On this second major Tuesday of primaries and caucuses in Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Washington and North Dakota, and moving forward, Democratic primary voters face a decisive choice: Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden. The Biden digs are well-rehearsed: Biden is old; prone to gaffes; has an impure voting record; and, as a white man, is demographically uninspiring. Everyman’s, or everywoman’s, second choice is nobody’s first. This is wrong. The prospect of a Biden presidency is inspirational, and my enthusiastic embrace of his candidacy is not based on some notion of second-best.
Here is my affirmative case for a Biden presidency:
Over the past four years, we have witnessed an unparalleled level of political divisiveness, certainly in modern history. This is not hyperbolic or conjectural. The foundations have been building for decades. As Pew research data show, our society has become increasingly bimodal to the point where the most conservative Democratic member in each House of Congress is more liberal than each House’s most liberal Republican member. This has not always been so. Ezra Klein has gone beyond the Pew data to demonstrate that in the mid-to-late Twentieth Century, the parties were more ideologically interwoven. Dixiecrats were often more conservative than many Republicans. Rockefeller Republicans were more liberal than many Democrats. This was true even as, in general, Democrats embraced more liberal policy positions than Republicans, and vice versa, especially in Presidential election cycles. The parties have, in recent decades, realigned in ways that reinforce partisan divides, and partisan gerrymandering and social media have exacerbated such divisions to the point where ideology has become a core feature of our daily lives.
One of the greatest challenges, and frustrations, in our modern era, dominated by social media news feeds, is having so many members of our electorate comprehend the world in which Joe Biden emerged and thrived. Biden was not merely born of an era prone to cross-aisle compromise; he thrived at a time when to do anything else undermined the goal of bringing about a meaningful prospect of improvements based on race, gender, and civil rights more generally, or based on commitments to other traditional liberal values.
I routinely witness social media posts that identify particular policies ascribed to Joe Biden that are problematic by modern lights. I won’t repeat the list here primarily because to do so would be to miss the point. Joe Biden thrived in an era in which partisanship did not produce an inexorable divide in which working across the aisle was condemned for its impurity; he resided in a world in which to do otherwise was foolhardy and a sign of political dysfunction. That is not to defend his every vote; rather it is to say that listing votes without considering how they fit in the larger legislative context, and how they reflect broader political tradeoffs, miscomprehends the functioning of a very different, and in many ways healthier, political era.
Political compromise necessarily entails lending political support and casting particular votes in spite of not because of the merits of each isolated component. Instead, legislators employed a wider lens, recognizing the greater good served through an overall legislative package, within bills, or across multiple bills, with some problematic features a necessary means of getting the job done. Such cross-aisle politicking encouraged, indeed forged, deepened personal relationships, ones that transcended immediate ideology, often grounded in the personal, not political: How is your ailing mother? Is your son feeling better? My wife and I would love to join you and yours for dinner. These are not trivialities. These are the methods by which a complex political culture and set of institutions overcome placing every conceivable question into a right-left binary concerning which one side’s success inevitably translates into the other side’s failure. Too many of those presently engaged in modern social media either didn’t experience such a world or have somehow forgotten that it is actually possible. Worse, too many imagine that what was once considered decent and just is, instead, a sign of a fundamental lack of commitment or principle. This is wrong.
Please consider whether the American public is happier, more productive, and more empathetic and trusting, in a world in which every conceivable issue, every aspect of our culture, every decision that we make is infused not merely with political meaning, but with national political meaning. Might we, instead, be happier, more productive, and more empathetic in a world in which we imagine politics no longer consuming, sucking in like a virtual black hole, every conceivable waking moment of our lives? To be sure, compromise frustrates, but one nice thing about compromise is that it tends to frustrate everyone. This also implies that today’s loss might be offset by tomorrow’s gain, or the reverse. And with that understanding, we might not need to be hyper-focused, like a laser, every waking moment of our lives on what is going on in Washington DC. Indeed, some issues make take on greater valence at the state or local, than national, level.
In a world in which the political modes overlap, rather than running ever distant, compromise is the imperfect means by which work gets done. And policy does not reflect never ending, and ever deepening, pendulum swings from hard left to hard right, and back again, with winners taking all gains and losers scoring only greater anger, frustration, and rage.
Some might regard compromise an idyllic fantasy. Those of us of a certain age remember it, and we also remember disagreeing, often strongly, with those holding divergent political views, but then joining them for lunch or dinner, at theater or sporting events or, just imagine, some even dating across the aisle! The concern here is not merely that extreme partisanship has made so many increasingly frustrated, anxious, and stressed. As for me, for the first time in my life, these past few years have made me seriously question whether my children will live the rest of their lives in the United States, at least as I have known it. I don’t know the answer, but I do know this. The prospects that they might are much greater with a President who does remember, and who sees value in, that world, one that includes working with others even when they don’t share his views, one who who does not think absolutely everything should translate into winner-take-all partisan warfare, and one who insistently embraces people as people, not as instrumental tools for political gain or loss.
My affirmative case for Joe Biden is not about particular policies, or a column listing policy-by-policy comparisons with Bernie Sanders, or even Donald Trump. It is instead about the measure of the man.
Please consider those who have put their personal and political reputations behind Joe Biden: Representative James E. Clyburn, the longest standing African-American member of Congress; Senator Amy Kobuchar, Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Corey Booker, Senator Kamala Harris, and the list goes on and on. When Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination in 2008, he could have selected whomever he wished as his running mate. He selected Joe Biden, and stayed with him for 8 years, even conferring the Presidential Medal of Freedom in one of the most moving tributes to a man of genuine kindness and decency. And although it is true that Biden is aging, consider the team, and most likely candidates for Vice President, that will almost certainly define a Biden administration. In the event that Biden had to step down, temporarily or permanently, his judgment and wisdom will almost certainly ensure worthy successors.
I certainly do not wish to criticize Sanders or his supporters. If Biden succeeds, it is vital that they join his coalition. Even so, as you compare those endorsements, please consider whether Sanders's group captures the kind of vision that is apt to focus intensely on restoring honor, decency, and empathy, or, instead, that is apt to perpetuate a kind of politics destined to remain a constant, defining feature of our daily lives, with ever growing pendulum swings and an ever growing sense of winner take all.
This is an election about the America I hope we can reclaim, one of decency, honor, and integrity, and also one of compassion, empathy, and inclusion. I support Biden because more than anyone in this race, he has shown himself to be the person who has a chance of restoring our nation to the one I once loved.
I welcome your comments.