The results of Super Tuesday show that while Joe Biden can’t be described as coherent, the Biden campaign has found a coherent message. It is not a message bristling with policy detail. It is not a message that swears fealty to intersectional dogma. Certainly, it is not a message that has much appeal to anybody under the age of 30.
Instead, what Biden offers is a strange vision of a nation restored to a pre-Trump summer of the early 2010s. ‘We have to correct,’ Biden says in his speeches. The correction is not aimed at what those on the left perceive to be enormous structures of injustice and inequality. Biden rarely talks about systems. Unlike other candidates who have run — Andrew Yang, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders — Biden’s diagnosis of America’s ills is not grounded in economic analysis, academic jargon, or ideology. His is a backwards-looking, near-static candidacy. ‘When I was vice president’ is surely Biden’s favorite phrase in speeches and interviews. Those are the years he wants to take America back to, just remove the ‘vice’.
The Biden restoration wants to turn Trump into a blip, a bad dream, a bizarre interregnum between the prelapsarian Obama years and the senile shelter of the Uncle Joe years. Biden cannot be a president who goads and lacerates his opponents, as Trump does, because he’ll barely be able to remember their names. The experience of the Trump era for some excitable liberals has viewed every week as a crisis week, every day a crisis day, every hour a crisis hour. The exhausting intensity of this lived fear and uncertainty (think of the endless speculations we have all endured over the last four years about the collapse of institutions, the climate emergency, secession, even civil war) turns out to be deeply useful for the Biden campaign.
‘The sovereign,’ Carl Schmitt wrote, ‘is he who decides on the exception.’ Power is a matter of sounding the alarm and declaring the emergency. Trump did exactly that in his inaugural: ‘Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.’ American carnage; this was a state of exception declared in front of the entire world. Now Biden, with the backing of the conservative suburban and black voters who helped flip the House in 2018, is attempting to inverse Schmitt and reverse Trump. The sovereign is he who decides that everything is going back to normal.
Test this message against what Bernie Sanders promises. A political revolution. Trillions of dollars of new federal spending. Cadres of young radicals pouring into institutions that have already been maimed by dumbo graduates brimming with bad ideas. After the storms of the last few years, Sanders promises new whirlwinds. There is a great risk with the Sanders project, as there was with Corbyn’s in the UK, of what Germans call Verschlimmbesserung — when an attempted improvement ends making things far worse. The search for the simple life, away from strife, away from politics itself is much more appealing to a public suffering, if anything, from too much news and too much politics. ‘People don’t want a revolution,’ Biden said on Monday, and apart from the young, busily tweeting photos of guillotines to billionaires, this appears to be true.
But will they, particularly in the general, want the vague restoration Biden promises? The Biden restoration is virtually contentless. ‘Everyone, everyone, is entitled to be treated with dignity,’ he says in speeches. Of course, Joe, but how? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. There is something oddly heroic about Biden sometimes, an intimate and personal energy, an emotional flexibility, that occasionally breaks through the scrim of senility he labors under. When Biden was asked about his faith by reverend Anthony Thompson, whose wife was one of nine African Americans murdered in Charleston in 2015 he gave a moving, graceful answer: ‘I don’t know how you’ve dealt with it, Reverend,’ Biden said. ‘But the way I’ve been able to deal with when my wife was killed and my daughter was killed and then my son died, I’ve only been able to deal with it by realizing they’re part of my being. My son Beau was my soul.’
Biden’s life has been a catalog of embarrassments, drubbings, failures and tragedies. It makes for a pitiless story. Like a Shakespearean lead, Biden has every reason for wanting to turn the clock back in his life, which adds depth and resonance to his pitch to American voters that the page can be turned on the last four years. In The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s characters lose their identities and fortunes in a welter of confusion and danger. Somehow, usually implausibly, that which is lost ends up being magically restored. Identities are resumed and fortunes re-established.
But restoration — as Biden voters will find out, should he win the nomination, and then the election — is never straightforward. Does anybody in the audience have a smile on their face at the end of The Merchant of Venice? When Leontes recovers his wife, missing for 16 years, at the end of The Winter’s Tale, he cannot help but notice that the woman he lost ‘was not so much wrinkled’ as the woman who stands before him. Commenting on the restorations that occur in Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt writes ‘the recovery is never quite what it seems: the past that is recovered turns to be an inversion or a delusion or, in the worst case, an intensification of loss.’
The Biden restoration will not be what it seems, should it occur. Four sour years of strife and rancor have seen all kinds of thresholds crossed and barriers breached. The past Biden wants to recover, a glittering image of the Obama years when liberals could feel good about themselves and the country, was never what it seemed. If Biden does manage to turn the clock back he will find that the past really is a foreign country, not the harbor he expects.