Last week I offered a critique of a Joe Biden candidacy that centered on the idea that “he is looking backward at a time when we need to move forward, and he is inviting the Democratic Party, and the American public, to move backward with him.”
I stand by this argument; he offers too little, beyond nostalgia, at a time when much is called for.
But there is one question I did not sufficiently address: “what if Biden, weaknesses and short-sightedness and all, still is the strongest possible Democratic candidate, and the one most likely to be able to defeat Trump? Doesn’t he then deserve support?”
This, after all, is the claim most often made by those who are not died-in-the-wool Biden fans: that if anyone can “man up to” Trump, it is Biden (a corollary of this, also often claimed, is that Biden is the rival that Trump fears most, because he knows this). Now this notion, too, is laced with nostalgia, for a time when the Democratic party was a party led by or at least centered on hardy, white, “blue collar” (or at least seeming-blue collar) men, the kind of men who, like Biden, could threaten to take Trump out behind the schoolhouse and kick his ass.
There is real appeal in this fantasy of Trump, the ultimate bully, getting his comeuppance.
There is also a real machismo in it, no doubt the source of its appeal for some (and I’ll confess, I too would like to kick Trump’s ass). But not for others. Because while it might be pleasing to see Trump beaten at his own game, as it were, there is something unseemly — and also sexist in the most juvenile of ways — about the game. For, appearances to the contrary, political contention is not the Jerry Spring Show, especially if the goal is to get something constructive done. And there is something patronizing about the notion that women need “uncle Joe” or “regular Joe” to protect them (tell that to AOC or Ilhan Omar — about whom Biden has been strikingly silent [Never-Trumper David Frum thinks Biden’s silence is wise; I think such wisdom is overrated]).
More to the point, the real question is not who can best talk trash to Trump, but who can best lead the Democratic Party to victory in 2020, where victory means winning the presidency, but also consolidating or extending gains in the House, and making advances, or at least not suffering further losses, in the Senate.
Biden’s real “claim” to the nomination is that he is the man for the job, because he is the “favorite,” the “frontrunner” with name recognition and White House experience; and because he has a “blue collar appeal” — not unrelated to his gender — that might help him to retake the Midwestern states that gave Trump the election (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin).
This idea is hardly preposterous. Biden is genuinely popular among some of the “traditional” constituencies of the Democratic party, especially among many older voters, but also among many African-American voters. As Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy recently pointed out in the New York Times, the Democratic electorate is less progressive than many progressives might like to imagine; or, in their own words, “The Democratic Electorate on Twitter is not the Actual Democratic Electorate.” Vox’s Matthew Yglesias put this even more succinctly, “Progressives should worry more about the odds that Joe Biden will win.” Sean McElwee is one progressive who does worry about this:
The problem is that progressives are overestimating how much this [the allegations of touch — J.I.] will hurt him. I see Biden as the Democratic Trump. He has a pretty strong lead in the polls. He’s not really someone who anyone in the party elite is most excited for. Everyone just sort of believes that all this baggage he has will ‘hashtag’ cancel him from the race. Maybe. Possibly. But the governor of Virginia also had a blackface scandal, and no one talks about that anymore.
I consider myself to be a progressive in this sense, someone who finds Biden’s candidacy, and his “agenda,” neither compelling nor inspiring. But if he truly is “the Democratic Trump,” does this mean that he might be best placed to win? And if so, while this might surely disappoint progressives, I would submit that such disappointment should loom less large than the conviction that it is essential to beat Trump. In short, progressives should take seriously the possibility that Biden might prove himself to be a very strong candidate in the primary as well as in the general election. The possibility is real. And should it become an eventuality, one can only hope that in the Fall of 2020 progressives will unite behind the Democratic nominee, even if it is Biden.
But this cannot be known now, and all the talk about Biden being “frontrunner” or “strongest with the traditional base” is nothing but speculation combined with hype and nostalgia. For he has not yet even announced. And, even if he does announce, the road from April 2019 to the Democratic convention in the summer of 2020 is a long and tortuous one. If Biden runs, he will have to prove himself in a crowded field.
At the same time, while the race really is up for grabs, and Biden, should he run, will have to demonstrate that he has the appeal that his supporters claim he has, there are two good reasons to doubt that his entry at this point would be a good thing for the Democratic party, and to worry that it would be a bad thing.
The first is simple: it would be very divisive for the party. There is an obvious rejoinder to this: how can a primary contest that already has almost 20 competitors be rendered “divisive” by the addition of just one more? But this rejoinder ignores the fact Biden is not “just one more.” He is the former Vice-President, who played the same “will he, won’t he?” game in the runup to 2016, commiserating in public about a challenge to Clinton in ways that annoyed many women with good reason; who exerted little leadership and less vision since Trump’s election, while the party experienced both a significant grass-roots mobilization and a genuine shift to the left; and who now acts as if he can leapfrog over candidates who have worked very hard for the past two years to resist Trump, and be the “savior” of the Democrats by reminding us of how things were before any of the mobilization took place.
That is divisive in a big way. It is offensive to the current candidates, and especially those Senators who have exerted real leadership while Biden enjoyed retirement, and to their campaigns and supporters, which are in some cases substantial. It would thus be both divisive and deflating. And elections are not simply or even primarily about voters. They are about campaigns — about the cadres of activists and volunteers who will work to get out the vote.
And this leads me to my second reason: while a Biden candidacy might appeal to some, mainly male, “Obama-Trump voters” in the Midwest, it likely would not appeal to the newer constituencies that compromise the most mobilized parts of the Democratic base: women, especially African-American women, and millennials. It would also do nothing to mobilize what some political science colleagues, writing in the New York Times, called “The Missing Obama Millions.” As they write:
We would hardly urge Democratic strategists to abandon Obama-to-Trump voters. However, Obama-to-nonvoters are a relatively liberal segment of the country who have largely been ignored. They are mostly young and nonwhite, and they represent an important part of the Democratic Party’s demographic future. Given the likelihood that many Obama-to-Trump voters will remain in Republican ranks, it is hard to imagine how Democrats can win elections if this group remains on the sidelines.
The Democratic party needs to excite and mobilize these constituencies. And it is doubtful that Biden can do this. Drawing upon a recent survey by Sean McElwee’s Data for Progress, Eric Levitz has argued that “Joe Biden May Be Less Electable Than He Looks.” Of course, the crucial word here is “may.” For he might also be more electable than he looks, or than many of us think. We can’t know. And so it is important to be clear: Biden is a decent man with a respectable, if also flawed and in some ways disturbingly conservative, record of public service. He is no demon or demagogue; he stands for fairly mainstream Democratic things; he surely has a “right” to run; and he is hands down superior to Trump. It is thus important to keep the criticism of him within a sense of proportion. Because he could turn out to be the Democratic nominee, and in that event, it will be very important to support his election, however disconcerting or unenthusiastic this might be for some of us.
At the same time, precisely because he was Vice-President for eight years, in an administration that failed to press a progressive agenda in ways that are even clearer now in retrospect than they were at the time, he deserves more criticism than the other candidates. And he surely deserves no special deference or respect, especially from people on the broad democratic left, who have every reason to advance a progressive agenda and to believe that such an agenda, if battle-tested in the primaries, and properly promoted and mobilized, can carry the Democrats to victory in 2020. Are Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy correct in claiming that “ The Democratic Electorate on Twitter is not the Actual Democratic Electorate?” Perhaps. And perhaps some might regard this as a reason to welcome a Biden candidacy. But electorates are not collective actors with entrenched identities and preferences. They are aggregations of voters, whose dispositions and preferences are influenced by the flow of public discourse and by the mobilizational strategies of candidates, party leaders, and “opinion shapers.” Eric Levitz powerfully made this argument last week in New York Magazine, in a piece titled “For Democrats, Twitter Is Not Real Life. But It Could Be.” Some have accused him of extolling “elitism.” But this is mistaken. He simply points out what most political scientists have long known, at least since the writings of Joseph Schumpeter and Robert Dahl — that political elites, and counter-elites, play an essential role in the evolution of party agendas and the framing of “public opinion.”
The Democratic “base” is very heterogenous. One of the most interesting and exciting things about the politics of the past two years is that progressive elites, and progressive publics, have successfully expanded Democratic policy discourse and mobilized voters around this expanded policy discourse. The support of most of the current Democratic contenders for major health care reform (whether Medicare for All or something close to it) and some kind of Green New Deal are signs of this. The explosion of innovative tax and banking reform proposals advanced by Warren, Sanders, and others, is another. The enthusiasm for major voting rights and electoral reform is a third. There is currently a great deal of entrepreneurial effort being expended by top-tier Democratic candidates to develop distinctive ideas that can help to “brand themselves” and strengthen their electoral chances. This is good for policy development and especially for voter mobilization—and there are vast untapped reserves of non-voters out there waiting to be mobilized.
I am not arguing here that any particular Democratic candidate or policy theme is best-suited to accomplish this. I am simply arguing that the energy of the past two years has been a good thing, and the primary contest is beginning to generate some excitement, and it is quite likely that a Biden candidacy would rain a gigantic cold shower on this excitement.
And so I hope Biden stays out.
If he decides to enter, his weaknesses will be exposed, and his candidacy will be challenged. And maybe he will prevail in the primaries, and maybe he won’t. And we can only hope that the outcome of the contest will be a Democratic party strong enough, and unified enough, to defeat Trump and the Republicans in 2020. For what David Remnick has said about Trump cannot be repeated too often: “His reelection would have a catastrophic effect on the rule of law, liberal democracy, the values of tolerance, and the baseline of decency in American life.”
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is a Senior Editor at Public Seminar, and his book, #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, was recently published by Public Seminar/OR Books.