Reasonable Joe

The magic of Joe Biden is that everything he does becomes the new reasonable. — Andrew Yang, August 20, 2020, the final night of the Democratic National Convention.

Andrew Yang at the Democratic National Convention

In a well-planned, well-executed convention full of moving speeches and pointed remarks the sharpest insight came from Andrew Yang, entrepreneur and former Democratic presidential contender. Yang’s analysis describes what makes Joe Biden an effective candidate in 2020.

Yang pointed to the future and the looming battle against climate change. “If he [Biden] comes with an ambitious template to address climate change, all of a sudden, everyone is going to follow his lead.” Well, not everyone, but Biden’s support for a vigorous attack on carbon emissions will make selling such a program to Congress and the public much easier. If amiable, nice guy Joe likes something, what can be bad?

Vice President Joe Biden endorsing same-sex marriage in 2012

Yang is not just speculating about the effectiveness of President Biden. There is a precedent of Biden endorsing a significant change in public policy that then “becomes the new reasonable.” In early May 2012, Vice President Biden announced that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage, “with men marrying men, women marrying women.” The vice president added that all married couples — same sex or heterosexual — “are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.” Biden noted that he was ahead of his boss on this issue and that policy is set by the president, not the vice president. 

At that time, Biden was the highest-ranking White House official to embrace same-sex marriage, then legal only in six states and the District of Columbia. The Obama administration had endorsed civil unions, but not gay marriage. Some quibbled that Biden had not really gone all that far out on the limb, noting that he had not called for the federal government to recognize gay marriage. But, most saw the vice president’s remarks as a significant step toward full marriage equality, and many were no doubt reassured by the tone of Biden’s endorsement, which suggested that gay marriage threatened no one and was no different from heterosexual marriage in the way couples treat one another. Biden pointed out that he had just visited the home of a same-sex California couple raising young children. “And, I said, ‘I wish every American could see the look of love those kids had in their eyes for you guys,’” Biden said. “‘And, they wouldn’t have any doubt about what this is about.’” A few days later, President Barack Obama, in the middle of a re-election campaign, followed Biden’s lead, and three years later the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land.

Reasonable Joe, the comforting candidate for a time of tumult!  Biden may not be the candidate progressives wanted, but, for many Americans, he seems the safer choice next to Trumpian chaos, mismanagement of the pandemic, high unemployment numbers, and attacks on long-standing, revered institutions such as the postal service. The public’s sense that Biden offers a steady hand at the helm was buttressed during the long primary campaign in which his familiar face and reputation as a moderate stood in stark contrast to candidates to his left. Because the public, for the most part, sees Biden as a moderate, Trump’s effort to paint the Democratic nominee as a “Trojan horse” for leftists such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has not gained traction. Trump’s attempts to belittle Biden — “Sleepy Joe” and “Slow Joe” among them — have failed because “Joe” is just so likable.

But, the Democratic Party — like the nation — is moving to the left, and Biden’s perceived moderation is far more progressive than the programs pursued by Obama in his eight years in office and Hillary Clinton in her failed presidential bid in 2016. Biden’s image as a nice guy, amiable and reasonable, makes him non-threatening and perhaps the best candidate the Democratic Party could have nominated to push a progressive program against Trump.

Make no mistake about it, Biden is running on a progressive platform. As I noted in an earlier post, Biden favors expanding health insurance through a generous public option and lowering the enrollment age for Medicare to 60. He would make college far more affordable for many and significantly reform immigration policy. Biden backs many of the proposals of the Green New Deal, including floating a climate plan to decarbonize the American economy by 2035.

Some on the left may be tempted to sit out this election, just as they sat out the last one. The argument among some progressives is that Biden is a moderate, the party ignored its true representatives in overlooking Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and the Obama-Biden administration temporized and did nothing to combat growing income inequality. All true, but all irrelevant for this moment.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders endorsing Joe Biden for president

Sanders effectively countered this argument, rightfully calling Trump an existential threat to the United States. “Under this administration,” the Vermont Independent said, “authoritarianism has taken root in our country. I and my family, and many of yours, know the insidious way authoritarianism destroys democracy, decency, and humanity. As long as I am here, I will work with progressives, with moderates, and, yes, with conservatives to preserve this nation from a threat that so many of our heroes fought and died to defeat.” 

What Sanders did not say, but what is also true is this: Biden may not be the most progressive Democrat around, and, in a Biden presidency, progressives may only get half a loaf, if that. But, if Biden wins in November, progressives can live to fight another day. If Trump wins, the nation that permits dissent and allows all to dream of what might be will disappear. There will no longer be a fight to fight.

Besides, Joe is a nice guy, and that counts for a lot after Trump. Anyone who saw 13-year-old Brayden Harrington’s touching tribute to Biden knows the former vice president is not only reasonable, but also decent and humane.

Posted August 25, 2020

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