Is Joe Biden the Ghost of the Democratic Party’s Past?

Former U.S vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Former U.S vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Democratic Party, you will hear if you hang out too long near a political science major or a brain-addled MAGA Twitter reply guy, was not always like this.

“This” means full of women and people of color, sometimes both at the same time—sometimes running for president, other times also Muslim and socialist and in Congress. Instead, the Democratic Party was smiling ambitious white guys in khakis, striped ties and brass-buttoned blazers whose friends ran banks or oil companies. Their voters were blue-collar white people in hardhats who worked good union jobs that afforded them generous health and retirement benefits (heirlooms not shared with their college-educated, white-collar-job working children).

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These Democrats were often afraid of black people and immigrants, whom the Democratic Party was actively courting, and fled to suburbs to avoid them—and, in some cases, exiting the Democratic Party at the same time. (During this same time, the Republicans adopted the Southern Strategy and actively courted xenophobes who liked redlining.)

If you did stick around, for a while at least, you could be a Democrat while also packing a handgun, dismissing school desegregation as a Communist plot and openly supporting white supremacist governments—while also being elected to 14 terms on the Boston City Council. If you do those things these days, you tend to wear a red hat, harass women and journalists on Twitter, and think the oaf who serves McDonald’s in the White House is good, because the Democratic Party is not like this anymore—for the most part.

Here to remind us of what Democrats used to be, the faint scent of those bygone days on the breeze whenever he enters the room or sneaks behind you for an unsolicited hug, like a whiff of vintage Old Spice snatched from your grandfather’s medicine cabinet, is Joe Biden.

Biden is 76 years old. He was elected to the Senate in 1972 at the age of 30—and clung to the job, as Boomers tend to do, for almost four decades—and left the vice president’s post in 2017. He is thus the only candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination who is very literally a bridge between the two eras—old, white, and blue-collar; young, diverse, and a little fancier—of Democratic politics.

And while it is (somewhat) unfair to compare Biden to Boston City Council member Dapper O’Neil, the above-mentioned unabashed, unapologetic and wildly successful Boston racist, Biden brings plenty of the same Democratic Party baggage with him. Biden is indeed an anachronism, a “man out of time,” as the Baffler wrote on Tuesday. This could be a good thing—and could be good even if Biden wins the nomination.

Biden’s presence in the 2020 race, pressed khakis and blazers and chauvinism, gives the Democratic Party a chance to exorcise its old-school demons, because they are here with them on display. Now that Biden is in the room, the Democratic Party can come to terms with its often very shitty past in a way that Hillary Clinton in 2016 couldn’t quite pull off.

It could be good for the United States, but above all, it would be good for the Democratic Party, which needs to distance itself from the sins of its fathers as much as possible in order to remain a coherent and viable political party.

Like O’Neil, Joe Biden opposed school desegregation in the 1970s. Like Ronald Reagan, Biden was for gutting welfare and putting people in prison for a very long time for nonviolent drug offenses. Joe Biden helped Clarence Thomas on to the Supreme Court.

Whenever there was some extremely shitty piece of legislation that led to the problems we have now, be it banking deregulation, bad and endless wars, warrantless surveillance, look into the background—and there, like some kind of grinning patrician Forrest Gump, is Joe Biden.

Voters generally like the familiar, and so here is Joe Biden leading the polls—every poll, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. How is this possible, you may ask? “Biden is a mainstream, old-school pol who appeals to the broad middle,” Gersh Kuntzman wrote in Newsweek. “Joe Biden is Hillary Clinton 2.0,” Mehdi Hasan wrote in The Intercept. Both of these things are true—and this is why Joe Biden appears to be winning.

Even though almost every political scientist identifies increasing polarization and a shrinking center, there is an orthodoxy—apparently shared by the land-line-using homeowners likely to answer a pollster’s call—that what will beat Donald Trump is a pragmatic, repackaged Clinton. There is science and logic here. Remember that Clinton won the popular vote and lost the presidency by about 77,000 votes sprinkled across four states. Surely Biden could wink and grin these Trumpists, whose cocktail-swilling parents voted for Democrats like Biden all their lives, back onto the blue train?

So far, a soft-focus nostalgia mixed with “I am not Donald Trump” appears to be Biden’s campaign strategy, as per analyses in The Atlantic and POLITICO. And so far, the Democratic voters out at Biden’s rallies in Iowa, according to The Los Angeles Times, are a lot like Biden. They are his age, and they’re there because while they like Elizabeth Warren’s policy ideas, or think Kamala Harris is really good at excoriating Republican henchmen, or think Mayor Pete is cute, they believe Biden is more practical.

Will this work? Maybe! After Trump’s victory, who can say? But we can say that young people—young voters, as in the people who will vote for several decades—do not share this view. And while he is a babbling chancre who repeats talking points popular on 4chan, Donald Trump has yet to steer the country into economic malaise or a foreign-policy entanglement, which means Donald Trump has an advantage with the electorate that came out to vote last time out.

He may horrify or appall, but the truth is the Democratic Party deserves to have Joe Biden around. Having to explain him, his votes, his behavior, all of it, means the Democratic Party has to explain itself, its evolution and its failure to evolve. By doing so, it may be able to connect with the voters that very rightly believe they have been screwed over—by Democrats, and by Democrats like Joe Biden.

In this trial by fire, Joe Biden may also evolve. But even if he does, he will remain the ghost of the Democratic Party’s past, 36 years of speeches and votes that Dap O’Neil Democrats would appreciate dragging in his wake. If the Democratic Party is smart—if it can read demographic tables—these need to be called into account. The 2020 primary is as fine a time as any to do it.

Is Joe Biden the Ghost of the Democratic Party’s Past?