The Democratic primaries and convention could have produced a ticket of Turnip/Gonorrhea and I’d have managed to hold my nose and vote for it this cycle, but few things are more corrosive to a functioning democracy that voting solely against something — or someone. There be monsters if you follow that map long enough, whatever direction you travel. Once elections become exercises in punishing, “sticking it to”, or otherwise stopping the “other”, they eventually cease to be democratic exercises and instead, become warmups for the end of democracies…
So Why Biden?
We could do without a Dear Leader for a spell…
Borrowing heavily from Janan Ganesh’s excellent piece in the Financial Times 6 weeks ago —
The problem, in other words, is not Mr Biden’s failure to kindle passion in people. It is our psychic need for such a person in the first place. His election might reacquaint the US with politics as it should be and has been: a machine for the arbitration of conflicting claims, and not as the basis of one’s whole identity.
Governance should be boring — and in fact, with a few notable exceptions, it long has been. Perhaps the worst part of Trumpism — though, it is hard to pick just one — is the manner by which it views governance as the last ditch litigation of culture claims and a revanchist howl against a changing world. All Presidents and Presidential candidates — good, bad, or mediocre — attempt to evoke at least some hint of an aura, a new start (or, for some, a grasp at an old start made new again). The concept is a natural part of campaigning, as old as the Republic itself.
Yet, with the norms and guardrails badly in need of repair, 2020 is badly in need of a President whose main case predicates on a return to normalcy… a Presidency where “gaffes” are inconsequential oops rather than statements of purpose… where incrementalism is the plan, not something to be disdained as weak sauce, which leads to the idea that
Presidents should function as fulcrums…
With apologies to a golden age Simpsons episode, we don’t really need any Movementarians governing us and the fact is, we rarely have. Historical context is difficult to unwind; it’s often said that history is written by the victors, but this is only partially true. Dusty and forgotten — and sadly simplified beyond reckoning to soundbites, neat and tidy quotes, and apocryphal quotes — even the tempestuous, roiling periods of our history have been marked by Presidents, even the great ones, that recognize leading a nation (or more accurately, its executive branch) is less an exercise in boundary-pushing than it is a recognition that a large nation, growing ever-larger, ever more complicated, always faced with choices that are only seem more stark needs balance above all.
Abraham Lincoln lost a Senate election casting doubt on the survival of a house divided against itself, but won the Presidency agreeing that John Brown should hang and even promising to protect that division — waiting 2 years into a Civil War, much to the dismay of his own supporters, before planting the stake of emancipation that wouldn’t actually come to pass until his murder and two constitutional amendments later.
Social Security, the most lasting and impactful of liberal lion FDR’s New Deal programs, was considered weak sauce, a slap in the face to then-burgeoning Townsend Plan movement. By 1936, southern populists like Huey Long and northern progressives like the LaFollettes were already plotting his demise — the “Union ticket”, a poorly disguised Long vehicle, took 2% of the vote in dry-run preparation for a 1940 challenge that never came.
And speaking of Social Security? The Great Communicator cut his teeth on the Goldwater movement, still chasing the dream of repeal of Social Security in the 50s and 60s, damning the then-not-even-passed Medicare as the last domino to fall before the horrors of full-on socialism… Of course, Reagan’s Presidency included landmark legislation in 1983 that far from dismantling the entitlement safety net, bought it decades of solvency.
A Biden Presidency recognizes the fulcrum. Respects it. Works from it.
47 years is a feature, not a bug…
Perhaps as a consequence of our On Demand world, there has developed this mistaken impression that government exists to “fix” some obvious, eternal problem, as if it there exists a static world, with obvious answers and all-so-simple solutions. Reductionist foolishness.
A changing world requires ever-changing governance. Specific to tax policy/tax reform, this is one of my favorite (now ancient) pieces on such matters, and it’s hardly a liberal clarion call —
I’m not quite as cynical as Friedman, but he has a point. Tax reform is not an event but a process. You don’t have to like that fact to accept its empirical validity. Tax reform is a lot like cleaning out your garage. Just because you cleaned it last week, do you really expect that it will never need cleaning again?
So it is with most government policy. We don’t need to worry much about the viability of the buggy whip construction industry, but we might wish to ensure that lead paint isn’t used in nurseries, at minimum.
One item on Biden’s resume often discussed — and rather shamelessly humped by a man who bellows Lock Em’ Up whenever it suits him — is the now-infamous 1994 Crime Bill… Yet, often overlook is that the legislation passed the Senate 96–4. Then-Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders voted for it. So did then-Ohio Congressman Sherrod Brown… and 60s era Black Panther and Chicago congressman Bobby Rush. Nobody would mistake any of them for conservatives.
The fact is that the violent crime rate in early 1990s America was 3 times higher than it is today (Chicago’s homicide rate in 1992 was ~48 per 100k; today, it is about ~17 per 100k).
Good governance reacts to the world as it is; good governance recognizes its errors and corrects them; good governance avoids the binary choice; good governance seeks to find the elusive intersection of what is needed and what is possible… and understands that intersection changes, constantly.
Change or Atrophy…
Joe Biden is 77. Just as 47 years is more than long enough to make tactical mistakes on legislation, it covers an awful lot of history — if one wishes to hold elected representatives to account for laws authored years ago, it stands to reason we ought to hold ourselves to account for the societal mistakes of our own past.
Perhaps the most cringe-inducing element of Biden’s primary campaign was his hackneyed yearning for the comity and compromise of early 1970s America, namely, his ability to “work with” execrable racist James Eastland others. You could stack upon that his rather churlish reaction to former Nevada state rep Lucy Flores not appreciating a shoulder rub.
But then, women in power were sometimes unappreciative of unwanted shoulder rubs in recent memory, too. And James Eastland was being re-elected for a 5th time, by 18 points, the same time Joe was winning his first election. If you’ve learned your history by memes, you doubtless know that Robert Byrd was a former Klansman… and Strom Thurmond was still getting birthday kisses while he was an addled relic in the Senate at 100.
Joe Biden won’t be the leading edge of broader social change, but — see the fulcrum above, unfortunately — he probably shouldn’t be. Accepting the errors of the past, understanding that an awful lot of people in the country don’t see “getting along with segregationists” as a feature, and at least nodding towards the future is enough. Elections themselves are a poor substitute for such markers .
If Anita Hill can accept that, if Biden can ask the competitor who threw the sharpest punch on his 70s-era Senate comity nostalgia to run with him, he’ll do.
Because temperament matters…
As Oliver Wendell Holmes said of FDR, “a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament” — and perhaps more than anything, this is what the nation needs.
A President that seeks compromise with even those who might make those of us on the margins of any given issue blanche. A President that doesn’t see enemies in every shadow. A President practiced in delivering, frankly, half loaves because there’s no such thing as a free full loaf.
A President who doesn’t predicate governance on who was most obsequious in seeking assistance or dictate punishment onto those most loudly opposed.
Above all, an experienced creature of government that takes the right lessons from our shared history and acknowledges its mistakes, promotes its better angels, and sees the nuance necessary in divining the difference.
By design and hopefully — not a lot will change tomorrow. Nor will it next January. Existing problems will still persist, new problems will arise, and I fully expect a Biden/Harris administration to make mistakes aplenty.
A vote for Biden/Harris isn’t a solution to any of that. In a nation of 240 messy, sometimes ugly years, with 330 million people of all sorts, existing in a world forever churning — it’s a vote to accept that as our baseline and get to work.
And that’s more than enough in 2020.