There is a moment in “Hamlet” when the titular Danish prince orchestrates a coup: A play within the play is staged, its proceedings aimed squarely at provoking the evil King Claudius. This puts the audience at an even stranger remove. We are watching the assorted castle dignitaries watching a play of their own, one that dimly reflects the central drama of “Hamlet” itself.
That’s a bit what it feels like to read coverage of Joe Biden as he struts the stage, a skull between his hands, utterly anguished over whether or not to run for president in 2020. I certainly understand why a born ham like Biden would relish the role, even if he is a bit long in the tooth to play Hamlet. I even can understand why his story has our modern-day courtiers in the Beltway so enraptured, lovingly capturing every development and half-step toward the announcement of his candidacy.
What’s less clear is whether all parties involved know that Joe Biden 2020 is not a saga worthy of Shakespeare. At best, it’s that shabby show within a show for an audience of royal hangers-on—a drama that only gestures toward the human struggles currently tearing America apart, as cast upon the wall of some high-vaulted castle room.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Biden, which is useful to remember any time I find myself agog at whatever new political cult should spring up next in America. He’s an avuncular Irishman from Scranton, Pa., who blurts out things more calculating politicians would never permit. His likability is understandable; Biden appears distinctly human, a quality that is surprisingly rare in the upper echelons of either party these days. That his particular oozing style has been pressed into the service of villains, for decades, is where the fuzzy image of Uncle Joe blurs into nonexistence.
A politician crafts an image; the press determines whether it’s digestible—“shovel-ready,” as they say—and runs with it; the general public increasingly finds itself adopting the same view of the politician, seemingly independent of any manipulation, when in fact it’s been persuaded by a full-court press that appearance is reality. It’s no wonder that Biden was among the eulogists at the funeral of John McCain, by far the most skilled operator in recent memory to play this game. And just as the death of McCain generated endless encomia for “the happy warrior,” obscuring his legacy of bitter, thoughtless criminality, so the approach of 2020 has begun turning the gears for a gutsy, straight-shooting type, one who might beat Trump at his own game.
It’s worth reflecting on why beating the president at his own game need be a qualification for any prospective Democratic candidate. Had Biden been the nominee in 2016, I think he’d probably have crushed Trump—even with the home-court disadvantage of having to rely on Democrats to win an election. Biden was not nominated, of course, and did not even compete in the primaries, despite serving for two terms as vice president for a largely popular commander in chief capable of turning out vast numbers of voters. Why?
To hear him—and plenty of other observers—tell it, Biden was muscled out by the Clintons and their sycophants, intent as they were on clearing the field for a 2016 coronation. As we all know, this was a winning strategy, which paid enormous dividends for Hillary Clinton, the would-be 45th president of the United States. In fairness, Biden was right to suspect that a 2016 primary bid against the former secretary of state would have invited the kind of vicious, scorched-earth tactics her camp shamelessly employed in 2008—those glory days of circulating photos of Barack Obama in a turban or smearing him as a coke sniffer on national TV.
Indeed, Clinton had trouble putting down the insurgent candidacy of a self-proclaimed socialist with none of the deep-pocketed financial backers she’d come to rely upon, even with all the levers of the Democratic Party under her control. No doubt Biden has had more than one sleepless night, playing and replaying how exactly it was that he didn’t throw his hat in the ring, and thus leaving the field open for the worst candidate in U.S. presidential history to bobble her race against the second-worst candidate in U.S. presidential history.
Now, with Clinton (hopefully) beyond reprise, there is a vacuum to be filled within the Democratic Party—a safe pair of hands with high-name recognition that won’t rock the boat for plutocrats the way Bernie Sanders might, and who, it must be said, seems a better match against Trump than many of the would-be challengers. If all that’s true, would Biden really be the worst of a bad lot?
Whatever his personal virtues, the fact remains: If the age of Biden hasn’t exactly expired yet, it’s not on any basis of merit. That toothy straight-talk he’s spent his career perfecting sounds a lot less blarney-smooth when it’s employed to salute the patriotism of the superrich or mock as crazy any substantive attack on their predatory designs. And those are just some of his newer songs; Biden’s back catalog reflects some darker streaks.
In 2019, it shouldn’t be required to lay out why, exactly, voters should run like hell in the opposite direction of Team Biden, but here we are. Excavating his record provides a useful cross-section of the worst kinds of Democratic compromise, struck with the relentless, ultra-right forces whose march through the halls of power continues under Trump. If the iron triangle of American conservative thought has been a love of wealth, war and racism, then Biden’s career is a testament to every weak counteroffer the Democrats have ever made, conceding miles of ground in the process.
It’s mostly forgotten now how violently contentious busing efforts were in the ’60s and ’70s, met as they were with explosions of white supremacist violence in northeastern and Rust Belt cities. Despite Biden’s all-too-tenuous and often wince-inducing claims to be a uniquely friendly legislator to African-Americans, his push for anti-busing legislation mimicked the depredations of Jesse Helms, albeit to a lesser extreme. Biden’s advocacy of some of the most punishing drug laws of the 1980s helped put an entire generation of mostly black men into prisons, while his ineptitude during the Anita Hill hearings—which led to the appointment of a likely sexual predator to the Supreme Court—continues to resonate today.
So what—Biden’s sorry now that he helped throw hundreds of thousands of drug users in prison, ruining their lives forever? The cynical apology tour notwithstanding, there is nothing to suggest that he is a changed man at all, as exemplified by his stated lack of sympathy for debt-ravaged millennials. The utter unwillingness of the Obama administration to confront Wall Street, and the corruption of every office of government by its proxies, would continue under a Biden presidency. The borderless, endless war that Obama expanded and worsened, driving Libya and Syria deep into the abyss amid pointless military conquest, is unlikely to slacken. And only days ago, Biden advanced the signature aim of Paul Ryan and the modern GOP: to “means test” Social Security and Medicare, and thus dismantle what little remains of our tattered social safety net.
Biden is a man out of time. He is, despite his reputation, not the fighter we need for the policies we need.
On the campaign trail, Biden tells it as a sad sign of the times that the D.C. bipartisanship he fondly recalled of his early years has all but dissipated:
I’ve been around so long, I worked with James Eastland. … Even in the days when I got there, the Democratic Party still had seven or eight old-fashioned Democratic segregationists. You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them. Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked.
It may be news to some that a political system can be described as “working” when monsters like Mississippi’s Sen. Eastland were in place to fight any steps toward racial integration and equality well into the 1970s. Who knows? Perhaps he really was that stupendous a dinner companion. But the false comity of segregation-era D.C. is hardly what these times call for, and tough talk aside, Biden’s track record gives little cause to be confident that his presidency would be anything less than a stale retread of the Obama years.
There are more might-have-beens in political history than actual events. What if Mario Cuomo had run when he had the shot? What if Colin Powell had resigned, instead of blowing up the U.N. with tales of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? Or if David Cameron had nixed that stupid Brexit referendum, or Lincoln had skipped theater night, or Hitler had choked on mustard gas on the Western Front? It’s galling, no doubt, for an eternal go-getter like Biden to know he could win the presidency, at a time when his autumn’s already come.
The best prize Biden can hope for is a hollow crown, snatched in the twilight of a questionable career. The worst we can hope for is that he wins, and we still lose.