Since tossing his hat into the ring a few weeks ago, ex-Veep Joe Biden has taken an envious lead ahead of fellow Democratic Party contenders such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Kamala Harris. Contrary to my own predictions that he would bow out of a race that was looking increasingly inhospitable to conservative Democrats, Biden has contrastingly launched to the front of the race by being an easily identifiable, wholly establishment figure, with recent polls putting his lead above Sanders at around 15%-20% (although in recent days this lead has very slightly narrowed).
Biden’s impressive entrance into the nomination race has led to increased deliberations by more progressive candidates to ensure their agenda stays at the front of the campaign for the White House. As The New York Times’ Astead W. Herndon notes in an editorial published on Thursday, the left flank of the Democratic Party “are up against not only those who dismiss their policy goals as unrealistic, but also a perception in some corners of the Democratic electorate that defeating Mr. Trump is paramount – and that that goal is somehow at odds with embracing disruptive ideas or structural policy change.” For a race that has been up till now characterised by candidates clamouring to adopt Sanders-styled policies, Biden’s entrance as a heavily establishmentarian candidate has noticeably shifted the emphasis of the debate by promising “a return to normalcy”. While I will be going into more detail about Biden’s campaign in later posts, I wanted to present a few thoughts on why I believe Biden’s campaign, which is, currently, very thin on policy and very heavy on Obama-era nostalgia, is a doomed strategy that will only intensify negative public feeling over the social and political inequities of American life that led to Trump being elected in 2016, and will guarantee that the President gets re-elected in 2020.
The twin messages of the Biden campaign are that Trump is aberrational, and that the American people want to return to the normality of the Obama era. The Atlantic’s David A. Graham summarises his campaign’s approach by stating that
“Biden is running on open nostalgia. He wants to take the country back, all the way to the dim and distant days of 2015 or so, when the Obama administration he served in ran the country and Trump was merely a punch line.”
With this in mind, I want to make the following point clear before I continue: I think there is much about the Trump Presidency that is aberrant and needs to be condemned and, hopefully, reversed. I despise his “American Carnage” approach to social order and immigration and his crass comments on refugees and other disadvantaged groups. I also feel that his deeply unpleasant views on women and minorities, and his disturbing dalliances with white supremacist movements, are very troubling signs of an America that is becoming a little too comfortable with authoritarian politics. Furthermore, the underestimated intelligence of white supremacist elements, and their ability to code their messages into respectable channels of mainstream debate, needs to be strongly challenged, both in the U.S and throughout the Western world. Pretending that this isn’t a real cultural, social and political threat is not a viable option.
However, to watch Biden run his campaign on the aberrant nature of Trump rings a few alarm bells for me. While it’s essential to ensure that we learn lessons from atrocities like Charlottesville, I can’t help but feel that the reason that certain candidates so intensely adopt this kind of strategy is because they lack an inspiring policy message, which so far, Biden has demonstrated. In contrast to a widely echoed narrative within mainstream media circles, it is a false dichotomy that candidates have to choose between embracing a restoration and appreciation of American civic values, or embracing identity politics qualities, and proposing substantial policy. Candidates such as Warren and Sanders have been demonstrating this for months since starting their campaigns. Certainly in comparison to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Sanders, Biden’s campaign has been neglectful on a policy level (with the one exception of his unveiled education bill on Tuesday), and has instead focused on a kind of feel-good wish to return to Obama-era normality. In looking at the kind of campaign that Joe Biden seems to be gearing up for, the prospect of a gleeful, unbridled embrace of the same neoliberal economics, and a disregard for the same political and social inequities that led to Trump being elected in the first place, is completely bizarre as a political strategy. While many would disagree by citing his substantial lead in the Democratic nomination race, this strategy of playing down policy and gambling on projecting a rosy, Obama-era nostalgia of an America without Trump feels too vacuous, and will likely lead to him being very easily portrayed as a gate keeper for elite interests in a general election against Trump.
Furthermore, there is a definite sense that the Biden campaign isn’t even trying to hide its establishment colours and Republican-lite approach to policy. While candidates like Warren and Sanders have sworn off taking money from big donors, Biden has been courting them – with some of his donations coming from GOP donors who are invested in stopping progressive measures such as Medicare for All. In comparison to the numerous visits made by other candidates in the early primary states, Biden has avoided the press as much as possible. As The Washington Post’s Henry Olsen notes, “The former vice president’s late entry into the contest has been followed up with what can only generously be described as a languid effort. A couple of events in early primary states, a couple of minor interviews with reporters and a few private fundraisers.” Furthermore, while Warren has tirelessly toured around Iowa in recent days and made a campaign motto based around her adoption of substantive policies (“I have a plan for that”), Biden’s piecemeal policy positions on climate change has drawn the ire of star progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who view his approach as detrimentally “‘middle-of-the-road’”. In addition, Biden’s embarrassing refusal to discuss his plans on healthcare only underline this. When asked during a visit to Iowa City about his plans, he responded that he didn’t “have the time” to completely lay out all the details.
While recognising that it is still very early in the race, Biden’s mixture of dragging his feet on policy detail and his conspicuous embrace of high-level financiers fits comfortably with a candidate who will almost certainly disappoint the more progressive sections of Democrats who have spent the last two years trying to move the party to the left. However, if I were to be less generous, it’s hard to see Biden as anything other than the epitome of the classic, smooth-talking yet woefully disconnected, big donor establishment Democrat who can look at the inequalities of life in the U.S and say there really isn’t any major problems facing the average American, as he infamously and dismissively stated regarding millennials. If Biden ever clinches the nomination, no amount of Obama-era nostalgia funnelled out by his “light on policy, heavy on emotion” campaign is going to change that, and he is almost doomed to struggle with the same establishmentarian narrative that Hillary Clinton faced, and the same depressed turnout she encountered among Democratic voters that cost her those crucial votes in the swing states. And this is the crux of the matter. Proposing to run on a painfully uninspiring campaign platform, as a gleefully establishment candidate, in a time that is crying out for real change, is a pretty woeful strategy, and shows that so many moderate or right-wing Democrats have learned absolutely zero lessons from Clinton’s defeat, or are just hoping that Biden can pull off what she failed to do without having to sacrifice any ground.
Overall, a major reason why Biden feels like such a poor choice as the prospective nominee for 2020 is his campaign’s refusal to recognise the salient reasons why Trump became president, namely the need to restore some modicum of balance to the diminishing opportunities of American life in a country desperate for a hopeful social and political message. Overcoming the ugly, white nationalist tendencies of sections of Trump’s support is absolutely essential, but aiming merely to return to a faux-restorative, uninspiring candidate like Biden is near-offensive in the face of the seismic calls for change that Americans looked for in electing Trump. Certainly, an uncomfortable truth for Democrats is that the one thing Trump’s election to the White House did, that was wholly unique in modern American politics, was that it opened up the possibility of disrupting the status quo and changing the fundamentals of how politics works for everyday Americans. More than any other Democratic candidate by quite some measure, the one certainty Biden would bring as nominee is putting to rest the possibility of substantive change of any sort. The reason Biden is focusing so heavily on Obama-era reminiscences over meaningful policy, and why he is so clearly favoured by major financiers of the Democratic Party, is that he acts as a Band-Aid to the heated, popular discussions over adopting progressive, substantive policies that the party has been teeming with since Trump was elected. Certainly for many in the more moderate flanks of the party, Biden being defeated by Trump on a piecemeal policy platform is a better outcome than Trump being defeated by a candidate who proposes radical policy promises that will challenge their own power and interests. Luckily for them, on the current strategy Biden is pushing, there is little chance he will get anywhere close to beating Trump.