Notwithstanding the meaninglessness of early polling, the central message of former Vice President Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign has been that he is the best hope to win against Donald Trump. He also says that he will return America to the decent, sane, and most importantly normal world that Barack Obama and Biden handed off to Trump in January of 2017.
It is difficult to overstate the centrality of that message from Biden and his team. He frames his entire campaign around the idea that Trump uniquely threatens America’s democracy and even decency—a claim that happens to be terrifyingly true yet ignores what the Republican Party has become over the past generation, Trump or no Trump.
The Biden message is: Pick me, I’m okay. Even Biden’s wife has managed to make the most uninspired case for her husband, saying last month:
Your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, health care, than Joe is, but you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election, and maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, “OK, I personally like so-and-so better,” but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.
So the message is to “swallow a little bit” and admit that Biden is not terrible. Hmmm. Might things have been a bit tense at the dinner table that night?
My purpose here is not to challenge the electability mantra that forms almost the entirety of Biden’s campaign message. To be clear, I find that argument to be at best unprovable wishful thinking and at worst utter nonsense. Again, however, that is not my focus in this column.
Instead, I want to consider the downside of the Biden-is-the-only-electable-candidate argument from the standpoint of how history might play out if he actually is nominated and then wins. Maybe we will return to normal, but it is very possible that we will not and that things will become worse under his presidency.
The Possible Post-Trump American Political Landscapes
I should start by saying that I continue to believe that Trump will never voluntarily leave the White House, no matter what happens in the 2020 election and even if he is impeached and convicted (a possibility that now seems less remote than it did even a few days ago). Every day brings more evidence that he will claim that a loss next November or in an impeachment proceeding will be Fake News and the result of a deep-state conspiracy that he must resist. He thinks that he is the Chosen One, and it might well require force exercised by duly empowered law enforcement officers to evict him from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But suppose that I am wrong. We need to ask what would happen next, if Trump is gone and Biden replaces him (either by Biden beating Trump in 2020 or, in the case of impeachment and conviction, by beating Mike Pence or whomever the Republicans nominate). It might very well not be pretty.
This look into a dystopian crystal ball is in the spirit of two of my previous Verdict columns, one imagining an alternative universe 100 days into Hillary Clinton’s presidency and the other peering into a similar universe shortly after a super-shellacking for Democrats in the 2018 midterms.
In both columns, my purpose was to say that the Democrats would have faced calamitous results of a Clinton presidency—not because of any fault on her part, but because Republicans and the press (along with far too many Democrats) conspired to turn her into a she-devil who would have been vilified for everything that she did and did not do.
Although I was strongly in favor of Clinton in 2016, therefore, I was realistic about the likelihood that the apocalypse that Trump portends was going to happen anyway, merely a few years down the road (and ending with a completely destroyed Democratic Party to boot).
Here, I am similarly suggesting that the Biden Restoration period could possibly go very, very badly for the Democrats—worse, in fact, than if they nominate one of the supposedly less electable candidates. This is, I confess, an easier argument to make from my standpoint because the evidence so clearly leads to the conclusion that nearly any Democratic will beat Trump solidly in 2020. But I digress.
It is important to distinguish between two categories of bad futures even after a Democratic win next year. The first category includes all of the ways that things can go badly for any President that are not within her or his control, from terrorist attacks to natural disasters to scandals.
While those surprises sometimes end up benefiting an incumbent—even when the incumbent himself is largely responsible for the “surprise” (see especially George W. Bush’s exploitation of the bin Laden attacks even after ignoring intelligence warning that such attacks were imminent)— they can also go very badly (most prominently including the Iranian hostage crisis that sank Jimmy Carter’s reelection chances in 1980).
The Economy and the Next President
The most likely bad external event that would politically damage any President is, of course, a recession. It is easy to imagine a recession making the life of the winner in 2020 miserable, and it is also easy to see a recession in our near future. After all, the current recovery is historically quite long in the tooth, and there are plenty of signs that a recession is looming, with the bigger question being whether it will happen in time to harm Trump next year.
Let us even imagine that the next recession kicks in before next November and that it contributes to Trump’s defeat. That most definitely does not mean that Trump’s slayer would escape the political damage caused by the weak economy that she or he would face after being inaugurated.
After all, Barack Obama inherited from Bush an economy in utter freefall, and even though Obama was very much a big part of the reason that we did not experience a second coming of the Great Depression, the 2010 midterm losses by Democrats were absolutely tied to voters’ sense that the President’s party must be punished—even though it was congressional Republicans who worked tirelessly to make sure that the economy did not recover as quickly as it should have.
It is possible, therefore, to imagine that Trump loses (and, less imaginably, that he accepts his loss) but that anyone who replaces him will suffer the consequences of the policies and volatility of the utterly erratic Trump presidency when the economy inevitably crashes. Sometimes, life is unfair.
The Uniquely Biden-Related Future Democratic Debacle
None of that, however, has anything uniquely to do with Joe Biden. Any candidate—from Biden to Elizabeth Warren to Beto O’Rourke to Marianne Williamson—could be a one-term President if the economy or other nearly-impossible-to-control factors unluckily turn against them.
Biden’s return-to-normal message, however, presents possible problems that few if any of his Democratic challengers would likely experience. Those problems in substantial part (if not in their entirety) derive from Biden’s bone-deep commitment to not rocking the boat.
What would Biden do in response to the recession that I discussed above? The best guess is that he would do what his bestie Obama did in 2009, which is to try to get Republicans to join hands with him and say, “We’re in this together. We all have an interest in ending this horrible downturn, so let’s fix it as Americans and not as partisans.”
Not only do we know how that turned out, but we know that there are enough Democrats in the Senate whose default instincts would be to play the Biden minimalist game. Only if the next President wins by claiming that we need to do things differently will it even be possible to prevent so-called moderate Democrats from saying, “Oh, gee, a stimulus? I guess, but let’s not be too ambitious about it.”
Too cynical? Maybe, but it is worth remembering—as longshot candidate Michael Bennet, a Democratic U.S. Senator from Colorado (himself no radical), recently reminded us—that Biden completely gave away the store to the Republicans during negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” at the end of 2012. Even worse, Biden hails that negotiation as a big win, when in fact he held all the cards but managed to give almost all of them away by the time he was done.
That tendency, moreover, will infect Biden’s potential presidency even if he manages to avoid a recession. His every move during his career suggests that he—just as, to be fair, many people of his generation of Democrats—simply lacks the confidence to believe the simple reality that the American public strongly supports the Democrats’ position on nearly every issue.
Anyone who lacks the courage of (what might or might not be) his convictions is not going to be a reliable negotiator against any opponent, much less an intransigent Republican Party that is united against “Socialist Joe”—as they will surely (and absurdly) call him. I am not saying that Biden has a non-liberal voting record, but I am saying that he has shown no appetite at all for playing hardball. Neither, I should add, did Barack Obama (no matter what other positive things one might say about him).
Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of a possible Biden presidency (or, as Biden wants us to think about it, a third Obama term), however, is its effect on the people who will determine the future of American politics, that is, young people.
As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently argued persuasively:
The under-30s, maybe under-40s, are underwhelmed by Biden, even angry that this honorable man has not chosen dignified retirement. He’s the emblem of the permanent political class, the one that created the conditions for Trump, in an era that Trump’s wild policy lurches and heresies and, yes, lies have now transformed.
This is not solely a warning that Biden’s supposed electability might well be a chimera. It is true that young people might simply turn off to an election between two septuagenarians, refusing (as they did in 2016) to buy into the idea that the “the alternative is simply unacceptable.” The Democratic Party will win big next year if its voters are turned on, but it might lose if the energy is sucked out of the election by Dr. Jill Biden’s advice to “swallow a little bit” to vote for her decent-but-in-no-way-inspiring husband.
Again, I am willing to accept for the sake of argument that this problem will not prevent Biden from winning next year. My point, however, is that simply winning is not enough to prevent things from going very badly after Biden wins.
What could go wrong? The Democrats will need people to remain engaged in a post-Trump world in which the political earth is being scorched on a daily basis. When Biden gives ground on every issue even before negotiations begin, what will people do?
As one prominent example, we can go back to Jill Biden’s admission that “your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, health care, than Joe is, but you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election.” Suppose Biden is nominated and wins. What then?
Even if a President Warren, or a President Sanders, or a President Harris could not actually deliver a Medicare-for-All plan in the face of Republican intransigence, we know that they would not only try but that they would be perceived as having tried.
By contrast, Biden will be perceived as embodying the politics of “Maybe we shouldn’t try” that was the sad counterpoint to Obama’s inspiring “Yes, we can.” If he is not seen as a serious fighter who did not immediately cave—or, a la Obama and Bill Clinton, to negotiate against themselves even before sitting across a table from Republicans—Biden will lose a generation of voters forever.
The larger point is that any Democrat is going to have a hard time upon becoming President in January 2021, and any of them might preside over a crash by their party in 2022 and 2024. Biden, however, seems likely to default into nearly every bad habit among Democrats that has allowed Republicans to succeed beyond their wildest obstructionist dreams.
Along the way, he will alienate his party’s future. Young people have no interest in Republicans or especially Donald Trump, but they can tune out and stay home exactly when the world will need them to be fully engaged. Joe Biden is a nice guy, but his instincts to disappoint the people who want to believe in him are the last thing Democrats will need after 2020—even if they manage to get Donald Trump to accept his inevitable loss at the polls.