Presidential politics is all about excitement. So maybe it should worry the Democrats that their most exciting 2020 presidential prospects, according to pretty much all early polls, are two white guys pushing 80. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton genuinely excited a Democratic base that wanted to elect the first woman president. Eight years before that, Barack Obama surpassed even Hillary as a source of enthusiasm among Democratic voters. And now? Kamala Harris has been in the race for nearly two months without polling close to Bernie Sanders, who in turn trails only the yet-to-declare Joe Biden. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke have been well behind Harris, and the rest of the field is negligible.
Yes, these are early innings, but Obama and Hillary — and on the Republican side Donald Trump — showed their strength right from the start. The days of slow-crawl and dark horse presidential campaigns are behind us. Just ask Joe Biden. He’s always wanted to be president; he wouldn’t have run in 1988 and again 20 years later if he didn’t burn with ambition for highest office. But in 2008 he had no chance against Obama and Clinton, and four years ago he understood perfectly well that even his years as Obama’s vice president didn’t give him a clear path to the nomination with Hillary Clinton as the competition. Biden would probably have lost the nomination to her if he had run in 2016, and before Trump became the Republican nominee, he must thought the odds of a VP winning the White House after his party had already held it for eight years were small.
Biden is set to run this year because both those considerations no longer apply. He’ll be taking on a Republican who is a known quantity with approval ratings in the low-40s, and no Democrat preemptively outpolls him for the nomination. Sanders proved to be a tougher opponent than Hillary Clinton expected last time, and he may be tougher still next year. But the Democrats of 2020 will still be the party of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer — the party of the Clintons — not the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or so Biden must think. The Pelosi-Schumer-Clinton party is not about to nominate Bernie Sanders. And besides, Joe is a whole year younger than 77-year-old Bernie. Why, Joe’s only four years older than Trump!
There is a fine madness here. Joe Biden is yesterday’s politician with yesterday’s center-left politics. His only hope is that his party is also yesterday’s Democratic party and what Americans really want is the nostalgic feeling of yesterday’s Obama personnel. Obama promised hope and change — what will Biden promise? A step back — Trump’s changes undone and a retrofit of the Obama years; no hope, just less disappointment? There aren’t a lot of winning themes here. What Biden will do is make a case for his competence, and that’s something. But Obama didn’t run and win on competence, any more than Trump did. Jeb Bush ran and lost on it.
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The age problem isn’t going to get any easier for Biden. A friend points to an interesting Iowa poll earlier this month showing that 43 percent of likely caucus-goers think Bernie Sanders’s time has passed, while only 31 percent say that about the marginally younger Biden. This is good news for the former VP, but it has to be set against the relative dynamism and ideological urgency of Sanders and Biden — Sanders may be older, but his ideas are more indicative of the activist and intellectual direction of the party. Which is not to say the mainstream of the party. The results of last November’s congressional elections show the faultline in the Democratic party: the Progressive Caucus was the largest single winner of new members after the election, but together the more moderate Democratic congressional blocs actually took in more. Democrats are in the middle of a metamorphosis, from a Clintonite to a more economically left-wing party. The older man in this case is aligned with the younger, rising force: so age may well prove more of an obstacle for Biden than for Sanders, despite the early evidence of the Iowa poll.
Why haven’t any of the other 2020 hopefuls sparked the kind of excitement that the two almost octogenarians have? Perhaps because Sanders already holds the hearts of the economic left, leaving Elizabeth Warren, a less left-wing figure, with a smaller base among progressives. Harris, Booker, and O’Rourke, meanwhile, obviously don’t have Biden’s name-recognition or experience; but more importantly, they don’t have anything that overcomes Biden’s name and experience. They don’t have the Obama factor. Their politics are more centrist, or at any rate more corporation-friendly, than Sanders’s, which is a liability with the party’s progressives and doesn’t give them an edge over Biden with the party’s Clinton wing. Feminist frustration at Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 might lend itself to support for Harris or Warren, but despite the #MeToo movement, feminism is less salient than socialism among Democratic activists today. Possibly that’s in part because radical identity politics has reached the point where there is no definition of female or woman — sex has gotten blurrier for the left even as economics has become sharper.
Going into 2020, the Democrats are an increasingly socialist party that is nonetheless inclined to make a late-septuagenarian relative centrist its presidential nominee. That’s a recipe for failure, and only the belief that Trump is unreelectable makes it seem otherwise. But Trump was supposed to be unelectable in the first place, and the safe-bet candidacy of Hillary Clinton proved to be just a respectable way to lose. Now Joe Biden promises Democrats the same thing in 2020. There’s no reason for this man to be president, and his ideas are not a response to the looming challenges of the 21st century’s third decade. He’s just a familiar face who entails the fewest risks. Republicans adopted exactly that criterion for picking a nominee for about 20 years, which gave them nominees like Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, along with one president — George W. Bush — whose failures discredited the old elite formulas for economic and foreign policy. The best Biden can hope for is to be the Democrats’ George W. Bush.