The 2020 election is still 20 months away, but there’s already reason to worry for Democrats: The front-runner for the nomination for a major political party is a white septuagenarian who has openly praised white supremacists and called for the unchecked empowerment of demonstrably racist law-enforcement entities. I refer to, of course, Joe Biden.
It’s a troubling development in the age of mass incarceration and Unite the Right, and to be fair, Biden is undecided about whether he will actually seek the presidency. But speculation has reached a fever pitch of late, with the New York Times reporting on Thursday that the former vice-president is “95 percent committed to running.” And there’s reason for him to believe his prospects are good: Biden leads the field of would-be nominees in poll after poll. “We need a nominee who can speak to the whole country, who can speak to the electorate that the party has been losing,” a firefighters union leader told the Times, “and that quite frankly includes some of my members that were once dependable Democrats.”
Indeed, Biden has cultivated an image as a down-to-earth straight talker with roots in the white working class — which has led some to argue that he’s the Democratic candidate best-equipped to lure such voters away from Trump. But his popularity also hints at a prospect that seems, on its face, counterintuitive: Despite the outrage directed by liberals and others at Trump’s racism, Biden is far from his polar opposite. On the contrary, he shares several of the president’s blemishes. Perhaps that’s the point — polling indicates that ousting Trump is the Democrats’ top priority, even more so than supporting a candidate who shares their values. Still, it’s ironic that, if Biden runs and his current polling lead holds, the Democrats would nominate a man who is, of all their available options, arguably the most similar to the president they’re seeking to depose.
A big portion of Biden’s polling dominance can no doubt be attributed to name recognition. Aside from Bernie Sanders — who, incidentally, is a close second to Biden in most polls — the former vice-president is the best-known contender in the field. But the reason everyone knows who Biden is may be even more important: He served for eight years as the second-in-command to President Obama, a figure upon whom almost Christlike reverence and liberal nostalgia is lavished. “I think he’d have a big advantage because of his name recognition and because of the imprimatur of the Obama vice presidency,” Al Sharpton told the Times. As such, Biden’s success in the polls may not reflect actual support for his politics — which is encouraging, because it grows clearer by the day that Obama was the redeeming factor Uncle Joe’s otherwise smudge-ridden political legacy needed.
Biden’s affiliation with the black former president — to whom he once referred as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean” — seems, for example, to have dimmed the collective liberal memory of his affection for white supremacists like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms. In 2003, he eulogized Thurmond, the former segregationist senator from South Carolina who, in preparation for Thurmond’s record-smashing filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, reportedly “took steam baths every day to dehydrate his body so it could absorb fluids without his having to leave the Senate chamber for the bathroom.” “He was one complex guy,” Biden said during Thurmond’s eulogy. “He lived a long and good life.” During a May 2015 address to Yale University graduates, the then-vice-president said similarly of his relationship with Helms — the late North Carolina senator whose weaponization of racist voter-suppression tactics is legendary — ”Never once have I questioned another man’s or woman’s motive” before getting to know them. “Because when you question a man’s motive,” Biden elaborated, “it’s awful hard to reach consensus.”
Reaching consensus with white supremacists is probably among the last items on most Democrats’ 2020 wish lists. Yet many of them are on track to nominate a man to defeat Trump whose insistence that some white supremacists are okay guys is not substantively different from the president’s claim that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a white supremacist rally. Biden’s affection for these men was more than just rhetorical: In the mid-1970s, he shared their politics as a vocal opponent of busing measures intended to integrate public schools. The parallels don’t stop there: Trump’s invocation of Richard Nixon’s 1968 call to reinstate “law and order” in 2016 would have resonated with Biden circa 1989, when he characterized as soft then-President George H.W. Bush’s billion-dollar investment in the War on Drugs. “[The] President’s plan does not include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, enough prosecutors to convict them, enough judges to sentence them or enough prison cells to put them away for a long time,” Biden said.
Times change, of course, as do people: Biden and Trump diverge in notable ways. The former vice-president has expressed qualified regret with his role in promoting mass incarceration. He has been a vocal advocate for preventing sexual assault on college campuses, and worked to expand voting rights and end employment discrimination and supported affirmative action during his time as a U.S. senator. Conversely, Trump’s behavior cannot be dismissed as a product of its time; indeed, it very much defines and enables his present.
But no would-be Democratic nominee has remotely as much baggage as Biden does. And in a field that includes firebrand leftists and comparatively youthful nonwhite prospects, the 76-year-old’s demographic profile, past support for racist policies, affection for flagrant white supremacists, and disconcerting behavior toward women marks him as the most Trump-adjacent challenger the Democrats could conjure. This may all be a moot point. Who is to say that Biden will be the last Democrat standing once the dust clears next summer? Assuming he runs, there are several worthy opponents who could resonate more with primary voters. His path to the nomination is rocky, to say the least. And should he reach the general election, he would be meet an opponent in Trump who is notorious for defying expectations.
Yet if nothing else, Biden’s relevance illustrates the degree to which the terms of the conversation have been shifted by Trump’s success. Ten years ago, the Obama presidency seemed to open the door to myriad less-conventional prospects than even himself — women of color or LGBTQ candidates, for example. Instead, the rise of a reactionary white conservatism has forced liberals and progressives into a defensive crouch. Rather than pushing the envelope further, Democrats in particular must weigh the strategic merits of running candidates over the next handful of elections who are not closer to some egalitarian ideal, but merely incrementally less like Trump. There is reason for optimism. Trump is unpopular, and the Democratic field boasts the most progressive candidates it has run in decades, including possibly America’s first black woman major-party nominee. But it was not long ago that nearly half of the voting public — and the majority of white voters — sent an openly racist and misogynist to the White House. If winning back those same voters from him requires gentle coaxing by Democrats rather than a dramatic about-face, then Biden might be Trump-like enough to get the job done.