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Joe Biden Is Going Back to the Clinton Playbook

The Democratic frontrunner’s campaign is pitched to white folks who have fled the party. Sound familiar?

Joe Fusco/Getty Images

When Joe Biden made his first bid for president, he was forced to drop out after plagiarizing British Labour leader Neil Kinnock in a Democratic debate. Now, in his third run for the White House, Biden is plagiarizing himself. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to restore America’s soul,” he bellowed at the Iowa Democratic Steak Fry in May 1987. Thirty-two years later, almost to the day, miraculously sporting more hair cover than his balding dome had back then, Biden kicked off his 2020 campaign in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, by proclaiming, “We’re in a battle for America’s soul—I really believe it—and we have to restore it.”

Politicians can’t help but repeat themselves on the campaign trail, of course; like bands on tour, they tend to fall back on the tried-and-true. The trouble with Biden isn’t that his rhetoric hasn’t changed in three decades. It’s that his politics haven’t, either.

Back then, Biden was a central figure in transforming the party of New Deal and Great Society liberalism into a welfare-reforming, tax-cutting, crime-fighting, corporate-friendly cousin of the GOP. “The arc of Biden’s long career,” as Esquire columnist Charles Pierce wrote earlier this year, “follows in close harmony the endless attempts by the Democratic Party to backtrack on its most profound principles in order to bring back people who have been taught to hate it.”

The rationale for all that backtracking, in the ’80s and 90s, was that Democrats had lost five out of six presidential elections. Meanwhile, their hundred-year hegemony in the “Solid South” was fast eroding as Republicans took advantage of the white backlash to civil rights and feminism. “Moderate” Democrats like Biden and Bill Clinton joined mainstream pundits and big donors in spreading the idea that the party would never recapture the White House without recapturing the souls of white folk in Dixie.

We know how that played out: The centrists won the argument and, when Clinton rode the “New Democrat” agenda to victory in 1992, Lite Republicanism became the official strategy of the Democratic Party. But white Southerners, the ostensible rationale for trading progressivism for “pragmatism,” never came back to the fold; instead, they became a solid base for the GOP, which served up an ever-purer form of white supremacy, Bible-beating patriarchy, and free-market malarkey. Meanwhile, the emerging majority of people of color and white progressives became uninspired part-time voters, rolling their collective eyes at the Democrats’ empty talk about economic and racial justice.

By the close of the Obama era, the Democrats had lost their purchase on power in Congress, in most statehouses, and at the local levels they’d once dominated. After Hillary Clinton lost the ideological argument to Bernie Sanders in 2016, and then lost the general election to Donald Trump, Third Way politics appeared destined at last for the dustheap of history. The future of the Democratic Party was now in the hands of unapologetic progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Stacey Abrams.

So it seemed. But six months after the 2018 midterms, history is repeating itself. Biden sits high atop the presidential primary field, hinging his appeal on a promise of winning back yet another set of white guys gone astray: the “working-class” Rust Belt voters who supposedly tipped the 2016 election to Trump. The fact that hundreds of thousands of African American voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—more than enough to have made the difference—sat out the 2016 election was roundly ignored in the aftermath of Trump’s shocking victory. Never mind that, Democrats were being told: Once again, you’ve got a white-guy problem on your hands. And who better to ride to the rescue than good old Retro Joe?

“For his whole career,” as New York’s Rebecca Traister wrote not long ago, “Biden’s role has been to comfort the lost, prized, and most fondly imagined Democratic voter, the one who’s like him: that guy in the diner, that guy in Ohio, that guy who’s white and so put off by the changed terms of gendered and racial power in this country that decades ago he fled for the party that was working to roll back the social advancements that had robbed him of his easy hold on power. That guy who believed that the system worked best when it worked for him.” All of which makes Biden, she added, “the Democrats’ answer to the hunger to ‘make America great again,’ dressed up in liberal clothes.”

Desperation sure does a number on Democrats. Not even the mainstream pundits and latter-day Blue Dogs who worked so hard to sell the white working-class narrative of 2016 could have imagined that Biden would have such a strong edge in the primary polling, even at this early juncture. Especially not with a campaign that, so far, has made almost no concessions to 21st-century progressivism (or 21st-century America, for that matter). Yes, Biden started mouthing a pro-choice line years ago when it became anathema in the Democratic Party to rage against abortion rights, and he came out for same-sex marriage in 2012 after having backed the Defense of Marriage Act. And sure, he’s grudgingly apologized for groping women without permission and championing the 1994 crime bill that helped lead to the mass incarceration of black men. Eventually, no doubt, he’ll be forced to explain away other apostasies like his co-sponsorship of the inequality-expanding bankruptcy bill in 2005.

But there’s a difference between apologizing and evolving. Biden’s campaign kickoff, late last month, was a letter-perfect example of his old stock-in-trade: talking like a populist and walking like a plutocrat. The night before the union hall rally in Pittsburgh, Biden was raising big bucks from labor-busting bigwigs at a fundraiser hosted by former Comcast President David Cohen. The next afternoon, he had the folks roaring along as he excoriated union-busting corporate greedheads and declared his candidacy was all about “workers over wealth.” “This country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers, CEOs, and hedge-fund managers,” he shouted. “It was built by you!”

Like the other New Democrats, Biden has always talked endlessly about the middle class, even while he’s helped to extinguish it. “The middle class is hurting in America,” he lamented in Pittsburgh, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “The stock market is roaring, but you don’t feel it. There was a $2 trillion tax cut last year; did you feel it? Did you get anything from it?” This is a crime, he said, because “hard-working middle-class Americans are the backbone of this nation—that’s no hyperbole, they are the backbone of this nation.” At times, he’s unable to conceal the extent to which “middle class” is Democratic code for white people: “Being middle class is not a number,” he said. “It’s a value set. It’s about being able to send your kid to a park where you know they’re coming home safe.”

Biden has ticked off a few modest policy proposals thus far—a very few. He calls for a $15 minimum wage, pledges to repeal the Trump tax cut, roll back some capital-gains benefits to make community college tuition-free, and offer “a choice to buy into a public option for Medicare.” He’s touting “clean, renewable energy”—namely, “clean” coal and natural gas. It’s tame fare, to say the least, but even as he ticks off such proposals, he’s careful to offer a message of reassurance to the corporate sponsors: “Look, folks,” he said in Pittsburgh. “We can do all this without punishing anybody.”

The one difference between the Biden of 1987 and the Biden of 2019 is that he’s gone from promoting himself as the voice of a new generation to peddling pure nostalgia, promising a return to the “sanity” that supposedly prevailed in the time before Trump. “I believe that history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces,” Biden said in his announcement video, “as an aberrant moment in time.” Anyone with the slightest short-term historical memory knows better—and Biden, an eyewitness to the entire government-wrecking project that began with Reagan in the 80s, accelerated with Newt Gingrich’s Republican House majority in the 90s, hit new heights under George W. Bush in the 00s, and culminated in Trumpism, certainly ought to.

The Clinton and Obama presidencies did nothing to halt America’s slide into a rancorous new Gilded Age—nor did Senator and Vice President Biden, who now promises to restore those halcyon days of “unity over division, hope over fear.” There’s nothing remarkable about the fact that he’s campaigning this way; it’s all he knows, and all he’s ever done. What’s stunning is the number of Democrats who are, so far, buying what Biden is selling.

The last three decades have shown the bitter consequences of Democrats hewing white and right, acceding to the fiction that there’s no other way to win. Settling for Biden will mean blunting messages and policies that can fire up millennials and under-50 voters of color in 2020, both in the Rust Belt and in Sunbelt battlegrounds like North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Arizona. It will turn the 2020 general election into a mano y mano slugfest for the votes of a small number of aggrieved white guys in a select few states. We’ve seen that movie before. It does not end well. Not even for the white guys.