This is all fine — better than fine, actually. If 1964 was a time for choosing, as Ronald Reagan put it when he went on TV to argue for Barry Goldwater, 2020 is a time for settling, in the multiple senses of that word.
It is a time for settling on a candidate on whom a broad majority of Democrats, and Americans, can agree. It’s a time for settling the country down, after three-plus years of ugliness and the divisiveness that both preceded and created the Trump phenomenon. It is a time for settling for Biden.
Biden is candidate as comfort food, calming and familiar. After flirtations with the new (Pete Buttigieg), the provocative (Bernie Sanders) and the planner (Elizabeth Warren), Biden is, it turns out, the one we’ve been waiting for. He is not the candidate, and would not be the president, of hope and change; he is the avatar of normalcy.
This was, even before the coronavirus, Biden’s fundamental argument: that his would be a restoration presidency — of American values, of America’s place in the world. And, perhaps even more, of a president who does not whip through three White House chiefs of staff and three national security advisers (Trump is on his fourth, in both cases); who does not tweet and attack incessantly; who can be counted on, if not for the “bold, persistent experimentation” of an FDR, then at least for capable governance.
And even though Biden’s campaign website brags about his “Bold Ideas,” the verbs belie the adjective: “revoke,” “reverse,” “renew,” “restore,” “reassert,” “rescind,” “revitalize.” That means undoing the damage done by Trump, overturning specific policies and rebuilding the domestic expertise and international alliances trashed by four years under the 45th president.
Jonathan Chait argues in New York magazine that, as much as Biden’s campaign is founded on “the return to normalcy,” his domestic agenda, “while nowhere near as radical as the Bernie Sanders platform, is almost certainly to the left of anything even a Democratic-run Congress would pass.”
Biden proposes a tax increase on the wealthy that would amount to $4 trillion over a decade. He advocates trillions more in additional spending — on clean energy, education and housing. He has endorsed a $15-per-hour minimum wage.
But that seems as much a reflection of how the Democratic voters have moved and how the political debate has evolved as it is about who Biden is. Warren ran under the banner of “bold, structural change.” Biden is more about the art of the possible.
Under the current circumstances, this is a feature, not a bug. Biden can coalesce the votes of African Americans and women, particularly suburban women, while luring back the white, non-college-educated voters who turned out for Trump in key states four years ago.
Second, Biden at the top of the ticket can help Democrats retain control of the House and — as important as retaking the White House — winning a majority in the Senate. So much of what any president can do is determined not by the stated agenda but by the capacity to transmit those policies into action. Just ask Barack Obama.
Third, and even with control of both houses of Congress, there are limits to the transformational change that any president can accomplish. Yes, the country faces large and pressing problems (combating climate change, reducing income inequality), but simply cleaning up the Trumpian mess and restoring order are enough to occupy the energies of any Democratic president for at least a single term.
If that wasn’t clear before the pandemic, it is now. Trump’s response to the coronavirus — a familiar but dangerous combination of ineptitude, denialism and self-interest — has driven that point home.
“This election isn’t about ideology; it’s about competence,” Michael Dukakis proclaimed, optimistically and inaccurately, in accepting the Democratic nomination in 1988, before losing to George H.W. Bush. The 2020 election is about both competence and ideology. Which is what makes Biden, with all his flaws, the right candidate for a scary moment.