Joe Biden is a good bet for 2020, and Trump knows it
Weary Americans could well see the insider as a perfect escape from four years of drama
Former US vice-president Joe Biden at a campaign event in Dubuque, Iowa. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg
Aside from the likelihood that it was misattributed, Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity was always terrible advice. “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” is actually the definition of practice. A course of action can fail on one occasion and succeed perfectly well another time.
None of which needs saying, you think, until you see the left use the previous US presidential election as a case against Joe Biden in the next one. Some of their grievances with Barack Obama’s twice-elected running mate are well-founded.
Several women have complained of unwanted physical contact. Many others still resent the then senator’s one-sided handling of Anita Hill’s testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991. Biden also once had right-ish views on social issues, though why life-long philosophic consistency is an achievement, rather than proof of a cocooned existence, is not quite clear.
But all these grumbles trace back to a core one: Biden would be the party’s second establishment candidate in a row. He has worked in Washington for 44 of his 76 years. His habitat is the global summit, the legislative sausage-making back room, the corporate fundraiser. Even by the standards of the US’s constitutional gerontocracy, with its creaking politicians, its doddery judges, he would be an old president.
He is, in other words, everything that Hillary Clinton was in 2016: an insider in a rebel age, a fixture of the establishment that president Donald Trump defined himself against to such devastating effect. If an insider flopped last time, how can one succeed next time?
As with a mugging victim who avoids the same street ever after, the fear is natural but irrational. So harrowing was 2016 that some Democrats have allowed it to colour their judgment about 2020. Leaving aside the nebulous matter of likability – Biden, unlike Clinton, is popular – the next election will be structurally very different.
In 2016, Trump ran as an outsider. In 2020, he will have to run as an incumbent. Simply decrying his opponent as a creature of the swamp, when he himself has been immersed in the same gunk for four years, will not be quite as lethal.
The onus will be on him to identify what he has done – not said, but done – for working Americans. It is the populist’s eternal quandary: you can only be elected as an outsider once. Italy, Brazil and the US have shown that anti-system politicians can win. We just do not yet know if they can repeat the trick, at least without a hugely adjusted pitch.
The real danger is losing the 2016 election twice: the second time through overcorrection
Americans tend not to vote for several high-drama presidents in a row. After the first World War, they went for Warren Harding’s “return to normalcy”. After Watergate, they craved the well-meaning languor of Jimmy Carter. After Ronald Reagan, they chose George HW Bush out of two room-temperature candidates.
After the Iraq war and the crash, they elected Obama, who was – it is forgotten, so mock-heroic was his oratory – the safe option in 2008. (His opponent, John McCain, was a martial interventionist with an erratic running mate who bizarrely suspended his own campaign.)
Time for a breather
Precedent suggests this is what the US will want in 2020: one of its historic breathers, not an equal and opposite reaction to Trump. Exhaustion with Republican drama does not imply any enthusiasm for Democratic drama.
Democrats should anticipate not so much an angry electorate as a weary one, tired of upheaval, of falling out with friends over politics, of the politicisation of everything everywhere all of the time. A familiar establishment quietist, bipartisan to a fault – Biden befriended even the crudest reactionaries – could be an electoral asset, if only for one term.
“We saw how that worked out,” comes the liberal reply to anything that resembles Clinton’s candidacy. But a plodding campaign run by an aged insider, Nancy Pelosi, won the House of Representatives last November. The real danger is losing the 2016 election twice: the second time through overcorrection.
A breather is not something Bernie Sanders, the most left-wing candidate, or Elizabeth Warren, the most policy-rich, can offer, or would want to. And as keen as this columnist is on the advancement of men born in 1982, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg is too raw to guarantee voters a peaceful few years. There are principled reasons to favour these and other candidates over Biden. The electoral case is harder to see.
Trump seems to know that insider status will not be the liability in 2020 that it was in 2016. He tweeted against Biden no fewer than four times after he declared his run. That is not the mark of an unworried politician. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019