On pre–Super Tuesday Monday, the Democratic establishment came together with one voice, to the extent such a thing is possible, and to the extent that Beto O’Rourke is part of the Democratic establishment, to tell voters that Joe Biden will beat Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders might not. On Tuesday, a potentially race-swinging portion of those voters demonstrated how important this calculation was to them (and, for some reason, how much they still trust the Democratic establishment after Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Al Gore). You’ve probably heard the reasoning yourself: “Getting Trump out is the top priority,” and someone like Biden would “get things back to normal.”
What does that mean? What is it about Trump, precisely, that makes it so important to get him out? And which of the harms he creates could a Biden administration reasonably be expected to address both immediately and in the future? Can Joe Biden make it 2008 again through policy, demeanor, science, or magic?
Let’s go through the things that bother Democrats about Trump in order of most to least likely to be restored to normalcy under a Biden administration.
• Keeps trying to repeal Obamacare and has left the Paris Agreement and Iran deal. Biden would murder you without thinking twice for even looking askance at a printed copy of the Affordable Care Act. Obamacare is safe under the Joe administration, and he will do his damndest, Senate willing, to get things back to status quo with the climate accords and Iran détente process. Normalcy restoration rating: 10
• Staffs the executive branch with zero-experience MAGA ding-dongs. If the Obama administration is a fair model, the people who work in Biden’s Cabinet and in other top roles will likely have experience and expertise in the areas they cover. He will probably not hire a college student to help purge purportedly disloyal White House staff members, and if he does, it will be a child-genius college student who won the Intel Science Fair when she was 10 and graduated from high school when she was 12. That said, Biden is more closely allied than Obama was to favor-trading, corruption-adjacent politicians like Pennsylvania’s Ed Rendell and New York’s Andrew Cuomo. He will probably have some operators on staff who don’t necessarily only have the public’s best interests in mind. Normalcy restoration rating: 8
• Enacts extreme and inhumane immigration policies. Biden was part of the administration that carried out large-scale deportations during Obama’s first term, and before that he was even more hard-line—not too long ago, a video from 2006 made the rounds in which he brags about voting to put up a 700-mile border fence. That said, Biden’s career shows him to be a guy who follows the beliefs of the median Democratic voter, and right now the median Democratic voter is against border fortifications and family separation, so Biden probably will be too. Normalcy restoration rating: 8, which is not necessarily something to be super proud of.
• Is incapable of performing the symbolic, national morale parts of his job. This seems like the part of the presidency that Biden is most excited for: being inspiring and dignified during national disasters and foreign summits. As a former vice president, he’s prepared for the grave photo-op faces and mastery of fork-related etiquette that the top job will require. However, he will likely occasionally confuse his wife for Angela Merkel, and his public tone during the 2020 cycle has tended toward confused/confusing agitation rather than gravitas. Normalcy restoration rating: 7
• Is crude, racist, and sexist. Biden can, unfortunately, be expected to say things that are borderline racist and sexist as president—albeit not, as Trump does, with the intent of humiliating women and people of color. Good? Normalcy restoration rating: 6
• Has filled the judiciary branch with underqualified right-wingers. Biden can’t get rid of the judges Trump has appointed. But his history of support for Senate “blue slip” norms and his participation in the unsuccessful effort to shame Republicans into confirming an Obama Supreme Court nominee by picking a moderate judge (Merrick Garland) suggest that he also likely won’t attempt any kind of hardball brinksmanship to get his own judges through in the event that Republicans hold the Senate. Normalcy restoration rating: 5, and he may lose in 2024 because the Supreme Court rules that it’s unconstitutional for Democrats to vote.
• Encourages the Republican Party to ignore any law it doesn’t like. Same deal, here. Trump has taken the norm-violating cat out of the democracy-stewarding bag when it comes to ignoring subpoenas, issuing pardons to political allies who are unquestionably guilty of the crimes they were convicted of, diverting military funds to build a pointless wall in Texas, trying to rewrite the Census in a way that will cause Democrats to lose House seats and then lying about it, etc. Biden’s repeatedly stated expectation that the GOP will have an epiphany after Trump leaves office provides little reason to hope that he is interested in using his potential mandate to pass structural reforms or to lead the kind of salted-earth attack against the Republican Party’s electoral power that would motivate it to become less extreme. Normalcy restoration rating: 4
• Lies all the time. Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign crashed because it turned out a story he’d been telling about how he came from a coal-mining family was plagiarized from a British politician—and that he (Biden) was not even from a coal-mining family himself. During this cycle he’s told almost entirely fabricated anecdotes about war heroism in Afghanistan and getting arrested while trying to meet Nelson Mandela. President Joe Biden will make things up—less often, and less destructively, but it’ll happen. Normalcy restoration rating: 3
• Abuses the tools of government to benefit himself personally. The president, through Attorney General William Barr and Rudy Giuliani, has leaned on the departments of Justice and State to go easy on his associates and to attack his political rivals. Nothing in Biden’s career suggests that he would do anything like this; the irony of Trump’s Ukraine allegations against him is that Biden’s involvement in pushing out the Ukrainian prosecutor who’d investigated the company that was paying his son Hunter (Burisma) is that it probably made Burisma more likely to face charges rather than less.
However, the fact that one of Biden’s top campaign advisers lobbied against the Obama administration’s student-protection efforts on behalf of a for-profit college suggests that the people with whom he surrounds himself may be less than scrupulous about greasing the ol’ revolving door. (That adviser, Anita Dunn, reportedly later gave Harvey Weinstein advice about how to do “damage control” when the New York Times ran its exposé about his history of sexual assault.) So does Biden’s history with the Delaware credit card/banking company MBNA, which paid Hunter Biden for “consulting” during the early 2000s period in which his father repeatedly voted against predatory lending protections proposed by other Democrats.
That said, it’s actually very common to see people who served in Democratic administrations seeking out post-government windfall jobs doing PR and networking for multinational corporations. So in a sense Biden actually will probably get things back to where they were before, in a way that’s also bad. Normalcy restoration rating: N/A because the real crime is what’s legal.
• Has a nationalist, almost exclusively white base of hardcore supporters for whom the expression of symbolic cultural power is the top, even only, political priority. This is the really tough one. As fond as we are, here, of criticizing Democrats for their lack of ambition, there is no evidence that any other political approach—be it Bernie Sanders’ populism, Elizabeth Warren’s FDR liberalism, or Pete Buttigieg’s Obama-inspired inspiringness—was going to result in anything other than another bitterly narrow Electoral College battle against Trump. The president has inspired dozens of younger imitators in his party, including at least one in his own family. They will be ready—completely ignorant of the actual details of governing, but fully trained in the nasty, contemptuous art of cultural warfare—to take his place when he moves on to the big sharia-free zone in the sky. Maybe good-government reforms and large-scale public spending would undermine the “economic anxiety” and “drain the swamp” resentments that fuel MAGA rallies—but is there anything any Democrat could do, in the near term, to neutralize the clearly substantial bloc of Trumpists who are in it for the racial fascism?
Damn, this post got depressing! Normalcy restoration rating: 1, with a skull emoji.
So … is that normal enough?
For more analysis of the Democratic race—and Joe Biden’s big Super Tuesday—listen to this week’s Political Gabfest.