For a brief time, it seemed as if voters were genuinely on the cusp of making Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, the Democratic nominee to face President Trump in November. He had unmatched enthusiasm, a surprisingly strong coalition of supporters, and a message of political inclusiveness that transcended party lines unlike anything else being offered by his more "traditional" primary opponents.
Then came Super Tuesday. And now after another, slightly less-super Tuesday, suddenly Sanders's campaign has been eclipsed by that of former Vice President Joe Biden, whose "get your words straight, jack" candidacy has picked up enough delegates and momentum to appear — barring some sort of seismic electoral shake-up — unstoppable as we head toward the Democratic National Convention.
But beyond the stunning degree to which the Democratic Party has marched, lock-step, into backing Biden is an even more troubling aspect of Biden's candidacy: namely, that he doesn't actually seem to be running for anything. Biden's entire campaign platform essentially boils down to a single, uninspiring pitch: Things are pretty crazy right now, and listen here pal, wouldn't it be nice if everyone just chilled out like we used to?
That's it. That's what Joe Biden is offering: A nationwide return to whatever it was that led us to the Trump era in the first place. Biden's is a campaign fueled by a mythological nostalgia for what he insists is a simpler time — never mind that such a time, if it ever existed at all, is what brought us to elect Donald Trump president.
Here's that promise in his own words:
We are a step closer to restoring decency, dignity, and honor to the White House. That's our ultimate goal.
And here is Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, once a Biden rival, endorsing his candidacy after dropping out last week:
I think Joe Biden is going to be a great president. He’s going to bring decency back and dignity to the White House, which to me is the No. 1 priority for this country.
In fact, Biden's platforms (such as they are) suggest an almost pathological reluctance to imagine solutions on a necessary scale to match the immense challenges before us. Anything that gives off even the slightest hint of actual progress is, in fact, simply an incremental Band-Aid in the service of not rocking the boat too much.
In this, Biden has revealed himself to be a conservative in the most literal sense of the word. His is a campaign predicated on — and pitched to voters as — a return to the systems that have come before. He wants, in other words, to tweak, but ultimately conserve what we had (or, at least, what we think we had) at the expense of what we will need to survive in the future. Fossil fuels and fracking? Keep 'em. Student debt? Keep it. Medicare-for-All? Sorry, Jack, but you're out of luck.
The irony here is that while Sanders's electoral appeal may be waning, his chief campaign issue — universal healthcare — is only becoming more and more popular among Democratic voters. But as the Trump presidency has made clear, people vote based as much on personality as they do on politics. And so, Biden is counting on having enough voters who support him as an avatar of respectability and decency, rather than attracting supporters who are gravitating to any of his actual plans. That's a risky proposition, and one which already threatens to see swaths of progressive voters sit out the upcoming general election if Biden wins the nomination.
Which is not to say Biden's pitch is without its own mass appeal. If his performance over the past two weeks is any indication, his call for a return to decency — devoid though it may be in terms of actual big, prescriptive solutions to the problems we face — has been a resounding success. And frankly, that's entirely understandable; if the past four years have done anything to the national psyche, it's been to exhaust it to the point where even the most extreme instances of racism, or malfeasance, or corruption result in nothing more than a slight increase in the volume of our already buzzing anxiety. Who wouldn't be attracted to someone promising the simplicity of a time before Trump?
But that's not what being a president is for. Presidents are not stewards, there to simply keep the wings on the plane until they hand the controls to someone else with a better destination in mind. And as much as we all might crave some time to catch our collective political breath, an entire presidency pitched on the false promise of a return to normalcy is both a fallacy, and a dramatic underselling of what the presidency truly is.
The question now becomes whether Biden — nomination in sight — has the will, or even the interest, in making his candidacy about more than just the abstract appeal of an era we can never regain. Promising decency and offering piecemeal suggestions to keep our creaky body politic alive long for a few years more might be enough to get him to the White House, but it sure won't make him a president.