How did the Democrats end up with Joe Biden as their presumptive nominee?
After three years of preparatory media fire about diversity and change, and chumming the electorate with promises of free college alongside all the health care-they-care-to-eat, Democrats started with six women, a couple of black people, the gay guy, and progressive ideas ranging from the necessary to the kooky. The full list included 30 players.
They ended up choosing a candidate left over from 1958. Joe Biden is old, he’s tired, he lost the race for president twice already (once for plagiarism and once for lying about his education), and he appears to be in some state of cognitive decline. Between the hair plugs and the botox, he looks waxy, like grandpa putting himself out there for one last fling after Grandma Obama passed away, God rest her soul.
The Democrats’ entire premise is false. They misunderstood Trump’s election as a fluke if not an outright scam. This was sustained by a relatively small group of disconnected people who, through cancel culture, peer pressure, and the need to fill a 24/7 media vacuum, convinced each other they were right.
So when a mediagenic Hispanic woman won a nothing race with few votes cast against a sleepy incumbent in the ever-Democratic Bronx, they told each other they were right and AOC is the living proof. The echo chamber backed them up as they serially proclaimed new saviors, offstage The Squad, onstage Beto! and Pete, though Booker, Harris, Klobuchar, and others were granted mini-moments after a decent debate performance or some minor splash. Some call it the “pundit fallacy,” the belief that Americans are at heart progressives who just haven’t been educated to vote the way they really should.
The problem was that as soon as the actual people were allowed a word, it all fell apart. The primary narrowed quickly. White voters didn’t like the black candidates. Novelties like Yang and Steyer sucked up bandwidth and confused the electorate. Midwesterners were terrified of initiatives aimed at transgender, reparation, and illegal immigrant support blocs that existed only in the minds of those who read The Atlantic and The Nation. Everyone wanted better health care but very few agreed that a massive upheaval of our capitalist economic system was the way forward. The candidates went out of their way to ignore public opinion on these issues and alienate voters, especially purple voters.
Now quick, name a single Biden signature policy initiative.
The second to last man standing, Bernie, was artificial. Unlike everyone else in the field, he started with a pre-built organization, fully formed policies, and cash from 2016. He had a certain glow to him, having been treated unfairly in 2016, but that did not help much when there was no anti-Hillary vote to garner. But while initial power-ups allowed Bernie to survive, he never grew. Voter turnout did increase on Super Tuesday compared to 2016, but most of those new votes went for Biden. Bernie was the rock band still touring behind its only smash hit; the audiences are the same people who loved them in the ’70s, just older now, even as the size of the venues shrinks.
The process of elimination was nudged along by old-fashioned party power plays. Black voters were massed by local pols in South Carolina to come out for Biden. Someone behind the curtain (almost certainly Obama) made the calls to Buttigieg and Klobuchar and told them, as he likely did in 2016 with Biden to clear the way for Hillary, “kid, this ain’t your night.”
That’s how you end up with Joe Biden.
One writer called Biden’s success the product of the “politics of exhaustion.” This sees a Democratic electorate not anxious for change, but just tired of being tired. The unrelenting apocalyptic news cycle burned them out, and all they want is to put someone acceptable enough in charge. When Nancy Pelosi declared the morning of Super Tuesday, “Civilization as we know it is at stake in the 2020 election,” they had had it.
You end up with Joe Biden, running on three things: 1) he’s not Trump; 2) maybe he’ll die in office and his VP will take over early in his term; and 3) Joe’s cognitive decline appears slightly less severe than Trump’s. Not exactly “Hope and Change.”
Biden candidacy also means sweeping three years of Democratic messaging under the bed. The list of once-familiar subjects Joe won’t be able to talk about is a long one. Russiagate imploded on its own. Impeachment centered on Hunter Biden and ain’t nobody on the Democratic side gonna bring that up.
President Bone Spurs? Biden received five student draft deferments during the Vietnam War, same as Trump. In 1968, when his student status was wrapping up, Biden was medically reclassified as “not available” due to asthma. Yet in his autobiography, he describes an active youth as a lifeguard and high school football player. He also lied about being on the University of Delaware football team.
Trump’s naughty finances? After leaving the Obama White House, Joe and his wife made more than $15 million, mostly via sweetheart book deals. They made nearly twice as much in 2017 as they did in the previous 19 years combined. The University of Pennsylvania gave Joe $775,000 to teach, and then was nice enough to grant him indefinite leave of absence from actually teaching. Biden charged the Secret Service $2,200 a month in rent for a cottage on his property so they could protect him. Since leaving office, he’s made $2.4 million on speaking engagements, including $10,000 for travel expenses to the University of Buffalo. A speech at Southwestern Michigan in October 2018 included $50,000 in travel expenses.
Taxes? After failing to close the loophole with Obama, Joe left office to create his own S Corporation. As a result, he receives money for things like book advances and speaking fees not directly, which would cause him to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes as with salaries, but laundered as divestitures from a corporation he owns. As corporate money, nasty personal taxes are fully avoided, and the corporation can claim nearly unlimited “business expenses” to be deducted against those profits. Joe’s S Corp also donated his own money back to his PAC. Legal laundering.
Trump’s sexism and racism? Young people, Google “Anita Hill” now. You’ll be hearing a lot about her come the fall.
Biden represents to many Democratic voters that they will never see health care reform again in their lifetime (his comeback drove a $48 billion gain for health insurance stock; they know.) They also won’t see a woman president for who knows how many years. Income inequality will remain the salient characteristic of our society. To win, the 77-year-old Biden will have to break the record for oldest man sworn in as president (Trump holds the title now).
But Biden’s worst enemy heading into November will be low voter turnout. His opponent for Democratic votes will be Mr. Just Stay Home. That’s why those polls showing broad dissatisfaction with Trump are pointless. The Trader Joe Moms of Northern Virginia are never going to vote for Trump, but they just might vote for no one. There are ominous signs: polls for states Biden won on Super Tuesday, including Massachusetts, Texas, and several southern states that helped catapult the former vice president into front-runner status, found that young voters did not show up at the rate they did in 2016.
The black voters who saved Biden in South Carolina are notoriously fickle when it comes to turnout. Older Americans, who favor Trump, historically turn out at 30 to 40 percent higher rates than younger voters. The exaggeration of white privilege that became a cornerstone of the Democratic Party—whites are racist, opioid-soaked gun nuts—is also one of the reasons Democrats risk losing the 2020 race, as it leads inexorably to the devaluation of the very voters needed to clinch the Electoral College.
Biden’s new status triggered the mainstream media to drop any talk of the issues that have dominated their agenda for three years in favor of droning on about electability. It makes little sense. Why else vote for someone if not because he represents something you like? You want electability? Run a puppy. Biden represents the endpoint of the idea that anyone must be better than Trump.
That’s betting the whole house on one thin straw. It’s what happens when you settle for Joe Biden.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.