Is Joe Biden the Konrad Adenauer of the U.S.?
Why Democrats should take comfort from the example of another old centrist who built back better
Historical analogies are a tricky thing, apt to give one an unwarranted confidence in one's ability to foretell the future. I'm not the only commentator to have wondered, for example, whether Sen. Bernie Sanders' loss in 2016 was a repetition of Ronald Reagan's loss to President Ford in 1976, presaging a new left-wing majority after the predictable failure of the Trump administration, a comparison that reached peak plausibility right before the South Carolina primary this year heralded its rapid disintegration.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the candidate who marched from victory to victory thereafter, and who is now both the Democrats' standard-bearer and the substantial favorite to be the next president, has never felt like a very satisfactory choice to those Democrats who were yearning for an inspirational and transformational figure. Some mainstream liberals are already fantasizing about a Kamala Harris presidency, while the left is pinning its hopes on progressive stars in Congress to hold Biden's feet to the fire, both phenomena that the Trump campaign has used, so far ineffectually, to scare moderates away from the Democratic ticket.
But I don't believe Democrats chose Biden simply out of risk aversion. I believe he spoke to another deeply felt desire. And there's another historical analogy that may help elucidate why an elder statesman and longtime veteran of the center might inspire enthusiasm right now. It just doesn't happen to be an American one.
Konrad Adenauer was the first Chancellor of West Germany after World War II, taking office in 1949 and serving until 1963. He was 73 years old when first elected, and came to be known as "Der Alte" ("the old guy") for his longevity. Indeed, at 87 years old when he left office, he remains the record holder as the oldest head of government of any major country.
Adenauer was in many ways a bridge figure, which is how Biden often describes himself. As a key leader in the Weimar-era Catholic Center Party as well as the founder of the post-war Christian Democratic Union, he was a bridge from the past to the future, a visible sign of continuity. As the Catholic founder of a party explicitly designed to be both Christian and non-sectarian, embracing both Catholics and Protestants, he helped bridge a religious divide that had long bedeviled German history, and that had been one fault line undermining the Weimar experiment. And as a fierce Atlanticist who had been fired by the British authorities in Cologne for being insufficiently deferential to the occupying power, he was able to anchor the new West Germany in an unequivocally Western orientation and as part of NATO without being regarded as a quisling.
If Adenauer was a bridge figure, though, he was one that left an extraordinary and lasting imprint on his society. Adenauer inherited a country devastated by war, in physical ruins, and considered a global pariah state. He left it an emergent economic power and the linch-pin for NATO's strategy of containment. Adenauer's significance to modern German history is hard to overstate, and "build back better" is a pretty reasonable approximation of his program.
That's one reason I thought of Biden. But Adenauer makes a particularly interesting analogy to Biden precisely because he was not a triumphant figure. He was not a leader of the resistance to the Nazis — he never joined Hitler's movement nor participated in a Nazi-led government, but he mostly kept his head down during the Hitler years and was imprisoned only twice during the Nazi era, both times briefly. He was a conservative, centrist, consensus-oriented politician. His claim to be able to revive the German nation and restore the German state rested on the fact that he knew both so well for so long. It was precisely that quality that enabled him to change so much while also preserving so much.
I think that's a great deal of where Biden's appeal comes from: the recognition that precisely because we need to change so much, we need to provide palpable assurance of continuity. America isn't digging out from the rubble of firebombed cities, but both our cities and our forests have been burning. The coronavirus has done extraordinary damage to our economic and social fabric even as the Trump administration has crippled and discredited much of the federal government. To many Americans, the past four years, and especially the past seven months, have felt at times like a war, an especially uncivil one. Even among those who argue for radical change, I believe there's a sense of exhaustion with the non-stop high-stakes combat of the Trump years, and a recognition of how much work of basic restoration is needed for America to function as a country, which it must do for there to be any chance of making it a better one. Meanwhile, even among those who desire nothing so much as a return to normalcy, I believe there's a greater awareness that the old normal is no longer tenable.
There's another aspect of the analogy to Adenauer, though, that may feel more unsettling to some. As well as being the man who rebuilt West Germany and anchored it in the camp of Western democracies, Adenauer was the leader responsible for the end of denazification. Many historians have criticized Adenauer's administration for welcoming back to society people who had served Hitler's regime, in the name of both a return to normalcy and of focusing on anti-Communism. But on a purely political level, Adenauer's strategy worked, fostering a strong sense of recovery and social cohesion at the price of a corrupt bargain with the old regime's ghosts. It fell to the generation of 1968 to finally exhume and confront the crimes of the Nazi past, an effort that was notably successful precisely because it grew out of the new democratic Germany that Adenauer had helped birth. It's not an accident, I think, that the main stronghold for the Alternative für Deutschland party, the country's new right-wing nationalist party that has sought to lift the stigma of the Nazi era, is in the former East Germany, which underwent a very different and less-successful kind of denazification under Communist rule.
America has not been suffering under Nazi rule any more than it has suffered devastating defeat in war. But I suspect many people — both of the left and of the center — are hoping for the "detrumpification" of America: for corruption to be exposed and prosecuted, and for mainstream Republican leaders to be forced to confront their collaboration with a malevolent regime. In that regard, I think Biden's inclination is likely to disappoint by being more similar to Adenauer's. He'll try to bring as many people back into the fold as possible, rather than purge those tainted by association with Trump's administration.
Whether that proves similarly wise depends greatly on the behavior of the opposite party, whether they seize the opportunity to truly put the past behind and focus on the future. Adenauer had the allied armies at his back and the Soviet army before him, both powerful inducements to the West German people to put their heads down and get to work. Biden has nothing analogous working for him. Moreover, unless Trump's illness takes a turn for the worse, it's likely he will still be around and tweeting even if he loses and departs the White House without incident. Regardless, his dispensation will not have suffered the kind of total annihilation that made it possible to lay the foundation of a new Germany. It will merely have lost an election. That's something to be profoundly grateful for, but also imposes something of a constraint on any successor.
Nonetheless, I take more than a little comfort from Adenauer's example when I look forward hopefully to a Biden administration. There may be more life left in "the old guy" than either his supporters or his opponents imagine.