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A Return to Normalcy

Biden’s unexpected comeback and America’s future.

Joe Biden in New Hampshire. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON– For Joe Biden, it’s life on the gold coast.

The former vice president, after running a somnolent and ridiculed campaign in 2019, is where he was about this time last year: atop the Democratic field. This time his standing has teeth. 

Biden romped Super Tuesday night in his Southern vanguard, triumphing in crown-jeweled Texas, and stunned with his showing with white liberals in Minnesota, Massachusetts and Maine. Only California was a stronghold of note for Bernie Sanders, where Biden never had the money to compete, and never tried: with reportedly only one office in the whole Golden State. Should Sanders stage an improbable comeback and take the presidential nomination, Biden will have finally paid a price for running an unadmired campaign for a year. 

But America, the Democratic establishment, and Camp Sanders wake up Wednesday coming to grips with the likely: Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee. 

What has occurred since last Saturday morning has been nothing short of a chain reaction. 

Palmetto president-maker Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in the Congress, Pete Buttigieg, on whom Biden lavished pointed praise, comparing him to his late son, and Amy Klobuchar, have served Bernie Sanders a dish best served steaming. A relentless crescendo of endorsements, backed up by actual results Tuesday night, has sent Sandersnistas an unambiguous message: it’s our party, we can do what we want to.

Weeks after winning in ‘72, Biden’s personal life was overthrown, with the automobile deaths of his wife and daughter. Biden was sworn in next to a hospital bed; in the early days, the doctors didn’t know if his sons, Beau and Hunter Biden, were going to make it. 

If Biden’s early pitch contained motifs of perseverance — melancholic old tales of his dad getting laid off, his constituents’ struggles for racial justice — his latter argument, on display last Saturday in South Carolina, is a dissertation on Weltschmerz. But Biden has a clear message in 2020: America should “get back up.” 

He would know.

Last week, clever handicappers noted that Biden had never won a Democratic primary for president. That’s all done now. 

Biden has washed away an embarrassing exit in 1988, an anonymous performance in 2008, and a 2016 race from which he was intimidated, and has emerged, near eighty, as the Democratic standard-bearer, a lifelong ambition.  

Especially after later struggles — near-disaster financially as the sitting vice president, the death of his son Beau, a politician in his own right, in 2016, Biden was encouraged by all but his closest coterie, including Barack Obama, to call it a career. As Richard Ben Cramer drove home in his seminal What It Takes, on the ‘88 race: Biden never, ever had money. 

Biden clearly considered a liquid-diet retirement, undertaking a pronounced cashout in the years since 2016. That record will now be examined even more ferociously. Forms of such investigation have already got President Donald Trump impeached. Who knows what’s next. 

But Team Trump is mistaken if they believe that can willfully conflate the Biden track record with the Clinton calamity. The Clintons engorged themselves through an international charity and Secretary of State Clinton handled her stint at Foggy Bottom with Beria-style paranoia, culminating in the disastrous email scandal. 

The Bidens are sleazy, but sympathetic. The New York Review of Books dubbed the former Delaware senator America’s “designated mourner.” I think that’s right. As Biden stutters through campaign rallies going forward, regaling parishioners, in this era of anxiety, with tales of perseverance… many later in the voting booth may conclude, as they did last night: maybe he deserves it. 

Senator Biden took three to four hours of train every day between Delaware and DC, Wilmington and Washington. For many, a vote for Biden is a bet that, unlike recent models, he won’t vandalize the city he loves. 

If you take a look at the 1920 Republican platform — trade protection, immigration restriction and come home America — you could mistake it for White House talking points today. That Donald Trump has failed to near his rhetoric on these issues has left him terribly vulnerable to a restorationist. A grander reformist could have kept Trump’s crossover supporters exultant. Now, as evidenced last night in Minnesota, a state Trump’s guru Brad Parscale hopes to turn, the president risks some coming home to Uncle Joe.

America sated its anger with its vote four years ago. To POTUS’ partial credit, the economy is better off, if a virus doesn’t destroy the system. Ironically, Trump could also be a victim of his own success. Against a less dire backdrop, voters could rule that they just like Biden than Hillary Clinton, and that might be that. 

Biden then, not Trump, would be the candidate of the centennial. Like Warren Harding, he promises a return to normalcy. On Tuesday night, America was reminded it has an establishment. 

A clear Biden obsession is the Declaration of Independence, from which he frequently, unevenly quotes. Self-evident: America is messed up. That unsettling reality is here to stay, win or lose, Biden or Trump, in November. That Trump told that truth made him an, at times, thrilling candidate in 2016. That he’s chosen to run “Keep America Great,” the mirror of Hillary Clinton’s “America is Already Great,” could well be his undoing. 

All is hardly lost with a Biden presidency. The man is a genuinely middle class politician, a figure from the provinces, with the motley background of a Harry Truman, Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter. At a time of middle class besiegement, we could do worse. 

Biden’s vote for the Iraq war is inexcusable. But for foreign policy realists, other items of his record are encouraging. Robert Gates, Bush and Obama’s secretary of defense, famously loathed Biden and lavished praise on Secretary Clinton. The late gonzo journalist Michael Hastings exposed the object of General Stanley McChrystal’s ire: Vice President Biden. The VP’s record on Afghanistan, where he was the most restrained member of Obama’s cabinet, is downright encouraging. You could say worse for a guy: he has a lot of the right enemies. 

Unlike Clinton, Biden seems to at least recognize America’s inchoate rage. 

Trump will need to get in gear, now, to avoid an upset in November.

about the author

Curt Mills is Senior Reporter at TAC covering national security, the 2020 campaign and the Trump presidency. Previously, he reported for The National Interest, Washington Examiner, U.S. News & World Report and the Spectator. Mills was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and is a native and resident of Washington, D.C.

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