It was once a no-brainer among DC pundits that, in an electoral match-up between a friendly centrist and a bitter polarization-machine like Donald Trump, the guy who was closer to the middle would automatically win. And in the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, that conventional wisdom would seem to have found its man: he stands on behalf of no great causes, just a return to the consensus days of yore.
The flaw in this viewpoint is that the consensus days of yore were a dreadful time. What bipartisan centrism meant, in Biden’s heyday, was deliberate, state-sponsored cruelty on a scale so vast it is difficult to comprehend. It meant baked-in racial discrimination. It meant imprisoning enormous numbers of our fellow citizens for using drugs – especially crack cocaine, whose users (say on the worst of these occasions, “the truth is, every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress – every minor crime bill – has had the name of the Democratic senator from Delaware, Joe Biden, on that bill.”
Biden has tried half-heartedly to walk back the decades he spent transforming America into a penal state. He may succeed in persuading voters to forgive him. But he’s not going to win because the old centrist strategy has worked and Republicans are fatally outmaneuvered by his clever triangulations. These days even the Charles Koch Institute is to the left of where Biden was back in the crackdown era.
You can say something similar about Biden’s famous rapport with the working class: it is badly compromised by his actual political record. In the 90s and the 00s, “middle-class Joe”, as he used to be called, was largely complicit in the New Democratic effort to enshrine liberation for Wall Street as the party’s holy cause. He supported certain trade agreements that were great for banks but helped trash the industrial region where Biden grew up. What working people got was austerity: a crackdown on bankruptcy that was designed to fatten credit card companies and that incidentally made it almost impossible to escape student-loan debt.
Everything I have mentioned was at the time an act of in-crowd DC consensus politics – which meant the consensus politicians in question had to answer to almost nobody for their votes. But that’s not going to protect Biden now. That old consensus has melted away in the last few years – the last few weeks – like snow under a blowtorch. And thank goodness.
But I came here to understand the Biden mystique, not to bury it. Despite everything I’ve just related, the former VP did come out on top of the Democratic primary contest. People whom I respect seem genuinely to like him. What allowed Biden to overcome the disadvantage of being so horribly wrong on so many issues?
To put it plainly, Biden is the product of a completely different world than the Ivy League meritocracy that has taken over the Democratic party. He is an unapologetic child of an industrial town and a middle-class society, and in this sense, he is a relic of an older, warmer kind of liberalism.
When it comes to Biden, journalists will never enthuse – as they did with Bill Clinton –about the awesome things that will happen when his Rhodes Scholar friends come together with his Yale Law friends. Biden will never choose to publish summaries of his administration in academic journals, as Obama did.
Another thing Biden will probably never do (as the journalist Michael Sean Winters reminded me) is call people “deplorables” or write off the humanity of a large part of the population because they voted for Trump.
To understand the Biden mystique, I spoke to Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, a union that endorsed Biden as far back as April 2019. He reminded me of the many little-known measures Biden has taken to secure decent pay and bargaining rights for public-sector workers. Noting correctly that lots of politicians have trouble even talking about unions, Schaitberger said of Biden that he has never been “afraid to say the word union, and that every worker should be able to easily join a union and be represented by a union”.
Schaitberger went on to say this about the candidate: “He is who he is. He’s real. He’s genuine. He’s a respectful person, and he’s a decent person, and he has great empathy and concern. Particularly for those who have experienced heartache or difficulties or tragedies.” A group, you might say, that ultimately encompasses all of us.
An important key to the Biden mystique can be found in a long interview with the New York Times editorial board that the candidate did last December. Seven-eighths of it was the usual evasiveness, in which Biden tried to take credit for everything good while distancing himself from everything bad. But with the Times’ final question, moral clarity seemed to descend on middle-class Joe. Reminiscing about the 2016 Democratic effort, Biden recalled how Democratic strategists told him they intended to “give up on white working-class folks”. “Well, look what’s happened,” he continued.
“Look what started to seep in, beginning and probably even with candidates during our administration. We stopped showing up at the Polish American club. We stopped showing up, and we all went to you, the really smart people. We had a new kind of coalition we were putting together. College-educated women and college men and boom, boom, boom and so on.”
Catering to society’s well-educated winners is no way to run a party of the left: Biden seems to be one of the few mainstream Democrats to have grasped this. He recalled in the interview being told by a Hillary Clinton operative in 2016 that he “had to make a distinction between progressive values and working-class values”.
“I said I’ve never found a distinction,” Biden claimed he replied. “Never found them hard to sell.” He told the Times about white working-class enthusiasm for gender wage equality and some other issues, and then he took this shot at the very heart of modern-day liberalism: “We treat them like they’re stupid. They know they’re in trouble, and nobody’s talking to them. Nobody’s talking to them. That’s what we used to do. That was our base.”
It is a point in Biden’s favor that he understands this problem. But is he the man to resolve it? Much of Biden’s middle-class talk is just an act, his own patented trick for connecting with voters. Yes, Biden looks and sounds like a great guy. I want to like him. But I also know that when the laws were being made, Biden was a different person: the cops’ and the bankers’ best friend. We got empathy; they got the power.
The current protests suggest Biden’s routine may not be enough. On the other hand, given Donald Trump’s malevolent incompetence, perhaps it is the right moment for a man who promises fundamental decency and little else. My own hope – and it is merely a hope at this point – is that somewhere in the soul of that tongue-tied, old-school Delaware pol flickers the forgotten core value of the Democratic party: solidarity.
Thomas Frank is a Guardian US columnist. He is the of the upcoming book The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism