Joe Biden is in trouble. It’s not his actual campaign that’s in truly dire straits. Although Elizabeth Warren has risen steadily, troubling donors already troubled by Biden’s age, he’s still first or second in most polls and shows few signs of tumbling too far from the top of the field. He could do without the attention President Trump and the impeachment situation have brought to Hunter Biden. But to the extent that his son’s business dealings may receive intense scrutiny, it’s far more likely to become a concern if Biden wins the nomination. Here in the nomination fight, his fellow Democratic candidates will be wary of echoing Trump’s attacks. No, Joe Biden the candidate is mostly fine. Joe Biden is in trouble because should he win the general election, then Joe Biden the president will be unable to govern. The Biden theory of change, the central argument of his campaign, is unraveling before our very eyes.
One of Biden’s early expositions of that argument came in January during a speech before the United States Conference of Mayors. Still undeclared, he made a nod to speculation about his intentions and the criticisms his campaign would be subjected to. “I read in The New York Times today that one of my problems if I were to run for president, I like Republicans,” he said. “OK, well, bless me father for I have sinned.” Here he crossed himself to laughter and applause. “From where I come from, I don’t know how you get anything done. I don’t know how you get anything done unless we start talking to one another again.”
As proof of his ability to get us talking to one another again, Biden has offered, both in private fundraisers and on the stump, anecdotes about his personal success in bridging ideological divides throughout his career, including stories about the relationships he built with segregationists like James Eastland and Herman Talmadge. Despite the controversies those remarks spurred, polls suggest the larger message he wanted them to convey has resonated with a large share of Democratic voters, who would like to believe, as Biden insists, that we’ll return to a more productive politics after Trump leaves office. “The thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House,” Biden said at a May campaign stop in New Hampshire. “Not a joke. You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.”
In the meantime, Biden’s Republican friends are abetting the president’s attacks on his son and smearing House Democrats’ efforts to hold this administration accountable. The responses of House Republicans to the impeachment inquiry have been fairly predictable, although Representative Matt Gaetz did offer up a stunner of a line Tuesday morning. “What we see in this impeachment is a kangaroo court,” he said, “and Chairman [Adam] Schiff is acting like a malicious Captain Kangaroo.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy made a more serious gaffe on 60 Minutes last week when he falsely accused anchor Scott Pelley of altering the White House’s transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to make Trump sound worse.
Senate Republicans have been quieter—so quiet, in fact, that as of Monday, none have appeared for interviews on CNN or MSNBC since September 25. Chuck Todd spent the majority of his interview with Senator Ron Johnson on Meet the Press this past Sunday trying to get straight answers on the propriety of Trump’s Ukraine call as Johnson dodged with conspiratorial statements about the Mueller investigation. Senator Mitt Romney has issued obligatory statements of indignation about Trump’s conduct, but even his fellow reasonable Republican Senator Ben Sasse has accused Schiff of running “a partisan clown show.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is actively telling donors on social media how doggedly he intends to defend Trump. “Nancy Pelosi’s in the clutches of a left wing mob,” he said in a video recently published on Facebook. “All of you know your Constitution. The way that impeachment stops is a Senate majority with me as majority leader.” This is the man Biden is promising voters he’ll be able to work with to pass ambitious and divisive legislation on health care, climate change, and gun control—a man who openly intends to defend Trump’s recruitment of a foreign power to investigate Biden’s son.
Biden’s suggestion that the willingness of McConnell and other Republicans to behave this way is a product of the Trump era should be measured against evidence from just before Trump swallowed up the political scene—especially those years in which Biden was, in fact, tasked with working with McConnell to achieve the Obama administration’s policy objectives. He has little to show for those past interactions with McConnell beyond a record of politically crippling budget negotiations that needlessly forced austerity upon a recovering economy and did little to ameliorate a debt situation which the Trump presidency has proven McConnell and Republicans never really cared about in the first place. The policy achievement Biden is proudest of and talks the most about on the trail, the Affordable Care Act, was passed without a single Republican vote. Yet, Biden talks up the Obama years as though they were replete with bipartisan successes. “Every time we got in trouble with our administration, remember who got sent up to Capitol Hill to fix it?” he asked during an August fundraiser. “Me. Because they know I respect the other team.”
Biden’s rhetoric rhymes oddly with the message of hope that animated Obama’s 2008 campaign, which also promised a turn towards a transcendent kind of politics and the bridging of our political divides. But while Obama seemed to herald the possibility of a new political future, Biden has promised a return to our political past, or at least the version of that past he remembers. The American past was, at most, a nebulous source of inspiration for Obama. Biden is of it. What Obama insisted—and still insists—is on our collective horizon, Biden sees in his rear-view mirror. It is the same destination; for one just ahead, the other just behind.
Of course, both are wrong. We saw under Obama the kind of intransigence the Republican Party is likely to return to in the next Democratic administration. In the impeachment situation and the efforts to investigate Hunter Biden that brought it about, we see too that nothing about Biden’s moderation as a political figure or the relationships he’s forged on the other side of the aisle will protect him from the forces shaping contemporary politics—the wild insinuations and conspiracies advanced not only by Trump but by the party and movement that produced him. The same politicians and media figures that advanced the idea that Obama was a foreigner, or a Muslim—or more coyly, that he somehow did not share American values—are the ones already circulating propaganda about the Biden family. As with Hillary Clinton, a thick dark cloud of theories about him will settle overhead.
This will happen with any candidate the Democratic Party nominates, but Biden stands apart in his unwillingness to recognize this—to acknowledge that our political reality will not be reordered by his personal charm. His buddy Barack, a considerably more charismatic and captivating politician, achieved little of what was expected from him. A man who, on the stump, rambles confusedly and mishandles significant dates and details in the long career he argues should recommend him for office will probably fare worse.
True to form, Biden has responded to Trump’s attacks on Hunter Biden not with indictments of the Republican Party’s complicity, but with rejoinders mostly aimed at Trump himself—presumably to avoid alienating his expected partners in governance and the voters who hope to see the dream of bipartisan comity revived and realized. “You’re not going to destroy me,” he said in a speech last Wednesday, “and not going to destroy my family.” This, ultimately, is one of the things that most disqualifies Joe Biden for the presidency: his inability to squarely tell the American people, or admit to himself, that even if Trump fails to destroy Joe Biden, the Republican Party is sure to keep trying.