If Donald Trump loses the White House to Joe Biden in November, one thought is liable to disturb his sleep ever after. No one has gone to such extreme and impeachable lengths to dig out the former vice-president's ethical liabilities. And yet no one has done more to make them appear so banal.
Had the US president not contributed so lavishly to the debasement of public life, Biden's fabulist tendencies might disturb more voters than they seem to. So might the vexed question of his son Hunter. As it is, neither kind of baggage is weighing down his surge in the Democratic primaries.
Biden’s success shows us more than the higher bar for scandal since 1988, when a part-plagiarised speech and some puffed-up anecdotes were enough to end his presidential bid.
It also tells us to question the much-billed death of the political centre.
[How did Joe Biden turn his campaign around? Washington correspondent Suzanne Lynch talked to foreign editor Chris Dooley about the Super Tuesday primary results. To listen, click here]
Looking back, these have been an underrated few years for what we used to know as "the third way". It was with a non-ideological campaign that Democrats won the House of Representatives in 2018. The breakthrough star of the primaries has been the former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, a difference-splitter in policy with an emollient tone.
If the centre has had a problem, it was not the lack of an audience so much as its fragmentation among a superfluity of candidates. The narcissism of small differences being what it is, politicians have run on behalf of the centre-left (Buttigieg), the left-centre (Amy Klobuchar), the dead centre (Michael Bennet) and, in Beto O’Rourke, a hard-to-place personal following. As some of these hopefuls stand down and support Biden, the non-radical vote is congealing. Its awesome size is becoming unmistakable.
And so too is its breadth. Now that black and rural voters have helped to save Biden’s hide, I hope we can dispense with the idea that moderation is a narrowly elite taste, attributable to a vested interest in minimal social change.
Populists of left and right often pretend to a unique connection with the masses. This can tip into a certain nostalgie de la boue, in which the less privileged are patronisingly credited with special virtue. As a reminder, though, the globalist New Democrats won Kentucky and West Virginia in 1996. Barack Obama took Indiana in 2008 and Iowa in 2012. And over the past week, Biden, whose network of contacts reads like the Bilderberg invitee list, has won Arkansas, Oklahoma and every county in South Carolina.
There is no automatic tension between tepid, managerialist views and membership of “the people”. If anything, voters whose livelihoods are on a knife-edge have the most to lose from dramatic change. It is the coastal higher orders who have viewed Biden’s candidacy as a frightful bore since its declaration almost a year ago.
Being creatures of narrative, my profession inferred from the shocks of 2016 – Trump's victory and the vote for Brexit – a lasting crisis for the global centre. Contrary events, such as the election of President Emmanuel Macron in France, or the US midterm elections, did not dissuade us. Perhaps the only thing that ever would is the elevation of a pre-2016 retread, a lion of the Senate foreign relations committee in the globalised heyday, to the world's grandest office.
For that to happen, Biden still has to see off his Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, then Trump, and along the way his own demons: the meandering verbosity, the vote for the Iraq war, the signs of age that – not to be macabre about it – put a large premium on his choice of running mate.
A revolution deferred
To keep the left from splintering, or sitting on their hands in November, he must also persuade them that theirs is not a revolution denied so much as one deferred. He can try warranted flattery: Sanders has moved the centre to the left, even if he has not beaten it.
Biden might yet flunk one or all of these challenges. But something about him makes more sense in 2020 than in 1988 or 2008. True, it is futile to gauge “the” mood of a nation when that nation is more than 300m-strong, mosaical in its heterogeneity and peppered across a continent. But one feeling does seem to recur: exhaustion. It is unclear that Americans want an equal and opposite reaction to Trump, at least for the time being. The latent demand is rather for a few years of quiet.
In 1988, Biden expounded his theory that the presidency oscillates between radicals and those who “let America catch its breath”. Thirty-two years later, in those five words, he has a potential campaign theme that is unimaginative, uninspiring and, perhaps, unbeatable. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020