steady as she goes: no rethink of the energy industry, of health care, of capitalism, no vast new scheme to combat inequality, no federal bailout of the fiscally profligate blue states. The Democrats will have been given the presidency and warned not to do anything much with it.
This shouldn’t surprise us. The American polis does change over time, demographically and otherwise, but it doesn’t change much. Since the disastrous self-destruction of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency half a century ago, only once — or, arguably, twice — has the country voted to take a vigorous left turn. Both the Obama and Clinton administrations were born out of perceived economic crises, but in each case, as the economy recovered on its own, Americans immediately rejected the president’s opportunistic policies and brought in a Republican Congress to halt his agenda. Clinton was reduced to declaring “the era of big government is over” as Newt Gingrich seized the upper hand. Obama spent the last three-quarters of his presidency grousing about Republican obstructionism and using his vaunted pen and phone. These turned out to be more like an Etch-a-Sketch. Trump shook up the Obama presidency and largely erased it.
If he wins, Biden would be the first incoming president in 32 years to not have the Senate backing him (unless the Democratic Party should pull off that astounding feat in Georgia, in which case it would enjoy only the barest possible majority of 51–50, including the vice president). It appears that the Democrats will cling to power by a thread in the House of Representatives, whose moderate members are keenly aware that the party winning the presidency almost invariably suffers huge losses in the next midterm and who have been angrily denouncing the party’s radical wing for dragging them down.
A victorious Biden would be placed in the humiliating position of a largely ceremonial president. Which works out fine for him. He has never had the courage to fight for much of anything. He always wanted merely to be popular, not to push for anything in particular. The most notorious blowhard of the last half century in Washington would in fact be called upon to do what he does best — talk, talk, and talk some more. We could all look forward to a presidency as mighty as Delaware.