‘We are the United States of Amnesia,’ said Gore Vidal in 2004. These days, it’s more the United States of Dementia. In 2020, the country seems determined to choose between two elderly men who, it is fair to say, are some distance from sanity. Joe Biden, the 77-year-old who even aides admit has lost his ‘cognitive fastball’, has somehow emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee. Assuming that his candidacy or health don’t implode somehow between now and the party convention in July, Biden will face Donald Trump at the ballot on November 3.
America’s choice, then, is between two kinds of crazy. The electorate can take the Republican red pill and re-elect Trump, the exhaustingly unpredictable 73-year-old Commander-in-Chief who this week, in the middle of the global coronavirus panic, tweeted a picture of himself playing the violin with the slogan: ‘My next piece is called nothing can stop what’s coming.’ Or it can swallow the blue pill and wind the clock back to Barack Obama by electing his former vice president, who is clearly no longer in control of his senses.
Everybody knows that Biden’s mental health is a concern. It’s widely understood that he is far from the Democratic party’s ideal candidate. It’s also generally accepted that his nomination could leave a huge number of voters feeling apathetic. And here’s the really insane part: none of that matters.
The Democratic primary results on Tuesday night suggest that millions of voters could care less about Biden’s acuity; they think he can beat Trump. He’s a doddery old boy whose ridiculous ‘No malarkey’ campaign slogan and faux folksiness invite all sorts of ridicule. Yet he can mobilize voters in a way his rivals, including the left-wing radical Bernie Sanders, simply can’t.
Biden has won the primaries in Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, Massachusetts and Minnesota. He can win across America. It’s true that the western states — California, for instance — don’t seem so fond of him, but those areas are unlikely to plump for Trump.
Biden’s appeal is deeper and broader than most experts realized. ‘I’m not dead,’ he pointed out a couple of weeks ago, and he was more right than perhaps he realized. It’s not just that the Democratic establishment rallied behind him. It’s not just that the African American vote seems solidly in his favor — his closeness to Obama, the first black president, could mean he is more successful than Hillary Clinton in bringing black voters to the polls when it really counts in November. It’s that Biden has much more to offer.
He appeals to suburban women (those blue eyes), to middle-class and working-class blacks and whites, and to those notoriously elusive Obama-Trump voters in swing states (that is, white people who are so racist they voted for a black man twice before they decided to go for Trump).
Look at how blue-collar, suburban or ‘Reagan Democrat’ Michigan voted on Tuesday. Take Macomb County, in the Detroit Metro area. In the 2016 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton just edged out Bernie Sanders there by fewer than 2,000 votes, then lost the county to Trump by some 50,000. Well, on Tuesday, Biden thrashed Sanders in Macomb, which suggests he could be more competitive in the swing states than Clinton was.
Biden’s success in these areas may be down to the relative good times. Sanders’s angry left-wing populism resonated more in 2016 than it does now after three years of a booming economy. Biden also has the considerable advantage of not being Hillary, an almost perfect incarnation of the much-despised elite. Clinton was widely loathed in a way that Biden is not.
Yet he is a weak candidate; a restoration man from a time that many Americans would rather forget. Biden’s possible cabinet emerged this week, and it looks very much like a return to the corporate-control America that voters rejected four years ago. Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, is tipped to be his Treasury secretary. Michael Bloomberg, the mega-billionaire who just dropped out the election in order to endorse Biden, may become the head of the World Bank. John Kerry, the failed Democratic nominee in 2004, would return as Secretary of State. It would be the Obama Era, Part Two: This Time There’s No Hope.
The nature of Biden’s success, despite his obvious flaws, suggests the Trump campaign should be somewhat alarmed. His amiability masks the stench of his elitism. Sure, he may have been a credit card industry shill, an Iraq-war enthusiast, a Washington Swamp creature, a politician who used his power to secure lucrative foreign contracts for his wastrel son Hunter. But Biden has some public charm and that counts at the ballot box. He can’t be that sinister — he barely even seems to know where he is.
Biden has a bad temper too, another indication that his mind is failing. Yet Americans tend to interpret his irascibility as good ol’ fashioned grit. On Tuesday, a clip of Biden telling a factory worker in Detroit he was ‘full of shit’ went viral. The man had dared to ask if the former vice-president would take away his guns, and Biden exploded.
The right-wing commentariat gleefully circulated the video: ‘Cursing at the common man are you now, Joe?’ The media forgets (amnesia again) that these sorts of incidents do not hurt candidates as they used to. Trump was caught on tape talking about grabbing women ‘by the pussy’ and he won. Biden’s lack of slickness makes him attractive in the mass media age.
The public don’t mind Biden’s apparent senility anything like as much as the talking heads on Fox News do. The Democratic media spent most of 2016 questioning Trump’s brain health. That didn’t matter. In fact, Trump and his allies should be careful about teasing Biden: it’s not as if people regard the Donald as a model of mental stability. Team Trump’s endless memes of Biden’s gaffing can make him seem almost adorable and his tormentors nasty. If the race comes down to barmy uncle Joe vs Trump the orange bully, voters could well prefer the former. May the craziest man win.