Like most people I know, I was less than thrilled when it became evident that Joe Biden was going to get the Democratic nomination for president.
That’s putting it mildly. I was depressed, disheartened, frustrated, angry, and bewildered. After several years of the worst president in history, I was sure America was ready not just for new leadership, but for a whole new direction. And what was at stake was not just the typical political back-and-forth, where a center-right party takes turns with a center-left party, but the fate of the country itself.
Many of my friends accused me of being hysterical and overwrought when, in 2016, I told them it was essential they vote for Hillary Clinton regardless of how little they liked her, that if Donald Trump managed to win the presidency, we might not get another chance to vote him out.
Thankfully my prediction didn’t come completely true, but we didn’t dodge that bullet by much. The mob of clowns, halfwits, and terrorists who stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the election might have been successful if they’d been just a bit better organized, and we could be looking at a semi-permanent Trump presidency.
As I write these words we’re hours away from inaugurating – behind a wall of 25,000 troops – a new president, and millions of Americans, myself among them, are on the verge of letting themselves be cautiously optimistic. But our position is still precarious, and I don’t think anyone will feel free to fully relax until Trump is irrevocably and definitively gone.
But (to borrow a Bidenism), here’s the deal: as disappointed as I was when Bernie and Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg and half a dozen other potential candidates fell by the wayside, I’ve had to come round to accepting that not only would we have to “settle” for Biden, but that he may have been the only one who could accomplish what nearly all of us agreed had to be done: remove Trump from power.
Almost nobody was excited about Biden when the primaries began, and that didn’t change even as he knocked off one favorite after another. His march to the nomination was measured, methodical, plodding, and devoid of thrills, yet nobody seemed able to lay a glove on him. Everyone waited for him to knock himself out of contention with one of his famous gaffes, the way he’d done in previous contests, but it never happened.
By the time the general election came around, I, and millions upon millions of other Americans marched to the polls in much the same manner. It wasn’t as though we’d fallen in love with him, or imagined that we were on the threshold of a new and glorious age; we were simply fulfilling our duty. It was like doing the laundry or taking out the garbage: the kind of tasks we hardly get ecstatic about, but which will make our lives increasingly unpleasant and miserable if we don’t do them.
And yet… Biden has grown on me. Slowly, subtly, not to any great extreme, but enough so that I catch myself daring to think, “Yes, he might actually be able to do this.”
It’s an incredible redemption story, when you think about it, something we Americans have always been suckers for. Here’s a guy whose two previous runs for president ended in ignominy, and who had reached an age where you’d expect his role in public life to be mainly ornamental, and all of a sudden he’s got 81 million people – by far the largest total racked up any candidate ever – voting him into the highest office in the land.
The age thing feels particularly germane to me. I’m five years younger than him and in reasonably good shape, but no matter how many great ideas I’d like to think I have for reforming America, the idea of devoting myself to that job 24/7 for the next four or eight years is enough to make me want to lie down and take a nap. And on top of his age, Biden looks a bit frail and fragile, which makes me nervous, since I’m not fully convinced his vice-president is ready to step into his place should the need arise (though she too has been growing on me).
Does any of this matter? Ultimately, no. We rise or fall, sink or swim with Biden and Harris. There is no alternative. The revolution is not coming to save us, there will be no Bernie Sanders-led socialist putsch, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will make some glorious speeches and stir up a decent amount of controversy, but she doesn’t have nearly enough votes to enact most of her program into law.
And that’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? There is a highly passionate leftist movement, but passions alone don’t win elections. If there were ever a time that the left should have been able to make great strides forward, 2020 should have been it, yet it didn’t happen. Bernie didn’t even do as well as he did in 2016. Trump actually increased his vote share in traditionally liberal strongholds like New York City, and among the ethnic minorities who had most to lose from his staying in power.
I have my theories as to why that is: New York in particular has suffered under one of its worst mayors in history. Bill de Blasio is almost Trump-like in his incompetence, laziness, and corruption, while entirely lacking Trump’s charisma. Unfortunately, he’s also (allegedly) a left-wing Democrat, so when things go wrong in New York (which they’ve been doing a lot lately), Democrats and so-called “progressive” causes get blamed, fairly or not.
Whether in New York or out in the heartland, the takeaway seems clear: Americans are not in the mood for radical change just now. If anything, they want a government that’s quiet, competent, maybe even a little boring. This practically infuriates some of my more radical friends (I have quite a few), but it is what it is. You can have a radical left turn in American governance or you can have democracy, but you can’t have both, at least not now.
There are those on the left as well as the right who are taking up arms and preparing for revolution and/or civil war, but as someone who came of age in the 1960s, when leftist gun-toters and bomb-throwers were far more numerous, I’m highly dubious that any such conflict would have a happy outcome. Our future would look more like Mad Max than a socialist workers’ paradise.
It’s unfortunate that Biden will have to devote so much of his energy to reversing the damage done by Trump before he can begin advancing his own causes, but maybe that will serve as an object lesson to those who so adamantly claimed there was “no difference” between the Democratic and Republican candidates in 2016.
There was a difference, all right, almost enough to destroy our republic. Hopefully those who are prepared to tear the Democratic Party apart over issues like Medicare For All vs. expanding and improving Obamacare will have learned that while the Democrats may not produce the exact health care program they want, the Republicans, if they regain power, will make sure tens of millions of Americans have no health care at all. Instead of Medicare For All, you could end up with Medicare For Nobody.
So whether your take on Biden is “hopeless centrist,” “could be worse,” “might not be that bad,” or “let’s give the guy a chance,” anything short of wishing him the best and hoping he can pull together the disparate strands of liberalism, centrism, and leftism into a concerted force capable of restoring some sort of decency to America is essentially a death wish. Trumpism and rabid right-wing Republicanism are not gone, they’re merely being held temporarily at bay. If Biden fails, we’re probably all going down with him.
Think you can’t find ways to cooperate with moderate and centrist Democrats? You’re not just the guy rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, you’re the guy who refuses to get into the lifeboat because you’re waiting for one with a more attractive color scheme. Biden may not be the sleekest, fastest, most attractive lifeboat, but he’s the one we’ve got. A few years from now there may be far more exciting options, but not if we – and our democracy – fail to survive the present crisis.
So I hope you’ll join me in sending your congratulations – wholehearted or grudging as they may be – to our new president, along with heaving a great sigh of relief that our long national Trumpmare has, at least for now, ended. We’ve been down so long, to paraphrase Richard Fariña, that almost anything looks like up. It’s tempting to believe things can only get better from here, but anyone born less recently than yesterday knows there’s no guarantee of that.
Hard times still lie ahead. America may yet come crashing down around our ears. But as long as there’s a chance to save it, we owe it ourselves to try. Godspeed, President Joe!