The reaction to Joe Biden running for president tells you everything you need to know

Steven T Wright
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The reaction to Joe Biden running for president tells you everything you need to know

The ancient Democratic Party obelisk known as Joe Biden announced his intention to run for president today, and it wasn’t hard to tell that the burgeoning new American left views him as a serious threat. Sure, squeaky-clean neophytes like Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg might garner single- or even double-digits from early primary states like Iowa, and the Bernie supporters of Twitter might get a lot of traction out of mocking them.

Much as they might laugh, however, these so-called Bernie bros aren’t bothering to take on the hollow rhetoric of the Buttigiegs and O’Rourkes of this world line-by-line.

Not so with Biden: the usual chorus of jokes from the peanut gallery are nowhere to be found, replaced by alarm bells and cries of genuine fury.

For more centre-leaning Dems, Obama’s vice president represents a return to normality through his so-called “straight talk” and blue-collar appeal. For the more vibrant reaches of the party, however, who support popular left initiatives like Medicare for All and free public colleges, Biden is anathema, a mottled relic of “third-way” neoliberalism who has personally been on the wrong side of nearly every important issue in his lengthy career.

Since the Obama years shattered the collective delusion shared among millennials that the Democrats might leverage power to do any good in our daily lives, fervent leftists have often used humour to cope with the constant disappointments of our two-party system. As the overstuffed clown car of candidates opposed to left firebrands like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders has rolled onward, revealing empty suit after empty suit with little to no chance of winning the nomination, the leftist commentariat has taken great glee in taking shots at each.

But while ripping these obscure figures to shreds might seem like an indulgence — or, worse, an expression of the navel-gazing nihilism that some left programmes like Chapo Trap House occasionally dip into — this sort of tomato-throwing serves an important end: public humiliation. And that can be an important tool in politics.

It might seem hard to believe in a post-Hermain Cain era, but back in the late 20th century, running for president and losing was considered a mark of shame rather than an exercise in brand inflation. You couldn’t simply collect cheques from all your millionaire friends and spend six months eating artery-hardening slop in dingy diners across America while peddling your book, or drop out after Iowa to embrace B-tier punditry — at least if you wanted to try again four years later. Even transformative political figures like lionized liberal Ted Kennedy took only one bite at the apple.

In 2019, with a humiliation-proof charlatan as our head of state, one thing has become clear: there is no downside to running for president, especially when there’s no single candidate that the institutional organs of the party are laying out the red carpet for. Hillary’s iron grip on the centres of Democratic power ensured that most of these bats stayed in the belfry for 2016 (at least the ones who still wanted to be invited to chic dinner parties). But with Trump as president and a self-identified democratic socialist as one of the frontrunners, the clown car is unleashed, and it rolls on with no end in sight.

When an ostensibly serious politician and fracking-fluid quaffer like John Hickenlooper looks at the early national polls and sees a big fat goose egg next to his name, what possible end flashes through his mind? Perhaps a position in the winner’s cabinet that he’d be unlikely to claim otherwise, or another unreadable tract on the state of America’s riven electoral system that he might be able to sell. It’s a cynical view, sure. But in a world where high-profile Democratic programmes like the podcast Pod Save America devote five minutes to discussing candidates with sub-zero chance — like Seth Moulton of Massachusetts — perhaps the cynical position is beginning to win out.

Not that the old hats of the party pay much mind, of course. In Biden, they’re cheering for a candidate who represents everything the left should abhor: a mouldering corpse of a long-failed electoral strategy, a black hole of charisma and ideology. When the supposed frontrunner built his career on policies that encouraged the violence of mass incarceration, who carried the flag for the war on drugs, who seemingly undermined women without a care, even the most hardened tweeters have a hard time coming up with a pithy quip to take him apart. Instead, they settle for howling into the void that is the politics of our current moment.

Biden may not be a straight-up careerist, but he’s bad for the party in general. And the fact that he’s now being taken so seriously — both by his supporters and detractors — should prove how wide-open this race really is.