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Joe Biden’s promise: a return to normalcy

Like Trump before him, Biden is offering a politics of nostalgia. But nostalgia is a powerful force.

Joe Biden Holds Official Presidential Campaign Kickoff Rally In Philadelphia Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Joe Biden isn’t promising a political revolution. He’s not promising to drain the swamp, restructure the Senate, remake capitalism, or usher in socialism.

What Biden is promising is a return to normalcy.

The emotional core of Biden’s Philadelphia announcement speech came about 25 minutes in. Shirtsleeves rolled up, the former vice president leaned forward and dropped his voice to a conversational octave.

“The American people want their government to work, and I don’t think that’s too much for them to ask,” he said. “I know some people in DC say it can’t be done. but let me tell them something, and make sure they understand this. The country is sick of the division. They’re sick of the fighting. They’re sick of the childish behavior.”

“There isn’t a single person among you,” Biden continued, gaining speed, jabbing his finger into the podium, “or anywhere in this country, who could get away with that in their jobs. All they want is their president, their senators, their representatives, to do their jobs, just do your jobs!”

Biden’s speech is an intervention in a debate that will define the Democratic Party’s 2020 message. The lesson a lot of top Democrats took from Donald Trump’s success is that the American people want a fighter. A wrecking ball. A revolution. From that lesson emerged a strategy: Democrats would prove themselves the fighters Trump only pretended to be.

If that was ever the right strategy, Biden is betting it’s not now. Where most of the Democrats running for president used their announcement speeches to prove their bona fides as fighters, Biden used his to make the case that he’s the guy to end the fighting — and, more than that, that the American people are looking for a candidate who will promise them peace, not just victory.

“I know some of the smart folks say Democrats don’t want to hear about unity,” Biden said. “The angrier a candidate can be, the better chance they have to win the nomination. I don’t believe it. I really don’t. I believe Democrats want to unify this nation.”

It’s important to be clear on this point: Biden doesn’t have a plan to heal American politics. His answer to the divisiveness of the Trump years is to replace Trump in the White House. His answer to the divisiveness of the Obama years is no answer at all.

But electorally, the question is not whether Biden can tame Mitch McConnell through sheer force of personal bonhomie. The question is whether the American people — and Democratic primary voters — want a president willing to try.

Returning to normalcy has worked before

In 1920, Republican Warren Harding ran for president against Democrat James Cox. The election took place in the aftermath of World War I, in the shadow of Woodrow Wilson’s tumultuous presidency. Wilson, for his part, declared the campaign a referendum on the League of Nations, promising that if Democrats won, the country would get even more of the ambitious internationalism he had offered.

Harding promised something very different. Running on the slogan “a return to normalcy,” he said:

America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.

Harding won in a landslide, taking 37 states and 60.3 percent of the vote.

With the exception of a return to nationalism, this is more or less what Biden promised in his announcement speech too. He didn’t promise a whole new approach to American politics. He promised an old one. He promised, in effect, to make politics great again, to rewind the clock to before it all got so Trumpy. To use Harding’s language, he promised restoration, not revolution.

“Some of these people are saying. ‘Biden just doesn’t get it,’” Biden said. “You can’t work with Republicans anymore. That’s not the way it works anymore. Well, folks, I’m going to say something outrageous. I know how to make government work — not because I’ve talked or tweeted about it, but because I’ve done it. I’ve worked across the aisle to reach consensus. To help make government work in the past. I can do that again with your help.”

Like Trump before him, Biden is offering a politics of nostalgia. He is painting a sepia-toned portrait of the Obama era, and reminding voters that he was in that portrait, standing right behind a president they liked and miss. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back?

Make American politics smaller again

In his speech, Biden directly took on the pundits — like, well, me — who argue that American politics has been broken by the polarization of the parties, that consensus is functionally impossible, and that the path forward is reforms that would make America into more of a democracy.

“Consensus is not weakness,” Biden said, in a slightly garbled passage. “It’s the only way our founders down the road there thought we could govern. It was necessary. It was designed the way the Constitution sits. It requires consensus. I did it as a senator. I did it as your vice president, working with Barack Obama. It’s what I will do as your president.”

On the merits, this is unconvincing at best, revisionist at worst. Barack Obama was the most polarizing president in the history of polling, until Trump broke his record. The Republicans were lockstep in opposition to almost every major Obama administration initiative. Tell Merrick Garland how well the politics of consensus worked. Tell it to the activists who fought for a public option on health care, who sought gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting, who tried to pass cap and trade and universal pre-k.

In the speech, Biden gestured at this tension, reminding his audience he was there when Republicans tried to kill the Affordable Care Act.

“I know how to go toe to toe with the GOP,” he said. “But it can’t be done on every single issue.” With that, Biden pivoted to an optimistic retelling of the fight to pass the stimulus bill, where the administration needed three Republican votes to clear the legislation, and got them.

What Biden left unsaid was that the hunt for Republican support was part of why the initial stimulus was too small to stabilize the economy. And then, when the labor market kept collapsing and more stimulus was needed, those Republican votes were nowhere to be found, and millions suffered.

In Biden’s defense, the truth is that none of the Democrats, right now, have a persuasive theory for how to overcome Republican obstructionism. The Democrats proposing to end the filibuster and expand the Supreme Court, like Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, don’t have the votes to do either. The Democrats proposing a political revolution, like Bernie Sanders, have failed to break Republican opposition through mass mobilization.

Political activists and pundits are attracted to grand visions. They — we — want to make politics bigger. Biden is proposing is to make politics smaller. His is not a politics of transformative policies and grand visions. His is a politics of pragmatism, of infrastructure bills and tax credits and investments in green energy. His is a politics of getting done what you can get done under the political system as it exists today, not changing the political system so more becomes possible.

There is an argument to be made that many of the Democrats running for president are trying to win the last war. Most of them are trying to counter the wreck-the-system appeal Trump carried in 2016. Biden is running for president on the theory that Trump has cured voters of their desire to wreck the system, and now they’re ready for a president who promises, however improbably, to restore it.

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