If Democrats Won’t Dump Biden, They Should At Least Keep Him Out of Sight

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Spring has sprung, but instead of renewal we have another year or more of social distancing and preposterously incompetent national leadership ahead of us, along with an electoral circus in which the greater evil party’s presidential candidate will yet again be the bastard off-spring of Roy Cohn and Norman Vincent Peale, a snake oil salesman who is making the corvid-19 crisis a lot worse than it could otherwise have been. Meanwhile, barring a miracle, the lesser evil party will be putting its worst food forward, fielding Joe Biden.

They sure picked a fine time to outdo themselves, choosing a standard-bearer who, even more than Hillary Clinton, embodies all that is wrong in the mainstream, corporate Democratic Party fold.

Also, while no one doubt that Clinton still has all her marbles, Biden’s mental acuity, never anything to boast of, is plainly in decline.

He has a woman problem too that the MeToo movement has so far taken pains to ignore, but that is bound to haunt him or them or both. Needless to say, in this, as in every other despicable regard, Biden doesn’t hold a candle to Donald Trump, but even so.

On the plus side, though, he will probably empower competent people to run the government and chances are that, for the most part, he will let them have their way. Some, perhaps many, of the people he will empower are bound to be less politically retrograde than their empowerer.

The worst president in modern times before Trump, George W. Bush, appointed some competent people too. Unlike the loony tune calling the shots now, he seems to have had enough self-awareness to know his own limitations. If only Dick Cheney had not selected himself to be Bush’s vice president, institutionalizing his role as an evil éminence grise, Bush might have done considerably less harm than he actually did.

Also, on the plus side, with Biden for a standard-bearer, there won’t be any of that “hopey-changey thing,” as Sarah Palin called it, begging to be disappointed. Disappointment with charismatic leaders can be debilitating. No one can accuse Biden of being charismatic.

When Biden’s current Best Friend Forever, Barack Obama, was setting voters’ hearts aflutter in 2008, hope for change was irrepressible in large segments of the population. What that meant was never close to being clear, but it hardly mattered. Obama frustrated expectations anyway, liberating “the darker angels” of viewers in the Fox News demographic and others of their ilk, and putting Republican legislators, hostile to anyone less reactionary than themselves and determined to do America’s first African American president in, on the warpath upon which they remain to this day.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Obama is now on a fast track to beatification in mainstream Democratic Party media circles and in the hearts and minds of befuddled anti-Trump voters. Go figure!

In a slightly less obtuse possible world, those voters would be more cognizant of the harm that the neoliberal and liberal imperialist politics that Biden embodies has been inflicting upon the country and the world for the past four decades or more. For them, therefore, steering clear of Obamaphiliac nonsense – averting one’s gaze, as they say — would be indispensable for maintaining mental health in much the way that social distancing has become necessary for keeping the Trump-exacerbated COVID-19 pandemic from harming and killing more people than it already has.

However, in the actual world, where people who should know better deem Biden more “electable” than, say, Bernie Sanders, everyone intent on sending Trump and his minions packing should be doing all they can to convince Democratic Party potentates of the wisdom of keeping people from dwelling on what Biden says or does.

If ever there was a time for Party leaders to divert attention away from their presidential candidate, this is it.

If they have any sense at all, their guiding principle now should be to encourage voters to rage against Trump, to give the contempt his antics elicit free rein, while “nudging” potential Democratic voters to don a veil of ignorance before reflecting upon or even paying attention to the antics of the bozo who, thanks to their own malfeasance, will have to win in order for Trump to lose.

That imaginary veil must be porous however, because while ignorance may sometimes be bliss, it can also be disabling.

It is important to keep an eye on Trump too, not because anything he says or does merits respectful attention, but because it has consequences.

Biden is not nearly as given over to vileness and nonsense; not by a longshot. But this makes dealing with what he says and does trickier than it is in Trump’s case.

Nothing Trump says warrants being taken seriously on the merits, but then it would be hard to take him seriously in any event, inasmuch as he contradicts himself repeatedly. The rapidity with which his express views change, sometimes one-hundred-eighty degrees, can be, and often is, mind-boggling.

Biden, on the other hand, is consistent over long stretches of time, and his express views are not too awful in their own “moderate” way. When he takes over from Trump, as he very likely will, it will be reasonable to expect that, when circumstances are conducive, he might sometimes be prevailed upon actually to say and do things that merit support.

Ideally, instead of bleating non-stop about the need for party “unity,” Democrats, realizing the error of their ways and still possessed of at least some of the sense they were born with, would now be hard at work figuring out how to exchange their party’s presumptive nominee for another, better “moderate” — if that is what it must be.

Sadly, that is what it must be inasmuch as the party honchos and donors who still run the show, having beaten back the Sanders insurgency, are not about to throw in the towel, even if they were somehow to come to their senses in time. They worked too hard to get Biden to where he now is for that to be a psychologically tenable option.

But they could at least keep him as much out of sight as they possibly can. The more “socially distant” Biden remains, the more hunkered down in his basement bunker, the less obvious his goofiness and creeping senescence will be.

In the weeks and months ahead, Democrats of all stripes should do all in their power to make the coming election a referendum on Trump; not a contest between him and a doddering doofus. They can count on Trump to help them with that, but, in the end, it is up to the Democrats themselves and their media flunkies to do the necessary damage control.

I would not count on that, however; Democrats, after all, are inveterate losers. Even so, it will be harder for them to defeat themselves this November than it was four Novembers ago. For that good fortune, the world has only Trump himself to thank.

With that blowhard becoming more ridiculous with each passing press briefing — each pitiful display of buck-passing and self-aggrandizement and, when others get to speak, of base and servile sycophancy — even were the covid-19 virus to disappear overnight and the economy suddenly to rebound, and even were Biden now to go out campaigning in full public view, he would still likely come away from the election with enough Electoral College votes to dispatch the Donald once and for all.

This because covid-19 has put Trump’s sheer awfulness into such sharp relief that not to see it requires more than the willful blindness that, in the pre-pandemic era, enabled some forty percent or more of the electorate to follow his shenanigans and not be appalled.

With the pandemic raging, Trump’s awfulness has become a good deal more salient than it used to be. This ultimately undisguisable fact should bring out more anti-Trump voters than Republican governors and state legislators can feasibly suppress, no matter how much enthusiasm Biden’s banality and Clintonite politics stifles.

Even within the bowels of the apparently unshakeable Trump base, among the sad sacks and lost souls who delight in their Leader’s heartless amorality, imbecility, and narcissistic machinations, there will likely be defections aplenty between now and November. As the bodies pile up and the house of cards economy he still boasts of falls apart, there is no way, even for the most cunning propagandists on earth, much less the dimwits on Fox News, to prevent that fro happening.

But why tempt fate?

Democrats are good, after all, at losing when victory is assured. They did it in 2016, and now, fielding a candidate for president even more godawful than the one they ran before, it is hard to be confident that they won’t do it again.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, when all else fails, as it surely will if it hasn’t already, there is always a chance that their weapon of choice, voter suppression, the last resort of scoundrels in a duopolistic electoral system like our own, can save the day.

The danger was evident for all to see in the April 7 Wisconsin primary, as the GOP put the full extent of its depravity in plain view — with a preposterously gerrymandered Republican led legislature, a Republican dominated state Supreme Court, and Republican Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court blocking efforts to delay the election and even to facilitate voting by mail, so that citizens would not have to put their lives and the lives of those around them in mortal jeopardy in order to exercise their right to vote.

Republicans did that just to reelect a Trump-endorsed conservative, actually reactionary, state Supreme Court Justice named Dan Kelly. He lost! Hallelujah. Let Trump process that in what passes for his mind.

But Kelly could well have won; the next time and the time after that, the good guys may not be quite as lucky. Moreover, with Republicans willing to put the lives of Wisconsinites – black, brown, and younger ones especially – in mortal jeopardy just to elect one miserable retrograde judge, imagine what those miscreants, and their counterparts in other states will be up to in November.

How did we get to this point? Culpability doesn’t just lie with Trump or with Republican legislators or with the voters who put them in office or even with the plutocrats who bankroll the GOP. Democrats are guilty too, guilty as sin; Barack Obama most of all.

It isn’t just that the “hopey-changey thing” blew up in their faces, though that is part of the story; and it isn’t that Obama is a bad person, though one has to wonder about someone who blatantly toadies up to Wall Street, who was fine with drawing up lists of persons to assassinate in the post-9/11 wars he waged, and who earned the epithet “Deporter-in-Chief.”

The main problem was that Obama was putty in the hands of “the donor class,” and no match for Republicans intent on preventing any good from coming out of his presidency.

For him to have justified any “hopey-changey” longings, he would have had to overcome a level of GOP obduracy that seemed sometimes to rise to the level of the sublime; and he was simply not up to the task.

In classical German aesthetics, “sublime” designates the incalculably and inimitably great. Unlike the beautiful, which gives rise to pleasures of a certain sort and exalts the mind, sublimity, through its sheer enormity, incites feelings of terror and awe.

Obama and his advisors also did much to damage themselves – by effectively anticipating some of the mistakes that Hillary Clinton and her team would go on to make in 2016, when they decided to shower traditionally Democratic white working-class voters, especially older ones in de-industrializing regions of the upper Midwest, with malign neglect, the better to win over well-off, traditionally Republican and “independent” suburban voters appalled by the drift towards know-nothing vulgarity that Republicans have been perfecting for decades, and that Trump has ratcheted up to extraordinary heights.

And so, the 2010 election was a disaster for Obama, even more than the 1994 election had been for Bill Clinton.

Not being timid in the least, but determined instead never to let any exploitable advantage pass, Republican legislators and the newly elected Governor, Scott Walker, at the time a gleam in the eyes of the Koch Brothers and other hyper-reactionary plutocrats, launched a wholesale “spring offensive” against public sector unions.

The result in Wisconsin, in Madison especially, was of a piece with several contemporaneous but ultimately failed ventures in North Africa and the Middle East (the Arab Spring) and in southern Europe (Syriza in Greece, for example, and Podemos in Spain).

The Capitol in Madison was held and occupied by workers, students, and many others for several weeks, setting off similar protests in other de-industrializing, upper Midwestern states where Republican governors and legislators were following Walker’s lead.

At that point, Walker might well have been recalled, but the Wisconsin state constitution prevented an immediate recall election, the rule being that an elected official had to serve at least a year before a recall election could be held. From a (small-d) democratic point of view, better that than no recall elections at all, as in the U.S. Constitution, for example. But the year-long delay was enough to deflate the spirit of rebellion.

It might as well be a law of nature: in insurgencies, those who stall are lost. Obama along with other stewards of the status quo demonstrated that in 2011 and subsequently, as they waited out the Occupy Wall Street movement and the many Occupy movements modeled on it, before moving against them. With the 2012 general election looming and about to suck up all the political energy around, they didn’t have long to wait.

The events in Wisconsin augured what would come. While the State Capitol was occupied, Obama and the leaders of the national party had almost nothing to say, and when a recall election could finally take place, the president couldn’t be bothered to do more than send a tweet or two of support for the Democratic candidate just before Election Day.

Even while soliciting donations from plutocrats in neighboring Minnesota and Illinois, he never set foot into Wisconsin to campaign. He could have made a difference too; because, he was – and remarkably still is – held in high regard in African American communities in and around Milwaukee. Then, as now, for Democrats to win in the state, a large African American turnout is indispensable.

And so, Walker won and went on to remain in office until 2018 when Wisconsinites were finally able to elect a Democratic governor again. In the meantime, the Republican war on organized labor continued, as Republicans did all they could to serve the interests of the plutocrats who fund them, and to wreak havoc on the state’s progressive traditions and institutions.

Among other things, they gerrymandered the hell out of Wisconsin’s legislative and Congressional districts, and they stacked the judicial system with retrograde jurists of the kind beloved by Mitch McConnell and similarly iniquitous like-minded Republican muckety-mucks.

They also did all in their power to deepen and extend their grip upon the state — even to the point of legislatively diminishing the power of the state’s executive branch, just before the new Democratic governor, Tony Evers, assumed office.

Republicans have demonstrated time and again that they will get away with whatever they can. They are vicious and relentless. Democrats will do as little as they can; they are pusillanimous. No wonder so many of them like, or at least don’t actively despise, Biden. They are birds of a feather.

Biden got where he now is not by enthusing anyone, but just by running on the fact that, among his many bad choices, Obama picked him to be his Vice President.

Obama made that mistake mainly to set the collective heart of the plutocracy at ease, paving the way for his election. He did it too because the two of them were, and still are, politically compatible.

But they are very different people. For all his many shortcomings, Obama is smart, thoughtful, and cautious; he can sometimes even be wise. Hillary Clinton is a lesser Obama in these respects; had she not lost to Trump, we would have had in effect a third Obama term, more poorly run than the first two, but basically no different. Biden isn’t even up to that.

If only the Democratic leadership would realize thes and reflect on its implications while there is still time. Biden at the helm during a plague year; Biden leading an economic recovery; Biden, who has never been right about anything, leading the so-called “free world.” Better that than Trump, needless to say; better by many orders of magnitude. But the prospect is horrifying, even so.

Now is therefore the time not just to intensify and expand the struggle against Trump and Trumpism, but also to plan for the necessary struggle against Clintonian-Obamian politics that, in some poorly executed version, will inevitably follow Trump’s defeat.

That would mean taking Biden on, perhaps not overtly right now, but militantly and in a principled way when the time is right, as it surely will be long before the pandemic we are now living through becomes an historical memory.

The new normal that is already beginning to take shape is bound to be very different from the normal of just a month or two ago. It seems almost criminal to squander the opportunities this unexpected turn of events presents, and it is foolish to think, now especially, that it is even possible to go back to the way things were before the Trumpian menace struck and the virus attacked.

But this is precisely what the effort to elect Biden is about. Sanders, it seems, would have those of us who thought that we could do a lot better than Biden act on the maxim that “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” That is what he himself did in 2016 with Hillary Clinton, and he is back at it more enthusiastically now with his “good friend Joe.”

How much more sensible it would be to make the best of a very bad situation not by joining the (less) bad guys, the Bidenites, but by supporting the less bad alternative when and insofar as doing so seems warranted — as it will in those, presumably rare, situations in which the consequences of doing otherwise are too dreadful, too Trumpian, to contemplate — but only then, and even then by keeping whatever support one offers minimal, principled and critical.

This is not an enviable posture to have to assume, but, as with the measures we are obliged take in order to minimize the harm the covid-19 virus would otherwise do, it is the best we can do for now with the hand we’ve been dealt.

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).