There is a long-standing critique of the Democratic Party—of both its leaders and its voters—that says it has been self-destructively obsessed with the goal of installing a savior figure in the presidency. This obsession, the theory goes, comes at the expense not just of winning congressional and statewide legislative races but of keeping voters usefully engaged during the time between elections. (Think of the power that highly motivated NRA members exert over members of Congress, despite usually holding what public opinion polls say are minority positions on gun legislation.) In 2008, Barack Obama—a messianic figure if there ever was one!—won 69 million votes nationally; in the 2010 midterms, Democratic House candidates received fewer than 40 million. The party lost nearly 1,000 state legislative seats during Obama’s term, the campaign mailing list that could have been deployed to create grassroots pressure on moderates during Affordable Care Act negotiations was ignored, etc. As one of the individuals running for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in 2017 put it, Dems have a habit of “treating the presidency like it’s the only office that matters.” (That individual—Pete Buttigieg—announced his campaign for president less than two years later.)
Donald Trump’s election did a great deal to change this perspective. The Women’s March and the travel ban protests spawned activist groups and inspired many Dems to run for office for the first time—often successfully. (There were 60 million votes for Democratic House candidates in the 2018 midterms.) But the savior complex around the presidency persisted in the shooting-star candidacies of young, Obama-lite figures such as Beto O’Rourke and Buttigieg; in the speculation about landslide-triggering runs by liberal superstars like Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey; and even, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said Tuesday night, the idea that Bernie Sanders could beat Trump with a popular wave of first-time voters.
Well, Joe Biden has effectively sealed his status as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, and no one is expecting or has expected him to save anything, including his own campaign.
Choosing Biden was based entirely on a theory of necessity. His flaws are evident, which is why he finished fourth and fifth in Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s still capable of delivering inspiring rhetoric but talks over himself, makes errors, and even becomes agitated when required to get into details. He’s enthusiastic when talking about Obama’s accomplishments, but presents almost no vision of what his own administration’s achievements might look like. (During a recent rally in Detroit, the section of his speech about the tangible things he’d use the presidency to do, once you subtract the parts about restoring Obama initiatives like participation in the Paris climate accords, was about as long as the one about childhood bullying under Trump.) But voters and party leaders were unable to settle on any of the many available non-Biden, non–Bernie Sanders candidates—too young, too female, too not an actual Democrat—and have decided Sanders himself is too risky despite widespread sympathy for his goals. So it’s Uncle Joe by a nose, thanks in part to the goodwill he built up under Obama and in part to all the other horses having died.
The understanding that Biden can’t get this done by himself was implicit in his surge. He got a crucial, late endorsement from South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, who continued providing assistance Tuesday night by suggesting that the Democratic Party cancel any potential Sanders-Biden debates. He won Texas and a number of other Super Tuesday states after another wave of endorsements—most prominently from Buttigieg, O’Rourke, and Amy Klobuchar, who all appeared with him at a lively election-eve rally in Dallas. At that rally, neither Buttigieg nor Klobuchar mentioned any part of Biden’s platform. Instead they described his character, using words like decent, decency, empathy, and dignity—portraying him as, in essence, an American Queen Elizabeth who will project our values gracefully as head of state.
After that triumph, Biden didn’t appear in public until Saturday. Tuesday’s biggest primary was in Michigan, where Sanders held four rallies in the past week, giving speeches that lasted up to 45 minutes; the Vermont senator also spoke at large outdoor events in Chicago and St. Louis, appeared on three Sunday talk shows, and held a town hall event on Fox News. Biden, in total, held events in Detroit, Missouri, and Mississippi at which he spoke for 15 to 20 minutes. But he also added endorsements from Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and ended the day having widened his delegate lead over Sanders.
The Biden 2020 campaign isn’t about following its nominal leader, or even listening to him; it’s about the party pushing him over the line collectively—and about making plans to give him the necessary support once he’s in office, as Booker’s endorsing statement alluded to in references to “winning races up and down the ballot” and thinking of a presidential victory as the “floor” rather than the “ceiling” of Democratic Party potential. Biden’s sudden viability coincided with popular Democratic Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s announcement that, after fending off months of entreaties to enter his state’s Senate race, he will go ahead and attempt to flip the seat, while Arizona and Maine flip-aspirants Mark Kelly and Sara Gideon have also expressed a preference for running down ballot of Biden rather than Sanders. Progressives eulogizing Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign have emphasized the prominent role that she can still play, going forward, in the Senate.
On Monday, Axios published a list of figures, compiled via Biden “confidants,” that he’s said to be considering for Cabinet positions. The list made no sense ideologically—Warren and JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon are both under consideration to run Treasury, apparently, while both Warren and the avowedly moderate Amy Klobuchar are in the mix for vice president—but made a lot of sense as a signal that the prospective nominee’s camp knows he’ll be judged by the helping hands he surrounds himself with, and that he’ll need to maintain a connection to all the party’s factions, if he reaches the Oval Office. It’s not him, in other words—it’s us.
For more on Joe Biden’s run, listen to What Next.