Joe Biden’s new presidential announcement video appears designed to send the message that of all the Democrats, he uniquely recognizes the true nature of the threat that President Trump poses to the country’s fundamental character and future.
In one sense, Biden has spectacularly good timing: Trump is now taking numerous new steps to place his corruption and lawlessness beyond any scrutiny and accountability, threatening serious damage to our constitutional arrangements. Trump himself continues underscoring the threat he poses.
Yet in another sense, Biden’s launch embodies a larger bet that many Democratic Party elder statespeople seem to be making, one that seems out of sync with the current moment — a kind of faith in the ability of our system and our values to right the nation on their own, a faith that seems oddly misplaced.
The latest developments
Trump just unleashed two extraordinary tweets claiming that one of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s central findings simply never happened: Trump asserted he never ordered then-White House counsel Donald McGahn to fire Mueller, while claiming he did have the legal right to fire Mueller if he pleased.
This matters because right now, Trump is trying to block McGahn from testifying before Congress. This would further flesh out the extraordinary efforts to obstruct justice that Mueller documented. Mueller concluded that those and other obstructive efforts were undertaken with improper intent — and concluded that presidents can violate obstruction statutes if they interfere in investigations with such corrupt motives.
Thus, Trump wants to prop up a falsified version of events that obscures his profound corruption and skirting of criminality — while simultaneously blocking efforts by Congress to get to the bottom of it all.
What’s more, the White House just announced that immigration czar Stephen Miller will not honor a request that he testify before Congress. Miller could shed light on multiple lawless and corrupt episodes, particularly Trump’s orders that border officials break the law by walling out asylum seekers. By keeping Miller hidden, the White House is keeping those episodes in the dark.
Meanwhile, the magnitude of Mueller’s revelations continues to sink in. The New York Times has a new piece fleshing out how Trump repeatedly tried to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate Hillary Clinton — an effort to turn law enforcement loose on Trump’s political opponents.
This has ramifications going forward. Trump is now demanding an investigation of the investigators, which dramatically raises the stakes as the House mulls an impeachment inquiry. As Benjamin Wittes notes, if the House essentially fails via impeachment to declare this conduct “unacceptable," then all bets are off.
Finally, Trump will defy “all” subpoenas. Democrats had hoped to launch investigations to temporarily gather the full facts before making an impeachment decision. But, by blocking all such fact-gathering, Trump is forcing Democrats to choose between impeachment and letting Trump neuter them.
The Biden launch
Enter Biden’s video announcement. It centers on Trump’s refusal to unambiguously condemn white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, and Biden says: “In that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”
Biden’s video reaffirms the American civic nationalist tradition as the answer to the racial nationalism that has reasserted itself with Trump. The mission of the moment is to restore this tradition — the idea that political freedom and economic opportunity must be available to all, regardless of racial, cultural or ethnic background — to the center of American life.
“At stake,” Biden says, are our “core values,” and if Trump wins reelection, it will “forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation” and “who we are.”
Thus, Biden is betting that Democratic voters will choose the person who most forthrightly proclaims that the biggest threat we face right now is Trump himself, and so has the best chance of beating him.
In a sense, this draws on lessons Democrats took from their 2018 win. As Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, who worked on House races, told me, Democrats realized that both Democratic and swing voters wanted candidates who offered a “safe port in a storm” at a moment of perceived extreme danger in the form of Trump, which is why Democrats recruited many candidates with records of accomplishment and an aura of solidity and competence.
Biden seems to be making a similar bet.
Whether Biden can mobilize the segments of the Democratic primary electorate that view the plutocracy or climate change or sclerotic neoliberalism as the real threats is an open question. But another open question is whether Biden’s recognition of the threat Trump poses will itself prove sufficient.
Biden focused on Trump’s racism as the big threat at least in part out of primary politics. But where will Biden come down on the question of how to combat Trump’s ongoing assaults on the rule of law?
Right now, it remains unclear whether Democrats are prepared to adopt the Total War footing that the moment increasingly calls for. Democrats are still debating how aggressively to combat Trump’s ongoing treatment of House oversight efforts as fundamentally illegitimate, say, by holding uncooperative officials in contempt. With Trump gambling that Democrats will prove too squeamish to pull the impeachment trigger, neutering themselves, it’s hard to have confidence that his bet will prove to be a wrong one.
At some point soon, Biden — and other Democrats — will have to confront the impeachment question head-on. If they blink, they will have to explain how they plan to proceed against what they themselves keep describing as a profound threat to the country and the rule of law.
It’s hard to escape the sense that Biden believes the next election will itself be enough — that is, that conventional politics is sufficient, and that the strength of our values reasserting themselves will right the nation. This appears to be the reigning belief of many leading Democrats confronting Trump as well.
One hopes they are right. But what if they aren’t?