Whatever you think of the boatload of Democrats already running for president, or the bold and sometimes politically daft policies they aim to enact after defeating Donald Trump, at least most of these candidates recognize that something significant and transformative happened in American politics back in 2016.
If the video with which Joe Biden launched his own campaign is any indication, this is not the case for the early frontrunner. And that points to a potentially important divide in the Democratic Party — and perhaps in the country at large as well.
Did Trump’s victory in the Republican primaries and general election (together with Bernie Sanders’ remarkably potent Democratic primary challenge to Hillary Clinton) mark a pivot point in American politics, with the country entering a new, angrier, anti-establishment era of tabloid-driven nastiness that requires an equal and opposite populist response from the Democrats? Or have the last three years been an anomaly — a terrifying hallucination that’s discontinuous with American history and recent social, cultural, and economic trends; and from which the country can and should strive to awaken, with the status quo of the past several decades fully restored?
For most of the launch video’s three-and-a-half minutes, the white-haired, 76-year-old Biden stares straight into the camera as stately piano plays and cinematic strings swell behind his weathered voice, retelling the story of the neo-Nazi march and deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia during the summer of 2017, and of how President Trump responded to it by claiming there were “very fine people” on both sides.
This, Biden tells us, is when he knew that the country faced an unprecedented “threat” and pledged to wage a “battle for the soul of this nation” that has now become a campaign for the presidency. Trump’s first term has been an “aberrant moment in time.” But if he manages to win four more years in office, it will alter who we are as a people. “Everything that has made America America is at stake.” That’s because the country is “an idea” that includes the promise that we give “hate no safe harbor.” Biden’s campaign will take a stand against it by helping us to “remember who we are” — and above all that “This is America.” Cue the Biden campaign logo.
It’s a powerful spot. But it’s also a striking expression of complacency — a promise that a Biden presidency would be devoted above all else to returning the country to precisely where it was four years ago, as if little of great consequence had transpired in 2016 and since. The four years of the Trump administration would be bracketed, cordoned off, quarantined, treated as an inexplicable fluke of fate, a toxic detour from America’s wholly admirable moral mission and destiny in the world — to serve as a beacon of freedom and democracy, a light to the nations, a force for peace, prosperity, and goodness for all men and women of good will. The Trump era is a fever dream, and Joe Biden is just the medicine we need to heal and rouse us from the night sweats of our national nightmare.
This is a message tailor-made to appeal to the likes of James Comey, Bill Kristol, Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin, Robert Kagan, Donna Brazile, Bret Stephens, Neera Tanden, Tom Friedman, David Frum, Anne Applebaum, David Brooks, Fred Hiatt, Madeleine Albright, and a few dozen other center-right and center-left pundits, journalists, and policy intellectuals. It’s the distilled essence of the Washington establishment’s high-minded view of the country, its history, and itself.
America, this establishment believes, is fundamentally righteous in its aims and an indisputable force for good around the globe. Its economy is the greatest engine of human prosperity, progress, innovation, and empowerment the world has ever known. Our foreign and domestic policy may need to be tweaked, but not in any significant way. We’ve stumbled from time to time, but we’ve always righted ourselves in the end. As long as men and women of decency and gravity — like those deposed by Trump on the right and threatened by the Sanders insurgency on the left — are returned to their rightful place at the helm, all will be well and what Alexis de Tocqueville memorably described as our national penchant to applaud ourselves can resume as if nothing much had happened.
The question is whether this self-satisfied and contented view of the country and its leadership over much of the past several decades will have enough mainstream appeal among rank-and-file Democrats and within the electorate as a whole to prevail over the anti-establishment alternatives. Biden certainly isn’t the only candidate to think it will — at least to judge from the (thus far) platitude-heavy campaigns of Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg.
Yet because each of those candidates is several decades younger than Biden and also far less deeply entrenched in that establishment, they are able to combine their own relatively complacent approach to retail politics with selective gestures toward more sweeping change. The Biden campaign, by contrast, shows every indication of intending to use the candidate’s name recognition and good will among older voters, built up over decades in public life, to bypass the potentially risky policy bidding war among the other candidates, each one of whom is desperate to pick up support from the party’s multitude of left-leaning interest and activist groups. That could enable Biden to sail right over the policy scrum, leaving his campaign well poised to cultivate a broader appeal — namely, to Americans whose only strong political conviction is that Donald Trump is morally distasteful.