Members Only | April 3, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Dems (Finally) Rethinking Joe
How party elites are telling a party elder not to run.
In 2007, I wasn’t paying close attention to national politics. Sure, I read the papers. Sure, I watched “Frontline.” I did what literate citizens tend to do. But I wasn’t as in it as I am now. The battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama passed me by.
This was my thinking if you can call it that. I don’t care. Not right now. I’ll care about the presidential election when it’s time to care about it. I wasn’t going to vote for the Republican nominee. That much I knew. But I wasn’t going to get into arguments with other Democrats over candidates I liked. Let the party sort things out, and it did.
I bring this up because of a thesis I’ve seen in circulation. It goes like this: the Democratic Party should be wary of picking a candidate who checks all the boxes for party elites but who might alienate party regulars. “Normies,” as they are sometimes called, are not as ideological as elites. Normies are pragmatic, first and last.
Normies will go with whomever party elites choose, because they don’t care about the differences between apples and apples. They just want an apple. So pick one.
This thesis pops up in reference to Joe Biden. Sure, the former vice president has made a few women uncomfortable with his “tactile politics.” Indeed, his voting record in the Senate is kinda iffy, sorta not-good, OK bad, by today’s liberal standards. Yeah, he was just terrible about “forced busing.” Let’s not even bring up Anita Hill. But, look, we gotta beat Donald Trump in 2020. Biden polls well. He’s a class warrior. Old-school Democrats like him. Let’s set aside our precious little ideologies and get ’er done.
I’m probably rounding the corners but you get my meaning. Party elites over here are warning party elites over there to be careful. While that’s healthy, generally speaking, let’s keep things in perspective. These are still elite arguments whether they’re over ideological purity or pragmatism. Indeed, just framing the arguments that way—between ideological purity or pragmatism—is such an elitist thing to do. Because here’s the thing: normies are not as invested in the nominee as elites are, and normies will probably go with whomever the elites choose, because they don’t care about the differences between apples and apples. They just want an apple. So pick one.
We shouldn’t overstate indifference among normies, but we shouldn’t understated it either. It should be incorporated into elite arguments, bearing in mind the most pragmatic thing elites can do for the party, when it comes to picking a nominee, is pick one. Normies don’t care why it’s this one and not that one. I mean, they care, but not that much. What they really care about is the big fight, and because normies are so focused on defeating the president, it’s fine, seriously jim-dandy, that party elites are vetting Joe Biden’s record on gender, race, criminal justice, the whole shebang. The most important thing party elites can do is choose a viable alternative to Trump.
What’s “viable”? That’s debatable, obviously, but it’s hard to imagine a Democratic Party, in our polarized 21st century, choosing a nominee of the same generation as the incumbent, indeed four years old. It’s hard to imagine the party choosing a nominee who will fight over “swing voters” in 2020 the way Bill Clinton did in 1992. Far easier to imagine is a nominee who will stand in contrast to all things Donald Trump while electrifying the electorate with new ideas, new policies, and new representation.
That’s not to say Uncle Joe is disqualified. He could survive this vetting. Survival, however, greatly depends on what the Democratic Party wants, which is to say what Democratic Party elites want. If party elites wanted him, they would find a way for him. As Bloomberg’s Francis Wilkinson wrote today, how Democrats deal with the perceived shortcomings “may tell us more about the inchoate process of a party identifying its leader than it tells us about individual transgressions or defects.”
My sense is they don’t want him to run and don’t know how to tell a party elder closely associated with a popular former president not to. It’s probably a relief to see women coming forward with stories about Biden touching them in non-sexual but otherwise cringe-worthy ways (for instance, nuzzling a grown woman’s nose with his). I agree with Wilkinson. These aren’t disqualifying. Not yet. But they might be enough to get party elites to rethink Biden. He’s not a sure thing against Trump. Democrats have great options. Best to stay focused on the big fight. That’s what normies want.
If Biden is left behind, so be it.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.