How We Got Here
Joe Biden is the President of the United States. To put it bluntly, it is one of the greatest political stories ever told. Once elected our youngest Senator in 1972, Biden’s promising career seemed to take a huge hit from his failed 1988 campaign. He rebounded to become a very powerful Senator, chairing the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. In 2008 his career seemed to take another hit from a tough Presidential campaign that ended in a crippling Iowa loss, but he rose again as then-Senator Obama’s choice for Vice-President. After two national victories, Biden was seemingly blocked from a 2016 run by Hillary Clinton’s perceived strength. She ran and got nominated, he didn’t enter the race after the tragic death of his son, and his career seemed over. Then fate threw a tragic curveball- Donald Trump won the Presidency. Suddenly some people saw Biden as a potential savior. Still others thought his time had passed.
The 2020 Biden campaign was incredibly predictable. Biden entered a crowded field late, and virtually everyone kicked him. People like Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, a more radical lefty, called Biden dumb. His now Vice-President attacked him for his 1970’s busing position. Barack Obama and many other members of his administration were not overly encouraging about his run. The press wrote him off repeatedly. The Bernie crowd shuffled between calling him senile, accusing him of assaulting Tara Reade, calling him a corporate shill, and saying other nasty things. Candidates like Bernie, Beto, Kamala, and Warren took turns rising up close to him in the polls, then fading. Julian Castro basically insinuated he was senile, while getting the facts wrong himself. Joe even had to take the indignities of losses in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada early on in the race. Predictably though, he overcame all of that. He won the nomination after a blowout South Carolina win and a Super Tuesday drubbing of the field. As he always has, he took the punches and stayed on his feet until he could give them back. Then he knocked the field out cold.
What Biden’s rivals didn’t understand was what some of us loved about him- Joe Biden was not the rest of the Democratic Party. While the rest of the candidates pandered and equivocated on who they were, Biden resisted the urge to move to the far left on health care and the environment, but knew he needed to be steadfast on issues that mattered to the true base of the Democratic Party, like labor laws, gun control, voting rights, and education. He lived with his extensive record. He was a nice guy, but he put a hardball team around him. He was strategic. In the end, he was honestly the only acceptable nominee who could beat Donald Trump. He had to win, and he won. The rest of these folks would have been rolled by Trump.
That he won without embracing “the new left” was a feature of why Biden won, not a bug. No one else could have whipped Trump as Biden did in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Atlanta, Phoenix, Milwaukee, and Detroit, not while Trump was slamming the “radical left” for huge tax increases and overreaching policies. If you don’t think Biden’s reputation mattered, built over a half century of work, just look at how Democrats did down ballot in so many targeted House and State Legislative races. It took a Biden to take those effective attacks and keep going. It took Biden’s “tough decency” to deal with Trump’s bullying style. He could tell Donald to “shut up” and still come off as the more decent human being. No one else survives that. Hell, even Hillary Clinton couldn’t.
And so here we are. Joe Biden beat every critic, 20 other Democrats, and Donald Trump. He won the nomination faster than anyone in the Democratic Party since at least 2004. He received a record of over 81 million votes, beating Trump by over 7 million votes, and 306-232 in the Electoral College. He walked into the White House with majorities in both houses, a mandate for change. He did without buckling to DC’s ideas about how to get here. While I would never call him or any other politician a saint, I’m proud to say I was both on his staff from Iowa forward, and served as a delegate for him. Joe Biden forged the only path forward for America, and he did it the right way.
All Biden inherits is the greatest mess of all time. No pressure or anything. In the short to immediate term, there are several “must do’s”- pass a major COVID/Stimulus bill, an infrastructure bill, raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, voting rights protection, and fixes to the ACA. Out on the horizon are other big issues waiting- replacing Justice Breyer, acting on climate change, and public education reform. With majorities in both houses of Congress for two years, a mandate from a popular victory in the election, and the backdrop of a pandemic and insurrection, Biden will have to strike while the iron is hot. As the most skilled legislator to serve as President since LBJ, there is good reason to think he is up to the job.
There is more to the job though than legislating, and Biden will be tasked with all of that too. American politics, at least since the rise of Newt Gingrich in 1994, and arguably since 1968, have been poisoned. We are narrowly, but deeply divided. We had an insurrection at our capitol, and protests that sometimes bordered on riots, both within the past year. Domestic terrorists are on the rise. Distrust in police and law enforcement is at an all time high after a series of police killings of Black Americans. Biden inherits a country where the population distrusts it’s institutions, in many cases their government, and in an alarmingly high number of cases, each other. It is simply unsustainable. The conspiracy theories, personal vitriol, and Social Media wars have to end. There’s no guarantee any of it will.
Millions of Americans don’t consider themselves to be a party to America’s success. We are the wealthiest, most militarily powerful country the world has ever known. For millions, they don’t feel like they have benefited- for decades. This cuts across racial lines. While America has benefited overall in the global economy, large regions of the country feel they have not. While his party has turned inward to their base in so much of their message, part of Biden’s challenge will be to speak to a broader audience across America. Taking away President Trump’s fictitious monopoly on the “forgotten man” is central to getting buy-in to progress.
Let’s face it, we don’t know the future. Will Joe Biden run again? Will Donald Trump? Will the GOP treat President Biden better than they did President Obama? Will we get Covid under control? How will the midterms go? None of that is clear yet. All we know is that Joe Biden has a four year term to do it.
The GOP is in a messy civil war over the post-Trump era, and it’s easy to sit here and predict ruin for them moving forward. If they try to moderate, the Trumpism theory is that his base will bail on the party. If they embrace the Trump base, the Democratic majorities built over the last four years very well could hold. It seems hopeless, unless of course you look back over the last roughly thirty years of politics in America. Every President since the Cold War has entered office with a majority, and all lost those Congressional majorities in a midterm (Only Bush 43 survived his first one, right after 9/11). History says McConnell and McCarthy will be running their chambers in 2023, regardless of the mess they are.
Which leads to the real question: what are the Democrats? Recent history says the losing Presidential ticket influences their party more in the midterms, and wins them. Can Democrats capture the Biden brand and win again in 2022? The 2018 Democratic wave looked way more like Hillary Clinton, but message wise the Clinton and Biden brands were similar. A pragmatic slate of suburban candidates, women and men, built this majority. Joe Biden’s improvement on Hillary’s suburban performance was what won him the suburbs, and subsequently the swing states. Can 2022 Democrats improve in suburban Charlotte, hold their gains in suburban Philadelphia, and continue to grow in suburban Atlanta and Phoenix? At the same time can they deliver the needed policy victories for their non-white base that will produce big turnout? If so, maybe they can beat history. That’s their coalition now, not more radical elements on the left and seemingly gone folks still in the Trump camp. Democrats must keep the pragmatic center that was repulsed by Trump, while holding the equally pragmatic minority coalition that has faithfully voted blue. Joe Biden showed Democrats how to do this. Will we follow as a party?
All we can do now is see what happens.