Bear with me.
The former vice president’s paeans to civility and decency, to democracy and to the system, strike the precise opposite tone to the man in the Oval Office today. Biden, who has been within a heartbeat of that station himself, is the ultimate insider. President Trump’s outsider-ness is the basis of his brand.
But despite these differences, and despite all the rally-to-rally sparring between classical American liberalism’s last best hope and its top public enemy, Biden now faces something strangely similar to what the current commander in chief faced three years ago: the disapproval of a certain swath of the commentariat, its members lining up behind some candidate, any candidate, other than him.
Remember Never Trump? Welcome to Never Biden.
The writer David Klion brought the term to Twitter this week, albeit facetiously. And the movement, if you can call it that, is far from uniform. The most moderate Democrats, many of them members of yesterday’s guard, appreciate the most moderate candidate. And, of course, those Never Trump moderate Republicans, or the one-time Republicans who renounced the label after the last election, may love the guy most of all. The most strident praise for Biden in the New York Times recently, in fact, comes from not-so-liberal stalwart Bret Stephens: “Be Proud of Your Crime Bill,” he urges the Democratic front-runner.
But good luck with that. Because as long as Biden is connected to his crime bill or any of the other regressive beliefs that have marked his extended career, there’s a vocal segment of the Democratic electorate moving in lockstep against him. The leftiest of the left obviously can’t abide Biden one bit. But many other progressive pundits and activists are eager to attack him as unacceptable, especially when they are millennials, and especially when they are extremely online.
Before Biden announced his candidacy, op-eds abounded begging him, for the love of God and party, not to run. He didn’t listen, and now every past and present transgression sparks column after column about his inability to meet the current moment. Countless inches have been devoted to dismantling the narrative of Biden’s supreme electability.
Many of the Internet’s most prominent Hillary Clinton aficionados and still-with-her resisters have pivoted toward Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), rolling their eyes — sometimes complete with memes from “Big Little Lies” — at this old man and his old ways. Those who think talking about a “rigged system” is dangerous demagoguery look instead to the optimism of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who still goes on about “hope” but isn’t in his 70s. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) seems to offer something in between. Each of their supporters has preferences but, in many cases, that preference, and the time devoted to expressing it, is first for their candidate and second, against Biden.
The rest of the Democratic field has mostly resisted taking shots at each other. But at Biden, they’re ready to take aim, and sometimes they will even fire — though they usually refuse to call him by his name. It’s about generational gaps, or it’s about the inadequacy of a middle ground, or it’s about the silliness of trying to restore a system that was broken before Trump. Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, not doing so well for himself at the moment, said explicitly on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” this week that Biden is a return to the past.
Of course, there is a key difference between the backlashes against Biden and Trump. Three years ago, the Republican Party was attempting to save itself from radicalization, which took the form of a racist nativism whose rumblings the Never Trump collective wanted to quell entirely, or at least to keep quiet. Now, much of the Democratic Party is attempting to save itself through radicalization — championing the upheaval of the economic order and foreign policy consensus.
Electing someone who wants to bring back pre-2016 America isn’t just unsatisfactory; it’s a threat. The leftward lurch in policy positions and priorities happened after Trump’s victory, so why would progressives want to turn back the clock? “Best Friends Day” bracelets desperately reminding voters of a long-ago bromance with Barack Obama aren’t the comfort Biden wants them to be.
But is the threat enough to spook him into retirement? Never Biden Democrats, after all, may not remain Never Biden. Many Never Trump Republicans did not end up saying never — and the current president is so unpalatable to Democratic voters that it would take a lot to keep them from voting against him. And besides, like last time around, those who dislike the front-runner may be more noisy than numerous. Plenty of people do like Biden, in poll after poll. The Twitter pundits and columnists in left-leaning publications may think they’re talking to America when they’re actually only talking to each other.
If Joe Biden is Donald Trump, he just might win.