Back when the Democratic primary still had more candidates than a shot of the debate stage could comfortably hold—including Julián Castro, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang, Jay Inslee, Eric Swalwell, Kirsten Gillibrand, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, John Delaney, Michael Bennet, and even Marianne Williamson and Tulsi Gabbard—I remember thinking that whatever else might happen, this much at least was true: The Democratic Party had a deep bench of competent contenders. That seemed like good news, and so did this: The agendas most of these folks offered were considerably to the left of any I’d heard before. That, for someone on the left, was a stunning (and heartening) departure. So was the diversity: six women! Half a dozen candidates from minority groups! A handful of young candidates to choose from in a government that has been widely criticized as a gerontocracy! It was reassuring to see this wide a swath of Democrats agree on the problems the country faces, and downright inspiring, at times, to see how broad a consensus there was for bold action to solve them. The coalition many of these candidates were aiming to convince was young and alarmed, constrained by debt and health care costs and bigotry and desperate to do something about climate change.
It is jaw-dropping that not one but two leftist candidates made it to this point in the primaries. But maybe we assimilate progress too quickly, because having marveled at the diversity of that slate of candidates, I find it no less jaw-dropping that a primary process with that initial makeup is likely to yield Joe Biden as the person most likely to be the Democratic nominee.
Biden isn’t just a literal return to a Democratic status quo; he is, at this point in his life, its oldest and least competent version. Many are speculating—as if it would console or ameliorate the fact that the worst person for the job inexplicably got it—that Biden might appoint a competent woman of color for his vice president. It’s also true that this fight isn’t over; Sanders might claw back some support if his campaign manages to learn any lessons at all from the Super Tuesday results. But if it doesn’t, Biden is it: the least agile thinker, the least fluent talker to appear on that stage will run against an even more incompetent incumbent. If he wins, Biden will break the record for oldest man to be sworn in as president of the United States. (Donald Trump holds that title now.) If he loses to a president who has literally been impeached, it will be easy to see why: He’s in decline. Biden’s liabilities aren’t just the scorn with which he’s dismissed the concerns of the sizable demographic currently powering Sanders’ campaign, or his refusal to take seriously women’s discomfort at his massages and hair-smelling, or that he made up an outrageous lie about getting heroically arrested while trying to see Nelson Mandela; it’s that anyone who has watched Biden speak can attest to the fact that the man speaks in fragments that jostle into an agrammatical approximation of sense.
It’s true that this may not matter: Trump speaks this way too, only worse, and Biden has at least spent a career adapting the public to his “gaffes.” Trump’s bad temper is worse than Biden’s, and he certainly knows less. Trump is creepier than Biden; on that front, there’s no contest.
But what an unappealing contest it would be.
Biden might coast to victory on a wave of voters who can’t take Trump anymore and find the former vice president to be the closest thing to a “generic Democrat” on offer. No one can really say what Biden is for, but his Democratic credentials are clear, and that plus name recognition has obvious appeal for a subset of voters—even without a ground game, or much fundraising, or many interviews, or a memorably staked-out position on anything at all, Biden has floated through these primaries with peculiar ease. I wrote, back in January, before his prospects briefly dipped, that Biden’s success might be explained as a kind of “politics of exhaustion”: There is a part of the American electorate that’s just tired, and tired of being tired. The unrelenting political news cycles of the past few years have burned them out and depressed them and angered them, and all they want is to tune out and put someone even notionally acceptable in charge. It may even work to Biden’s advantage that he and Trump both speak a strange kind of stream-of-consciousness Americanese. Their sentences are less sentences than snatches of songs whose choruses their supporters can sing along to. Yes, their debates will be so loud and untethered from the questions they’re asked that transcripts will baffle future historians. It doesn’t matter.
Sanders’ theory was that turning out more voters would propel him to victory. Voter turnout did increase significantly on Super Tuesday compared with 2016—perhaps partly because of his efforts—but most of those new voters went for Biden. Given that the vice president hasn’t distinguished himself in debates or had much of a ground game, it seems reasonable to conclude that what’s driving voters to him is name recognition, his affiliation with Obama, and his function as a general Democratic placeholder they can trust not to make headlines every day with fights to further transform a society that’s barely keeping it together. Sanders and Warren are ambitious reformers; they would undoubtedly be newsmakers in the opposite direction. Biden is liberal, but his bizarre promise to work with Republicans may signal—to skittish Democrats afraid of too much upset—that he wouldn’t and won’t make waves.
The Democratic primary showcased the party’s diversity and strength and made a lot of plans for a better world thinkable in a party that wouldn’t, in former times, have embraced them. But on Tuesday, perhaps considering that 44 out of the last 45 presidents have been white men of a very particular type, many American voters reverted to what they clearly consider the safest bet. It says something about what we consider safe that a majority of voters seem to have decided that the best way to fight an incompetent old white man was to present him with another incompetent white man and let them shout it out.
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