As thunderbolts crash around him, Joe Biden is facing an urgent question: What exactly is the rationale for his presidential candidacy?
The answers given by Biden sympathizers usually are rooted in character and personal history. Here is a decent man who has lived long and seen a lot, through setbacks and tragedy, and knows enough to understand and defend the timeless virtues that are so absent but also so needed in modern Washington. Late in life, the man and moment are in harmony at last for a heroic final chapter.
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The hope is that voters will embrace Biden as a kind of American Churchill.
The past 24 hours raise, not for the first time, a more painful possibility: Grampa Simpson is running for president.
“There’s not a racist bone in my body,” Biden bristled indignantly on Wednesday evening. But that wasn’t the primary concern about a 76-year-old’s paean to his youthful past, in which conscientious senators like himself supposedly could work productively and with “civility” even with segregationists like James Eastland and Herman Talmadge.
The concern, as articulated by his Democratic rivals and a wave of harsh online commentary, is that Biden sees contemporary America through a distorting haze of nostalgia, that his values and assumptions were shaped by the last generation or even the one before that, that after many years in public life he still lacks the self-awareness or self-discipline to wonder whether modern voters will find his vagrant ruminations about the past as interesting or relevant as he does.
There is a lot of space between Winston Churchill and Abraham Simpson, and a fair reading of his career probably doesn’t place Biden at either pole. What’s more, there’s a decent chance the uproar over Biden’s stroll down memory-fogged lane will burn out in a day or two, just like an earlier uproar over how he made some women uncomfortable by being too handsy and familiar.
If so, this surely will reflect a familiar dynamic: A lot of Americans don’t give a damn about the momentary preoccupations of the media and political classes, and have a natural aversion to anything that looks like a pile-on.
But even if the horde moves on from this episode some of the strategic vulnerabilities it exposed will remain, to be exploited by opponents if Biden doesn’t close them first.
The essential point Biden seemed to be making with his discursive remarks about Senate civility between opponents is that he could usher in a return to norms of decency and functionality that have frayed over recent decades and been shredded entirely in Trump’s Washington. Progressive activists typically think Republicans have proved amply that they aren’t operating in good faith and it is folly to try to seek common ground with them. But there is some logic behind Biden’s appeal: A CNN poll in late April found that 77 percent of Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents think it is a top priority to have a nominee who is “willing to work with Republicans to get things done.”
There were a couple of big problems with the way Biden put it. One, the notion that Dixiecrats like Eastland or Talmadge represented civility, with their intransigence against civil rights and (in the case of Eastland) public use of the n-word, is highly suspect.
Two, in political terms, the notion that an older politician can restore the lost virtues of an earlier age has not exactly proved to be a winner. “Age has its virtues,” Robert Dole asserted as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination, offering himself as a “bridge to a time of tranquility, faith, and confidence in action.” Bill Clinton’s reelection team couldn’t believe the gift Dole had handed them and spent the rest of the campaign saying Clinton wanted to “build a bridge to the future,” not the past.
As Clinton knew, throughout history the great engines of American politics are generational change and ideological ferment. Often these two are harnessed closely together, as younger leaders and their supporters confront new problems and reject the premises of an earlier era.
This doesn’t mean, obviously, that older people can’t get elected president. But they typically must find a way to find the fountain of political youth even in a context of advanced chronological age. One way to do that is by offering oneself as the leader of an ideological movement. This is what Ronald Reagan, age 69, did in winning the presidency in 1980, and it is what Bernie Sanders, age 77, hopes to do this year. The other way older people spring to power is by offering their seasoned characters as perfectly suited to the moment, as Churchill did in wartime England upon becoming prime minster at age 65 and as Dwight Eisenhower in winning the presidency in 1952 at the (old by prevailing standards then) age of 62.
Biden, during 48 years on the national scene, has never had an especially strong ideological profile: He’s been a reasonably centrist Democrat for all of them. When he has deviated it was usually in right-leaning directions, as with his opposition to forced busing ing for integration in the 1970s or his support for expanding crimes covered by the death penalty in the 1990s.
This history means that the most likely answer to the “why Biden” challenge will rest on character. The evidence of the past couple days—redundant to evidence amassed over several decades—is that if voters are going to embrace Biden’s character they must also embrace or overlook his penchant for the cringe-worthy remark. And realize that often the most cringey remarks will flirt with racial themes.
The shower of criticism from the likes of Democratic nomination rivals like Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California and New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio has not accused Biden of racism but of cluelessness.
And Biden’s remarks did in some ways seem reminiscent of a holiday dinner in which some aging relative who would never think of themselves as racist gets to holding forth after a few glasses of sherry. (“You know, Aunt Beulah, I understand your point but some of those terms you use are not really acceptable in contemporary usage.”)
This is not a new phenomenon—nor, Democrats have concluded in the past, an unforgivable one. It was in January 2007 in which Biden offered what he meant as a compliment to Barack Obama by saying: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” And it was in August 2008 that Obama, in part seeking precisely that bridge to establishment Washington that Biden represented, selected him as his party’s vice presidential nominee.