Joe Biden has taken a commanding lead in the Democratic presidential primary. It is far from over in mathematical terms, but it would take a drastic shakeup of the race at this point for Bernie Sanders to mount a comeback. His last serious opportunity will likely be the next debate on March 15.
For anyone who believes in any kind of representative theory of democracy, this is a baffling situation. Big majorities of Democratic voters report they want Medicare-for-all, and many even express favorable opinions of socialism. Yet they are voting for a candidate whose record is arguably the most conservative of any Democratic nominee since 1976. What gives?
One big part of the answer is watching Fox News in the White House even as we speak. Donald Trump blew a hole in American politics — and Joe Biden is strolling right through it.
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The first lesson Trump taught the Biden campaign is that there are now almost no standards for presidential candidates. Trump spews forth a constant firehose of scandal, corruption, and dishonesty that utterly dominates political media coverage. The mainstream political press at the best of times is extremely bad at prioritizing, but Trump has given it the attention span of a sugar-addled toddler. Stories that would have gotten weeks-long coverage a decade ago now get only a couple days, if that.
As a result, Biden has shrugged off several disastrous missteps that would have ended a campaign in the pre-2016 era. Recently he was caught making up a bizarre self-aggrandizing story (not the first time) about being arrested trying to visit Nelson Mandela, which would have been a major scandal in the press in previous ages. Indeed, Biden's first campaign for president imploded when he was caught plagiarizing a speech from British politician Neal Kinnock. But the Mandela fabrication got almost no attention — at least for the moment.
Even corruption in the Biden family has been largely ignored. As I have argued, Trump's attempt to get Ukraine to gin up a fake investigation of Biden over his son Hunter getting a no-show job was an impeachable abuse of power. Nevertheless, Hunter getting a $50,000-per month job he had no qualifications for was very obviously about trading on his father's name and position — the kind of corrupt logrolling that saturates the global plutocratic elite. And it's not just him — the FBI recently raided the headquarters of a company linked to Biden's brother James in an apparent embezzlement investigation. James allegedly promised "a large investment from the Middle East based on his political connections," and introduced the head of the company to Joe Biden, Politico reports. James got a large personal loan from the company, but the funding he had promised allegedly never materialized.
Of course, these stories pale in comparison to the Trump family. But as with Hillary Clinton's emails in 2016, the media's pathological commitment to balance will require them to treat the two candidates as more or less equal in a general election campaign.
Similarly, Trump and his know-nothing administration have destroyed prior notions about intelligence, competence, and expertise. Now, neither Biden's largely-atrocious debate performances, where he often rambled off on incoherent tangents, nor his continual garbled syntax at rallies and campaign stops, got much attention. The former vice president, whose entire public persona during the Obama administration was as a lovable gaffe machine, struggles to articulate a consistent and coherent stance on anything outside of a few rehearsed stump speech lines. Last year even on MSNBC and among other Democratic candidates there was wide discussion of the fact that Biden has very clearly lost a step or two mentally. But not now.
On the other hand, Trump has instilled a paralyzing fear of losing in November that makes Democrats overlook negative press. Democratic voters have long viewed trying to guess who will be strongest in the general election as basically the only important question in picking a nominee, and tend to assume that the more conservative candidate is inherently more electable — despite that formula failing in 1984, 1988, 2000, 2004, and 2016. (They do this in large part because the party elite has been making this argument continually for 40 years.)
So most Democratic voters either have not heard about Biden's scandals and problems, or just don't care. It effectively doesn't bother them that Biden is heavily implicated in every neoliberal policy disaster that helped Trump win in 2016, or that he tried on multiple occasions to cut Social Security and Medicare. The fact that he voted for the Iraq War, or that he blatantly lies about why he did so and when he turned against it, or that he has a long history of creepy behavior with women, or that he appears to be declining mentally, also cut no ice.
It is especially remarkable that these stories have gotten no traction given how they undercut the strongest case against Trump in a general election. Biden is a singularly non-credible messenger for the argument that people should vote against Trump because of his bad trade deals, or because he is accused of abuse of women, or because he has proposed to cut Social Security and Medicare, or because he is corrupt, or because he is plainly mentally unfit to hold office. If Biden is the nominee, Democrats will be forced to twist up arguments that Biden's bad characteristics or associations in all these areas are not as bad as Trump, rather than simply better.
And yet, that appears to be what is happening. Biden is not Trump, and cable news, NPR, and the Democratic establishment tells worried base voters that he will be strongest in November, so it must be him. End of discussion.
Now, Biden still could win the general election, especially if there is a big recession from the coronavirus epidemic. But even if so, the next president is going to have to handle multiple gigantic disasters simultaneously — climate change, cancerous inequality, and possibly a financial crisis and recession, all while rebuilding the entire federal bureaucracy from the smoking ruin Trump has created. Even in his prime Biden was an unproductive and undisciplined politician. Come 2024, the United States may be in for something a lot worse than Trump.
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