The Biden Question

Perhaps because it is easy to spell and comprehensible even to toddlers, the word “sad” turns up often in our president’s tweets.

The word has lately become useful too in descriptions of the political scene in the Trump era. Here it is in a sentence: “It is sad that the question ‘why not Biden?’ has to be asked.”

The answers are so numerous and so obvious that in a happier political environment, no one would ever bother to ask.

However, in our political environment, it is urgent that the question be addressed, and that even obvious answers be made explicit.

This makes it easier to identify what actually is of interest in Biden’s entry into the 2020 presidential race.

For a start, remember the old saw, sometimes attributed to Einstein, that insanity is making the same mistake over and over, thinking, for no good reason, that the result will be different the next time around.

If the idea is to elect Democrats, then doing the same thing over and over isn’t always as much of a mistake as might appear; representatives of the party’s dead center do sometimes get their candidates elected, and the donors behind them do often get what they want.

However, for Democratic voters and others whose goals include halting and, whenever possible, reversing the rush towards nuclear and environmental catastrophes, advancing liberty, justice, and social solidarity on a domestic and international scale, and promoting democracy — governance of, by, and for the people – at all the interstices of social and political life, it is a different story.

For them, insanity is everywhere. It practically defines Clintonite politics. Biden would never have gotten anywhere without it.

It is convenient to call the ideology undergirding the past several decades of mainstream Democratic Party politics “Clintonism” – because Hillary and especially Bill have long been its best-known and most “transformative” proponents.

Its dominance has been, to put it mildly, sad.

Clintonism is an amalgam of neoliberal economic doctrines and liberal imperialist diplomatic and military policies. Also, Clintonites generally welcome neoconservative understandings of world affairs into the mix, especially with regard to Russia, the Middle East, and China. This is not only sad but also very dangerous in a nuclear age.

Clintonites are friendly to and supportive of the military-industrial-national security state complex, and the so-called “deep state” generally.

Following their namesakes’ lead, they are socially liberal, but also pusillanimous. Their inclination is to follow the general drift of public opinion, not to lead the way.

They are comfortable with, but not enthusiastic about, welfare state institutions that protect against the vicissitudes of life in capitalist societies. They would sacrifice them readily if they thought there was some percentage in it.

They like lightly regulated markets, but they are not dedicated free marketeers. They are more like the Eisenhower or Rockefeller Republicans of old.

Clintonites are nominally supportive of the labor movement in the way that Democrats generally are; and in the way that most Democrats also are, their default position with regard to organized labor is malign neglect.

Barack Obama was a thoughtful Clintonite, less bellicose than most. Hillary

Clinton occupies the opposite pole.

It is still too soon to tell what her effect on the party she led in 2016 has been. It is already plain, however, that she has made the theory and practice of Clintonism more retrograde than it used to be, and more reckless on matters of war, especially nuclear war, and peace.

The consensus view among many Democrats was that Hillary was owed the nomination; even so, running her for president was a mistake. Evidently, the party bigwigs either believed their own hype about how capable and experienced she was or since they, like everyone else, Trump included, thought that he was bound to lose, they didn’t much care.

By 2008, Hillary had accumulated plenty of “experience,” having logged a lot of time in places where power is exercised, but, unless setting the cause of universal health care back a generation counts, she had no real accomplishments to her credit. This should have been a clue that running her for president was not a great idea.

There were many more clues eight years later. As Secretary of State during Obama’s first term, she brought chaos, destruction, and death to nearly everything to which she devoted her attention – Honduras, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Georgia, Ukraine and so on.

She also empowered ideologically like-minded kakistocrat advisors like Victoria Nuland, Samantha Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter [“kakistocracy” means: rule of the worst, the least able, the most inept]; and, as if that weren’t bad enough, it was starting to matter by then that her married surname attested to an intimate connection to the political turn that made the Trump phenomenon all but inevitable.

During all the time she was messing up, Biden was ensconced upstairs, as Vice President – no doubt helping Obama draw up kill lists and deportation orders – but generally steering clear of the worst of what was going on.

But that was then. If Democratic bigwigs and donors get their way now, he will soon be making up for lost time.

Hillary is a rightwing Democrat or, to hear liberal pundits tell it, a “pragmatic progressive” or “progressive pragmatist” or whatever their favored euphemism happens to be. Biden is a rightwing Democrat too — they call him a “moderate” or a “centrist.” To distinguish him from Hillary and other influential Clintonites, it would be more helpful if they called him a “doofus.”

His schtick is not quite the same as hers; she feigns competence; he likeability. The differences are superficial, however – more cosmetic than substantive.

Insofar as the idea is to move society forward, their importance is nil. From that purview, going for him after her is about as clear a case as could be of making the same mistake over and over for no good reason.

At the same time, Trump’s awfulness is now better known and more widely appreciated than it was two and a half years ago. Biden would therefore have a harder time losing than Clinton did.

In other words, it is not impossible that Biden could defeat Trump the next time around. Just about any Democrat who doesn’t pull his or her punches too egregiously could.

But why court insanity by going for the worst of the two dozen or so choices out there when there is absolutely no need? You don’t have to be an Einstein to realize that that would be insane.


Corporate media have an answer for that. Biden, their story goes, can beat Trump; the others would have a harder time of it and, given what is at stake, caution is advised.

Ever since it became more likely than not that Biden would run, they have been pressing this case so relentlessly, and with all the resources at their command, that, no matter how blatant the insanity, it almost begins to make sense.

Many liberal Biden supporters will concede that their man is high on the list of Democrats who have been wrong about almost everything – from the criminal justice system, to the confirmation of Supreme Court justices, to the two Iraq wars and the never-ending war in Afghanistan, and on and on.

This side of Exxon Mobil executive Rex Tillerson and the peerless Mike Pompeo, it would be hard to imagine a worse Secretary of State than Hillary Clinton. But Biden’s knowledge, judgment, and temperament are worse; and he would have been even worse than she, had he, rather than she, gotten that office he so coveted.

Indeed, can anyone identify anything the least bit complicated that he has gotten right since he entered politics at the national level?

But just as Trump can withstand and even thrive on what would disqualify anyone else, Biden so far seems immune from criticisms that draw on a lifetime of miscalculations, slipups and gaffes.

And then there is that hugging and touching thing. Al Franken, a more worthy legislator by far, was done in by less, but somehow, so far, Biden has gotten away with that too.

The media make a big deal of the fact that he is currently ahead of other Democrats in the polls. There are obvious explanations for this that in no way show that he will be more electable than any of them when the time finally comes.

For one, he has been around so long that any one who follows that American political scene at all knows who he is; none of his rivals come close.

For another, he has come to be identified with the Obama administration, the idea of which, in the Age of Trump, conjures up notions of normalcy, a condition for which many yearn. Also many Democrats, especially if they are African American, continue to hold Obama and his minions in high esteem – for reasons that reflect poorly on their judgment, but that are nevertheless facts of (political) life.

Even so, with the primary elections and caucuses still months away and with most people therefore paying little attention, despite the almost frantic efforts of the Democrats’ media flacks, connections to Obama are enough to catapult Biden into first place. Barring the missteps to which he is prone, he will likely continue to enjoy this advantage for a while longer – even as the debate season gets underway.

There is also the idea floating about that, for Democrats, fielding a “centrist” or “moderate” is just common sense. It is indeed – in the way that staying bedridden while recovering from surgery or a heart attack is. This is not a unique case; hard evidence embarrasses plausible but unjustified intuition more often than one might think.

The reason that used to be offered for remaining bedridden was to avoid putting stress on damaged parts of the body. We now know that physical activity, properly controlled, actually helps the healing process.

The reason to run a moderate in 2020 is to pick up the votes of moderate voters – for example, disaffected 2016 Trump supporters who voted for Obama four years earlier, and suburban women who used to vote Republican. It is just common sense: voters to their left will stand by the Democratic candidate because there is nowhere else for them to go, while the targeted voters will add to the overall total of votes going to Trump’s opponent.

The fact is, though, that voters from the center to the left and even in the nearer regions of the right are attracted by boldness and courage – not careful calibration. Authenticity trumps cautiousness every time.

It is the same with impeachment. Nancy Pelosi, as calibrating a Clintonite as ever walked the face of the earth, is clamping down on Democrats eager to begin impeaching the mother-fucker as Rashida Tlaib delicately put it on election night, squandering an historic opportunity to disable the Trumpian menace by mobilizing the Democratic base.

Many of the legislators whose enthusiasm Pelosi is trying to suppress say that this was what they were elected to do. They are absolutely right.

As I have pointed out before, Pelosi’s concerns are well founded. But this hardly matters because, in the present conjuncture, with indignation over Trump’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” bubbling over, it is a mistake to try holding back the tide; it won’t work and it will do no one any good.

Then there is the claim that Democrats should make winning back older white workers in “rustbelt” states a top priority, and that Biden is good for that because, as a hardscrabble Scranton boy, he is, as it were, to the manor born.

In truth however, although he is indeed older and whiter than most of his rivals, his record on working class issues generally, and on the labor movement in particular, is straight out of the Clintonite playbook.

Count on workers having nowhere else to go, make promises as need be, but practice malign neglect. It worked for Obama; and if corporate bigwigs have their way, it will be Biden’s modus operandi too.

The Democratic Party establishment could hardly ask for more. Waking up what Isaac Deutscher called “that great sleeping giant, the American working class,” from its decades long slumber is the very last thing that they and their corporate backers want. For them and their fellow class warriors, Sanders and Warren are nightmares; with Biden as their standard bearer, they would be able to sleep well at night, secure in their power, privileges, and wealth.

But then, it isn’t really about whose arguments are sounder or whose narrative is more on point; it is about power.


This is why the moment Biden announced that he would run, corporate media threw all they have into his campaign, declaring him the overwhelming front-runner and the surest way in creation to send Trump packing.

They could hardly make him look like a political rock star, and they knew it. But they could claim that, as president, he could restore “normalcy” better than any of his rivals – not in spite of but precisely because of his Clintonite past and present. This was their best shot, and they took it.

Or rather they took it to imply that, of all his rivals for the Democratic nomination, he would be the most electable running against Trump.

Therefore, their sales pitch was just that Biden could beat Trump, that it was a sure thing, while the other two-dozen or so candidates in the Democratic field could only beat Trump maybe.

Thus, right out of the starting-gate their line was that Biden is a good enough, comfortable old shoe who would be sure to hand Trump a whuppin’, while any of the others could go the way Hillary did.

Then to seal the deal, at least to their satisfaction, all they had to do was point out that, given the stakes, any non-trivial risk at all is too much risk to incur.

Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, moved about as quickly as a man of his girth could to declare Iran the guilty party in the attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. John Bolton, ever on the lookout for a serviceable equivalent of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, was not far behind.

But the media onslaught for Biden was quicker by far. It is as if all the talking heads in all the liberal venues, having been chomping at the bit for months, bolted out of the gate faster than any racehorse could.

Trump is good at working his marks and keeping them on board come what may. But mainstream media are pros who know how to work the general public, not just the sad human specimens in the Fox News and rightwing radio talk shows demographic.

Their hidden, and not so hidden, persuaders are indispensable for keeping capitalist economies afloat, and for determining the boundaries between what counts as politically marginal and what is mainstream. Therefore having them on your side is no small advantage.

But having what the late Paul Wellstone called “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party” in motion and on your side is a greater advantage still.

Tragically, in Wellstone’s time, the Democratic Party really had no democratic wing; just a few lingering memories of progressive currents gone all but extinct decades before. Since his death, his party has only gotten worse since.

There was that “hopey changey” thing that centered on candidate Obama before the 2008 election and that lasted for a brief while during his first term. Otherwise, though, it has been years since the Democrats offered much of anything worth even being deluded over. How sad was that!

But then came Trump and the reaction to Trump, and now a democratic wing is rising at last. Let’s call it the AOC wing – not because she is the only one in it, not by any means, but because she is the only one who is as widely known as Joe Biden, and because, like him, she epitomizes the political current of which she is a part.

Ridding the body politic of Trump and Trumpism is the principal political task of our time, just as ridding the world of fascism was in the popular front period decades ago.

The danger was so great then, and the need so urgent that, in Europe and elsewhere, Communists and anarchist and other bona fide leftists and liberal anti-fascists made common cause.

Ridding the Democratic Party of Clintonism, even as leftists and Clintonites fight Trump and Trumpism together, is no less complicated in the short-term and of no less importance in the long run.

Now, like eight or nine decades ago, the immediate danger and the longer-term conditions for its possibility must both be addressed. Insofar as this entails dealing with contradictions, then so be it; the contradictions are not fatal. It can be done.

Needless to say, if Biden really were the only Democrat who could beat Trump, or even if he had a better chance than the others, it would be a different story.

But just the opposite is the case.

If any Democrat could lose to Trump it would be because he (inevitably it would be a he) represents the politics that gave us Trump and Trumpism in the first place, and because dealing with the increasingly deleterious consequences of that politics in the ways Democrats have in the past, is a non-starter. It didn’t get us anywhere worth going in the past, and it certainly will not be any more salutary now.

To think otherwise is insane.

And that, in short, is why not Biden.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).